On the Slate

Nothing better
Dinner on the Orient Express, a view of the Earth from a supersonic fighter, a secluded Caribbean island hosting one of the world's premiere yacht races, and a ride atop a Nepalese elephant on a search for Asian Rhinos
February 1, 2001


Nothing better

Dinner on the Orient Express, a view of the Earth from a supersonic fighter, a secluded Caribbean island hosting one of the world’s premiere yacht races, and a ride atop a Nepalese elephant on a search for Asian Rhinos – all some of the adventures to be seen in Travel Channel’s weekly ‘World’s Best,’ a new anthology series that premiered on the network last September. To date, 50 episodes have been commissioned on an ongoing production schedule, each offering tips on everything from the best treasure hunting spots to the top-10 vacation spots.

"The travel industry is dominated by lists," says Doug DePriest, director of production and development for the Travel Channel. "People like travel and lifestyle information via top-10 lists, so this series provides a home for that medium. For example, this show will explore the top-10 amusement parks, top-10 vacation spots for singles and top-10 places to experience the supernatural. By combining the reasons why people travel with this list concept, we’re telling terrifically entertaining stories."

The series is being produced in association with a variety of companies, including London Weekend Television, Fox Star, Granada Films and Van Ness Films. Episodes generally fall around the US$150,000 mark. Simon Bacal


Some people’s kids"

If you stick around New York’s Tim Miller Entertainment long enough, you will be disturbed. You’re likely to learn a thing or two, but you will be disturbed.

Human Oddities is a 50-minute production with the Discovery Channel, which should wrap this April. Oddities sets out to prove once and for all that beauty is only skin deep. It’s a trip into the past to uncover the original ‘human oddities’, from Cheng and Eng (the pair who inspired the term Siamese Twins) to the Elephant Man (John Merrick), to Pasqual Pinon – who had a parasitic twin’s head growing from his own. The hour looks to portray these people as survivors of physical challenges, who have managed to carve out a (somewhat) normal life for themselves. Modern examples will also be included, such as the eight-foot tall Menute Bohl, who has turned his pituitary problem into a career in professional basketball. The special’s budget falls in the US$300,000 range.

The New Sideshow (w/t) is a 50-minute special being produced with TLC. Also ready for April (at a cost of approximately $340,000), this project looks at some of the legitimate stars of the past – sideshow performers. From the Monkey Girl to General Tom Thumb, these performers were the stars of their time, and their legacy lives on in the extreme exploits of those like the Jim Rose Circus. Including both performances and on-the-scene interviews, the hour hopes to introduce the acts, their long history, and even reveal a little about the people who are called to this living.

On a completely different note, Tim Miller is also producing Tortured with the help of TLC. From our comfortable homes in the first world, torture seems to be a thing of the past – a relic of the dark ages – but in truth, two thirds of the world’s countries still use torture as policy (including countries such as Greece, Jamaica, Mexico and – you guessed it – the United States). Interviews will be conducted with doctors and experts, and some disturbing stories will be told, including that of Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was jailed and tortured for 33 years for his beliefs. (Gyatso spent five of those years with his arms tied behind his back.) The story will also include Amnesty International director Bill Shulz, who speaks about AI’s anti-torture campaign, and the 4,000-plus cases of torture ai confronts every year. The hour is expected to wrap in April at a budget of about $300,000.

For the same delivery date, TME is working with Discovery on Mole People, a 50-minute look into the entrails of New York City. An estimated population of 25,000 people live underground in New York, existing in abandoned tunnels and on subway routes. Between the functional and the abandoned, New York boasts over 500 miles of subway lines and stations, which the homeless and the desperate call home. The budget for this trip under the Big Apple is about $250,000.

Bibles and brothels

Montara, California’s Wandering Eye Productions (which won National Geographic’s Blue Planet Heroes initiative last year) has rung in the new year with several new non-wildlife projects, and are in search of partners. Gideon’s Bibles is a 60-minute documentary exploring the mysterious organization that (among other things) leaves bibles in your hotel room. The story begins in 1898 with the inception of the Gideon movement by two travelling salesmen in Wisconsin. The project is self-funded at this point, and is expected to wrap in mid to late 2001 at a budget of about US$175,000.

In Nevada is an hour based on a book of the same name by author David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf). Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the Union, and has become the unofficial capital of legalized gambling, prostitution, UFO sightings and military testing. The hour will wrap late this year at about $250,000.

Although Wandering Eye is working with Nat Geo on other films, neither of these projects has received a firm commitment from a broadcaster.

Come fly with me

London’s Principal Films and France’s Ecoutez-Voir are in production on Highways in the Sky, a one-hour documentary about the development of commercial air travel. Distributed by S4C International in Wales, the project has so far attracted the interest of France’s La Cinquième. Air travel became more than just science fiction after the First World War, a conflict in which the airplane came of age. At first, it was thought that only cargo would fly, but by the late ’20s, passenger lines were developing, opening the world for common travelers. The hour will explore the past, bringing commercial air travel from its dangerous beginnings to where we are today. Ready for the spring, the budget for this production is in the US$250,000 range.

For those who don’t travel well, S4C International will be ready with Aspirin, an hour just wrapped by Principal Films and the Discovery Health Channel. There is much dispute surrounding the inventor of this drug, which has been consumed by an estimated 1,000 billion people worldwide. Was the creator 29-year-old German chemist Felix Hoffmann, or was it – as some suspect – scientist Arthur Eichengrun? The drug was patented in 1934 by Hoffman, but Eichengrun was a German Jew and not likely to be given official credit by the National Socialist government. The 60-minute film plans to tackle this history at a cost of about $250,000.

Natural history

France Animation goes buggy

Though children’s animation remains its core business, Paris-based toon studio France Animation, which has also been handling its own distribution for two years, is adding two complementary sectors to its development infrastructure: youth documentary and live-action drama. Like the company’s animated series, programs coming out of these streams will be coproduced with international partners.

"As a producer and a distributor, we want to build a catalog that offers broadcasters all genres, from preschool to young adult programs," explains head of development Maïa Tubiana. France Animation intends to either initiate the doc and drama projects itself, or be involved very early on in concept development.

The first documentary series on the slate is Aliens Among Us, a 13 x 30-minute copro with New York-based doc studio Babelfish. Budgeted at US$2.7 million, the project is what France Animation chairman and CEO Giovana Milano calls an ‘animentary’, because it features a mixture of documentary and 3D animation. Targeting eight- to 12-year-olds, the show is hosted by a 3D alien named It Cosnock, and is made up of live-action segments in which kids discuss how they use technology in their daily lives. Slated for delivery later this year, Aliens Among Us is currently being shopped to broadcasters in France, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K.

Next up is Insectoscope, a 65 x 5-minute doc series that originated at French documentary unit MC4, and will be coproduced with France Animation. An exposé of the bug world, this US$1.1-million project targets the six to 10 set and is done in a style that borders on youth drama. Insects are presented as full-fledged characters, with their own personalities and emotions. Delivery is set for later this year, and the partners are negotiating with broadcasters in both Europe and North America. Pascale Paoli-Lebailly, KidScreen


I once was lost…

The Jones Entertainment Group of Washington, D.C. has signed a deal with Discovery for a 60-minute special called Hiding Places. The show looks at the myriad ways people and things have been hidden over the years – from smuggled immigrants hidden in the hollow hulls of ships, to the hidden dens of drug smugglers, to the mysterious escape routes secreted in the walls of ancient castles, all will be revealed. Also included will be the secret hiding places of spies.

Ready for the beginning of April, the hour is budgeted at US$240,000. The special is being distributed by the CDC Network in Belgium for the territories outside of Discovery’s domain.


Breaking Records (and the occaisional leg)

Focusing on those people determined to break existing Guinness World Records or create new ones, Fox Television’s Guinness World Records: Primetime is based on the world famous Guinness Book of Records. Hosted by KTTV/Fox 11 weathercaster Mark Thompson (who also hosted Fox’s When Good Pets Go Bad, Shocking Behavior Caught on Tape, and The World’s Deadliest Swarms), the series, which recently entered its third season, is produced by L.A.-based LMNO Productions and Guinness World Records Limited. At press time, the show – which began its six-month production schedule in October – is currently awaiting an air schedule from the network. Episodes typically run between US$200,000 and $400,000.

"We wanted to do brand name TV," says LMNO CEO and co-executive producer Eric Schotz. "And we found that Guinness had not been exploited on television – even though it’s one of the best name brands in the world. So, we spent a year developing the project with [co-executive producer] Michael Feldman [director of television for Guinness Publications], brought it to the U.S. market, and let every network bid on it. Fox was the best bidder."

To date, the one-hour episodes have highlighted record breakers such as: a man who crossed the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel on a tightrope 600 feet long and 30 stories high; Danny Higginbottom, who jumped from 29 feet in the air into 12 inches of water; Indian born Shridhar Chillal, whose fingernails are 20 feet long and two-and-a-quarter inches wide; and a man who attempted to set the record for swallowing the most swords simultaneously.

"Guinness is probably the world’s greatest resource," says Schotz. "The original concept was born when pubs across England began using books to settle bar bets. At that point, it grew into the official Guinness Book of Records." First published in August 1955, the first copy of the Guinness Book of Records was an immediate success, and became the number one bestseller in England. Today, the book is approaching 80 million copies in sales, and has been rated one of the world’s best-selling titles. "We used the books as a launch pad to tell stories about people," says Schotz. "Guinness is about extremes – otherwise it would be the ‘Guinness Book of Averages.’ We portray these record setters as real people – something which has been instrumental in the show’s success. Every show features people who are interesting in their own right. Quite honestly, it’s really hard to pick favorites because there’s so much material. I think we’ve told some terrific stories to date. That trend will hopefully continue into the show’s third season – records are being broken every day."

Guinness World Records: Primetime also features the weekly Guinness Game, in which viewers are invited to guess the answers to record breaking trivia. Simon Bacal

RealScreen Plus Wrap

In Production"with Maryland’s JWM Productions

Buzz of Empire is a 3 x 60-minute series about the global impact of three everyday stimulants – sugar, coffee and tobacco. The budget is estimated at US$325,000.

Taboo, also a 3 x 60-minute series, explores the science of forbidden practices and the parameters of human behavior, and is budgeted at about $300,000 per hour.

Other productions in development include Chimp Island, a one-hour special about the plight of chimps in war-torn Congo and the establishment of an island sanctuary for them (produced in partnership with United Productions and Animal Planet); The Natural History of the Rich, a 2 x 60-minute series about the animal instincts of the rich and famous as exhibited at work and play (with United Productions); and Realm of Blood, a 60-minute special on Mayan archaeology.

All projects are scheduled for production in 2001.

In Production"Paris’ Marathon Productions

Marathon has been tailing crocodiles and ostriches in Africa for the past five months, and will continue to do so for another six. The end result of this lengthy period of observation and shooting will be two 52-minute films – Ferocious African Crocodiles and Ostriches Don’t Fly.

For Crocodiles, the shooting mainly took place in Kenya. The US$886,000 film (a copro with Animal Planet and French pubcaster La Cinquième for Discovery International) will be delivered in fall 2001.

For Ostriches, a film about the biggest birds in the world, the budget is $659,000. As with Crocodiles, Ostriches is a copro with Animal Planet and La Cinq for Discovery International, and has a fall 2001 delivery date.

For more information about these and other programs, check out RealScreen Plus at

Evolution to Damnation

As usual, the Great Blue Hill is a hub of activity this winter. What follows are only a few of the many projects on the production slate at WGBH in Boston.

The social impact of science is often as revolutionary as the science itself. Darwin’s finches challenged widely held beliefs about the origins of man. Copernicus’ theories opposed the Church’s vision of creation. The very ideas themselves caused as much of a stir as the science they represented, and shook contemporary religion and philosophy to their roots.

These and other ideas are the impetus behind Evolution, a seven-part series (one two-hour episode and six one-hours) being produced by the WGBH/NOVA Science Unit and Clear Blue Sky Productions. The series will tell tales of discovery and conflict – of ideas that challenge our accepted notions of the world around us – and will focus on the implications of the discoveries rather than the discoveries themselves. Included will be stories on Darwin, evolution, sex, extinction, the mind and religious beliefs. Look for Evolution to be wrapped by the fall of this year at a budget in the US$9 million range. Distribution is being handled by WGBH International.

A series determined to focus on America’s contemporary artists rather than those who have gone before, Art for the Twenty-First Century is an ambitious project that promises a four-hour series each year for the next four years. Each episode will focus on the current work of three to five artists working in all fields of visual arts. Each series will be backed by a substantial web presence and companion publishing projects (the first series book is being undertaken by Harry N. Abrams). Art is being produced by New York’s Art21 Inc. for WGBH and will be distributed by WGBH International. It has already attracted the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the National Endowment for the Arts. To date, Art21 has raised over $2 million for its work, with each annual series running to about that in terms of budget. The first series is expected to begin broadcast early in 2002.

The Ten Commandments have been interpreted by every generation since being handed down in the desert. This generation will be no different. Rather than focusing on them as a list of ‘Thou Shalt Nots’, WGBH and coproducers arte and YLE Finland have chosen to produce 10 docs interpreting each Commandment for the modern world. The Decalogue gives 10 leading filmmakers a chance to tackle Divine Law. Those confirmed at press time were Errol Morris (Thou shalt have no other Gods before me), Albert Maysles and Susan Fromeke (graven images), Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (adultery), and Jon Else (coveting thy neighbor’s goods). The project aims to be completed in 2002 for $8 million. Thou shalt not miss it.

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