Courageous Broadcasters 2001

Risk takers. Ground breakers. It doesn't matter how you describe them. They are the ones castigated in the press, and raved about by viewers. In our poll, RealScreen asked which broadcaster you consider the boldest.
December 1, 2001

Risk takers. Ground breakers. It doesn’t matter how you describe them. They are the ones castigated in the press, and raved about by viewers. In our poll, RealScreen asked which broadcaster you consider the boldest.

RealScreen congratulates C4, which took first place over HBO by a single vote, HBO second, as well as PBS, which came in third.

Channel 4, U.K.

In 2001, C4 won the respect of indies from around the world. Here are the characteristics most appreciated by our readers.

‘Prepared to deal with contentious issues’

A clear remit of C4 is to make viewers re-examine what they think they know. Another is to not shy away from subjects considered taboo on other outlets. Says Sara Ramsden, head of science and education at C4: ‘We are the channel that will go anywhere and do anything, because there is no part of human endeavor that if it’s done intelligently, with a clarity of purpose, and with honesty and humanity, there is no where that we can’t go.’

Peter Dale, C4′s head of documentaries, points to Leo Regan’s film 100% White as an example of the quintessential C4 doc. ‘It lifted the veil on its subject and completely altered your perspective on something you believed you understood,’ explains Dale. ‘It turned the subject upside down and made you feel different about it. I think that’s what a lot of our best documentaries do.’

‘No contradiction between serious and popular’

Janice Hadlow, head of history, arts and religion at C4 admits, ‘If you ask people what they think about when they think of Channel 4, it would probably be programs like Big Brother.’ This doesn’t mean that history programs are put in the shadows of the schedule or struggle to attract eyeballs. Says Hadlow, ‘In terms of audience, I think it’s fair to say that the figures my department gets are some of the highest in the channel. All the landmark programs got around three million viewers.’

Mixing the popular with the substantial is key to C4′s identity. For 2001, Hadlow commissioned the 90-minute film Plague, which zooms in on the lives of 36 families living in a poor London neighborhood in 1665. In the same year, Hadlow aired The 1940s House, a reality series that observes a modern family struggling to live in the conditions of war-torn London. ‘The freedom to play with the schedule and play with the content is much more apparent at Channel 4 than anywhere else on British television,’ says Hadlow. ‘I was a BBC exec for many years and the difference in my approach now is that I’m able to be more effective in the subjects I do, and I can challenge formats.’

Ramsden, who oversaw about 175 programs in 2001, says choosing programs comes down to two ingredients. ‘We’re always aware of what we call the two Rs: ratings and reputation. There are very few shows that are commissioned for either one or the other. We want both.’

‘Quick decisions’

On October 28, 2001, C4 broadcast a doc titled Bioterror. The film was produced by WGBH in the U.S., and was licensed by Ramsden less than two weeks before it aired. ‘I said I would only buy it if I could have it on air in 10 days, because I knew the BBC was doing one and we had to beat them,’ explains Ramsden. ‘It needed to be cut for a U.K. audience …[so] they sent a producer out from England. They did quite a lot of edits, re-versioned it and we had it on air in about 10 days.’

‘Values the distinctive documentary voice’

In an industry where young producers struggle to get their ideas in the hands of commissioning editors, C4 continues to provide opportunities to a range of industry talent. In 2002, these opportunities will continue to expand. ‘Next year, we are going to launch a major commitment that will be deliberately there to focus on work at the avant-garde end of art,’ reveals Hadlow. ‘We’ll do the big names and the big stories like we always do, but we’ll also find places where you can look at the works of people who aren’t famous or get up-and-coming people to make films.’ KB


Call them many things, but don’t ever call them dull. Home Box Office was chosen by readers for their willingness to ‘take chances’ and ‘explore uncomfortable subjects’. From suicide and sexual abuse to mental illness and extreme anti-abortion groups, HBO has shown it all. But, HBO doesn’t necessarily strive to be controversial, says Lisa Heller, VP of original programming,

documentaries for hbo. They do, however, go the extra mile to tell a powerful story.

‘There’s no controversial litmus test,’ says Heller. ‘It’s just [about] pushing boundaries that have rarely been pushed in non-fiction storytelling, and having the luxury to spend time with those stories. If the story requires a year, the filmmaker spending time with a family, then we can help make that happen.’

The Sunday doc series ‘America Undercover’ has covered a myriad of bold subjects on a weekly basis. ”America Undercover’ in particular is a showcase for work that’s going to push boundaries in different ways and is an umbrella for work that’s on the edge in terms of story, character and real life,’ says Heller. Some of the highlights of the past year might read like a line-up of topics from The Jerry Springer Show: Naked States, about the controversial artist Spencer Tunick who photographs groups of naked people in public spaces aired in April; Bellevue: Inside Out, was an inside look at a New York City psychiatric hospital that aired in May; and Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen, about the Barbie-fication of little girls in beauty pageants, also aired in May. The docusoap G-String Divas and the ongoing, Emmy award-winning Taxicab Confessions certainly push the envelope when it comes to factual, but they remain true to their subject matter.

So, is there anything HBO won’t cover? ‘We would veer away from things that are dull and typical,’ says Heller, but adds, ‘that’s not to say that everyday life can’t have nuance and wonder and intimacy that’s captured on film to make it a powerful story.’ KV


‘[Documentaries] are the bread and butter of what you see on pbs. It’s not an afterthought with us. It is our only thought.’ That statement by Jacoba Atlas, co-chief program executive for PBS, expresses the commitment to non-fiction programming that doc-makers have come to expect from the American Public Broadcasting Service. Survey respondents praised PBS as a broadcaster that is ‘not afraid to offend a viewer or two to make sure a viewpoint is expressed.’

Over the past year, pbs offered a range of thought-provoking and informative programs – from Evolution to Local News – which would likely never have seen the light of day on a commercial net. In one instance, PBS stepped in to air a series it believed the public should see, after a commercial network bailed out. John Wilson, co-chief program exec for PBS, recalls that Fox pulled the plug on R.J. Cutler’s 13-part series American High after only four episodes. The filmmaker subsequently contacted pbs, which picked up the series, scored underwriting from Coca-Cola and tapped into much coveted demographics – teens and their parents. Says Wilson, ‘What we allowed for was the opportunity to present this without having to look over our shoulder at whether we were delivering commercial-size audiences.’ PBS continues to take its role as standard bearer seriously, as evidenced by consistently high quality programming on strands such as ‘Frontline’ (cited specifically in survey responses) and the undertaking of large-scale series such as Ken Burns’ Jazz. Even when making a foray into the voyeuristic formats, PBS aims to be a cut above the norm, selecting the likes of 1900 House and Secrets of the Dead. Notes Atlas, ‘People say to us that they’re able to do their best work here, that nobody asks them to compromise the complexity of the story. They don’t have to go into [a project] already thinking of what they can’t do.’ SZ

Honorable Mentions


Launched in 1991, ARTE operates under a mandate to help foster a specifically European television culture. Producers trying to finance arts and culture docs that lean even slightly towards the avant-garde often turn to ARTE first, as it boasts weekly slots for arts, culture and ‘creative documentaries’. The broadcaster earned an honorable mention for ‘the power of its freedom’ and for not ‘completely capitulating to the market.’


Buoyed by public money and motivated by public service, the BBC is in the perfect position to back the kind of documentaries commercial broadcasters deem risky. From Son of God to The Blue Planet, the British pubcaster continues to distinguish itself. As one reader put it, it’s ‘the only channel that isn’t sacrificing quality and innovation for quantity.’


Readers took note of Channel 5 for ‘making the leap up market’ – choosing quality programming over more frivolous fare. The four-year-old U.K.-based channel, typically seen as edgy and youth-driven, earned praise for being ‘sensible and brave’, while still producing a range of innovative docs.

National Geographic

National Geographic’s television branch drew praise from survey respondents for ‘sticking to a century-old mission’ and ‘doing a lot of creative thinking in its program choices’. From Spirit of the Seas, about the Volvo Ocean Race, to Supercroc, about the discovery of a huge prehistoric ancestor to today’s crocodiles, Nat Geo Channels continue to present a unique view through the famed yellow frame.


Japan’s national pubcaster earned kudos for the range and variety of documentary programs it licenses and/or supports. NHK has repeatedly proven its willingness to invest in large-scale international coproductions, such as Space Millennium and The Human Genome, and continues to embrace high definition programming. At a time when most broadcasters are forced to scale back, nhk continues to forge ahead.

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.