CTV’s VP of documentaries talks shop

When BCE acquired Canada's CTV at the end of last year, several million dollars were earmarked for independents. Bob Culbert, VP of documentaries at CTV, explains how docs fit into the financial picture.
June 7, 2001

An abridged version of this interview appears in the June 2001 issue of RealScreen.

CTV benefited from a large influx of cash when it was acquired by BCE at the end of 2000. How is this money being applied?

Over a seven-year period we’re going to commit $18 million to CTV Documentary Events and Movie of the Week Companion Documentaries. The big change there is the one-hours I’m doing. We will offer independents up-front the equivalent of the money they would normally receive from funding agencies. We’re a kind of equity distribution partner with the independent producers on those projects.

Is the funding situation in Canada such that this is a welcome change?

We consulted with independent producers prior to deciding how the benefits should be organized and structured. One of the messages we heard loud and clear is that it would be very good if they could be involved in projects that they didn’t have to go through all the financing processes for – where the time frames of the documentaries could be driven by the story and not by funding requirements.

How many slots will CTV devote to documentaries per year?

A minimum of 14 primetime doc slots per year. That includes nine documentary Specials, the Events docs [about two per year], and the MOW companion docs [about two per season].

How are the nine Doc Specials different from the Events and MOW docs?

They are different in how they’re funded. We have also put a very strong emphasis on those projects to be produced by Canadian independent producers and to tell Canadian and Canadian-based stories, or feature Canadian characters. We might also do generic stories that feature Canadian characters, but are issues or subjects that transcend boundaries and would be of interest to CTV’s primetime audience.

What are MOW companion docs?

These are stand-alone stories, not documentaries about the making of CTV’s Movie of the Week. For example, CTV will air a movie in the fall called Torso. It’s the story of Evelyn Dick, who was a very famous woman in the ’40s charged as an accessory in the murder of her husband and the murder of her own child. As a companion to that movie, we embarked on a documentary that tells Evelyn Dick’s story. We’ve spent several months trying to tell the story of what happened to her after she was pardoned. She changed her identity, changed her life, got out of prison – that part of the story is very different from the movie that’s being produced.

What will be the origin of CTV docs?

Our docs are commissioned, as we seldom acquire documentaries. We also do lots of coproduction, but usually we commission documentaries and then look to coproduce with other partners – Canadian partners who want a second window or non-Canadian partners. We will be looking for partnerships especially for the BCE projects. We will put up 60% of the budget, but if the budget is going to be very large, we will welcome the participation of off shore partners.

How has your background in news and current affairs informed your approach to docs at CTV?

It helps me have a very clear idea of the difference between feature documentaries of the kind we’re trying to commission here and current affairs docs. They’re two distinct, separate things. Current affairs are more timely, it’s more urgent to get into the story as its unfolding. Feature docs can stand back and wait for the story to unfold and then tell it with all its dimensions.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to build a unique brand. How will you define the CTV brand in terms of documentaries?

Our defining characteristic is we want to show and prove that docs can work in a conventional primetime schedule. We’re looking at pairing good stories with talented production teams to create popular mainstream documentaries that attract large audiences.

Will CTV embrace the reality genre?

No, because we’re not commissioning series. We’re looking for large, single projects, with big budgets. Instead of going for a lot of hours, we’re doing fewer programs that have high budgets. We will also promote those programs aggressively to bring to them the audiences they deserve.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.