Changes are afoot in America for both its public broadcasting system and one of its most successful cablecasters. Former president of CNN Productions, Pat Mitchell has recently been appointed president and CEO of PBS, making her the first woman ever to head up the organization. She officially takes the reins on March 6, and part of her duties include keeping the member stations unified and representing the service before Congress. The general buzz is supportive of Mitchell’s appointment, anticipating strong leadership from her.
Mitchell’s move cleared the way for Vivian Schiller to move up the ranks. Formerly senior vice president and general manager for CNN Productions, Schiller’s official title is now executive VP. ‘A couple people have said, `Pat was president and you’re executive vice president,’ but there’s a reason for that,’ she says. Generally, only CNN’s network heads are presidents, but when Mitchell joined ‘she came with a president’s title,’ and was permitted to keep it. Despite the slight difference in moniker, however, Schiller has unquestioningly stepped into Mitchell’s shoes.
The future of doc production at CNN looks to be moving away from epic projects, like Cold War and Millennium, and toward more one-hour one-offs. Say Schiller, ‘I don’t want to say we won’t do another 24-part series or even a 10-part series, because we may. But it’s not really the core strategy for what the documentaries are going to be.’ The plan is to do a lot more one-hour shows, she adds. ‘I really think the one-hour form in documentary is just wonderful. There aren’t that many stories that can’t be told really well in an hour.’
Schiller’s vision for the unit is to produce more docs that are ‘organic to the network.’ She explains: ‘I think it’s important that we start doing more contemporary stories, more stories that are tied to current affairs at cnn. I want to start paying close attention – as I should at a news network and already have – to what’s going on in the news world.’
Related to this strategy is Schiller’s desire to take greater advantage of the organization’s in-house talent. ‘I think that will enrich the programs, but of course it also makes sense in terms of the resources point of view.’ While Schiller insists she has commitment up and down the hierarchy in support of doc production, she appears to be charting a prudent financial course, focusing on strategic copro partnerships and the resources close at hand.
The internet plays a part in Schiller’s grand plan, too. ‘We’re setting up a unit that is going to have its offices together, that is going to produce the internet programming to coincide with these documentaries from the beginning . . . [We want] to begin to build in excitement and promotion for the documentaries before they even air.’