Cashing in on Celebrity Culture

On April 6, 1987, struggling young cable network A&E debuted a new weekly series called Biography. At the time, few, if any, would have predicted that a biography series would eventually become a staple of cable programming. Thirteen years and nearly...
March 1, 2000

On April 6, 1987, struggling young cable network A&E debuted a new weekly series called Biography. At the time, few, if any, would have predicted that a biography series would eventually become a staple of cable programming. Thirteen years and nearly 1,000 episodes later, however, Biography has grown into one of the most recognizable and strongest brand names on television, and has spawned several ancillary businesses, including a magazine, books, a website and a digital network. Even more than that, it set a programming precedent, inspiring a wave of imitators across the television spectrum.

The price of fame

‘Biography programming is the price of admission if you are going to be in the reality game because of the intense public interest in personalities in the culture today,’ says Michael Cascio, vice president of cable programming for NBC News. Cascio helped shape Biography during his years as head of programming at A&E. He now oversees MSNBC’s Headliners & Legends with Matt Lauer, which launched with NBC’s other cable non-fiction fare last fall.

A&E’s Biography ran weekly for seven seasons before the cablecaster turned it into a nightly franchise, hoping to enhance the channel’s brand identity and serve as a key entry point for viewers. ‘Biography was doing very well as a weekly series. It was a very recognizable brand name and was a show that lent itself to a five-night-a-week series,’ says Carol Anne Dolan, VP of documentary programming at A&E and executive producer of Biography. ‘As it went to strip, it just sort of gathered steam over the years.’

By January 2000, Biography was averaging 2.78 million households – an increase of over a million viewers from its initial launch in June 1994. Similarly, VH1 and E! saw ratings jumps of 176% and 65% (based on Nielsen ratings) respectively when Behind the Music and True Hollywood Story took over their 9 p.m. – 10 p.m. slots.

The biography’s simple story arc, and its ease of relating history, nostalgia, dream fulfillment or the triumph of the human spirit, has inspired countless networks to adopt the format, though each has adapted to suit its needs. Thus, MTV’s Biorhythms has no narration, using music to tell the story. MSNBC’s Headliners employs traditional journalism, but is styled for an 18 to 49 audience. Lifetime’s Intimate Portraits tells empowering stories about women. Bravo’s Profile delves into artists’ creative inspirations. And ESPN’s new series SportsCentury, which will debut in July, goes beyond stats to find out what drives athletes.

Despite a biography glut, no network is shying away from them. A&E has 150 new hours scheduled for 2000; MSNBC has over 100; ESPN Classic is set to go into production with 75 hours of SportsCentury; and Lifetime, E! and VH1 each have more than 50 new hours of biography programming scheduled for this year.

VH1, MSNBC and E! do all of their production in-house. ESPN Classic will outsource two-thirds of its new programming. A&E, Lifetime and Bravo generally work with a small pool of production companies. A&E’s Dolan says that there are legitimate opportunities for independent producers, especially if they have unique access to a subject. ‘There is room for the occasional independent project to come through,’ she says. ‘It’s important that we leave room for [those] projects.’

According to most sources, budgets for biography series have been reported to be as low as $50,000 per episode to as high as $250,000 per episode, most falling within standard cable commission rates, which range from $100,000 to $150,000 per hour.

Because news organizations, networks and studios have realized the value of the stock footage in their libraries – and have priced it accordingly – licensing footage is often the biggest budgetary challenge for producers. In most cases, costs are negotiable, depending on the amount of footage being acquired. Movie studios tend to be the most inflexible, as they are often the only source to obtain movie clips. A typical 30-second film clip that went for $3,000 a few years ago has tripled in price. Sports leagues contacted for this story quoted comparable ranges.

Authorized vs. Unauthorized

Most series tend toward the authorized biography (i.e. with the subject’s cooperation). The advantages of the authorized biography are primarily in access: improved odds of getting an interview with the subject, family members, friends and associates; increased access to family photos and material not available by other means; and in the case of sports and entertainment figures, approval to license footage and music.

When selecting Behind the Music subjects, the first order of business is to secure the cooperation of the main personality. ‘The more we can get them to tell their own story, the more compelling television it becomes,’ says George Moll, executive vice president. Mark Shapiro, vice president and general manager for ESPN Classic, agrees. ‘If we’re to do an insightful portrait of an athlete, the first person we want to hear from is the athlete.’ Producers seeking to do sports biographies on players who belong to a pro league must contact the team’s public relations department as to whether the team or the player’s agent will deal with interview requests.

Producers uniformly claim that they don’t grant editorial approval or control of authorized biographies to the subjects. The real purpose of obtaining authorization, they contend, is to create a comfort zone such that the subjects may reveal more than they intend.

Linda Ellerbee, CEO of New York-based Lucky Duck Productions and one of the producers of Intimate Portraits, says of the show, ‘Intimate Portraits is not a critical look at a person’s life. It is a way of saying we think your life story speaks to other women. By that definition, people tend to be open to talk about [the darker chapters] of their lives.’ That includes getting former Texas governor Ann Richards to speak about how alcoholism changed her life, and Cindy Crawford to discuss how her brother’s death affected her. While filming a biography of disgraced British cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken for Channel 4′s The Real…, George Carey, director of programs for London-based Mentorn Barraclough Carey (MBC), went to Aitken to convince him that mbc could present a balanced and fair assessment. Although Aitken refused to appear in the film, Carey did manage to speak with him at length, and his sister, mother and associates agreed to speak on camera.

Carey started the film after Aitken’s court case ended and prior to his sentencing. The chief legal issues that Carey faced were potential libel and contempt of court. Any producer has to guard against interview subjects who may have hidden agendas or grudges to settle. Had Carey aired the interviews he conducted during a trial or prior to a sentence being delivered, he would have been in contempt of court, because such information can’t be broadcast or published until the completion of the trial in the U.K.

The biggest challenge of producing unauthorized biographies is to earn the trust of interviewees, so they will discuss a person close to them who is not cooperating, says Jonathan Towers, whose Chicago-based Towers Productions has produced 34 Biography episodes. ‘It is a journalistic effort to bring someone alive by not relying on their own version of their life, because theirs is only one version of events.’

The pitfall is that an uncooperative subject may block access to friends or refuse to license rights to material. In the case of a music biography, that could result in not including any of the subject’s music in the film.

Synch rights for music can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, according to the Harry Fox Agency, a licensing agency for music publishers based in New York. Factors that can determine the price include: the length of the music excerpt; what territory the program is airing; and where, when and how often it will be used.

U.K.-based Ardent Productions is producing three authorized biographies, on Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Even though the artists don’t appear in the docs, getting the approval of Mick Jagger, for example, (accomplished by showing him the treatment) had enormous influence over his peers’ participation. ‘They are not going to appear in a program in which he doesn’t want to take part,’ says Robin Baxter, head of factual programs at Ardent, ‘You don’t want the Division-2 intimates; you want the people who were there at the key moments of his career.’

Similarly, Behind the Music’s George Moll says that getting the cooperation of the artist is especially vital to his show because the program employs the artist’s music as a narrative device. ‘So much of our storytelling relies on [the music] that we really need the artist to feel comfortable about what we’re doing.’

In the case of a deceased artist, producers must first approach the artist’s estate, which controls the likeness of the individual and often the publishing rights. The difficulty with estates is that they are extremely protective of the memory of the artist. If the estate is tied up in court or the rights are in dispute, Moll advises producers to take a hard look at whether it’s worth pursuing because you’re likely to run into prohibitive costs, a lack of cooperation and delays from the estate and the rights holders.

Increased competition has served as an impetus for A&E to experiment with its well-worn format. Traditionally, it has commissioned unauthorized biographies, but has begun to include first-person interviews when the subject merits it, as in the case of its recent Oprah Winfrey episode. (According to A&E, Oprah Winfrey: Heart of the Matter is the most-watched show in the channel’s history, with 4.8 million households tuned in on the evening it premiered). ‘Biography has been on the air for a long time and we’re always looking for new and different ways to approach it,’ Dolan says.

One way that A&E is reinventing the format is to expand its definition of biography. Biography Closeup, which debuted in February, abandons the standard cradle-to-grave Biography approach, and looks at a single issue through someone’s experience.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.