Mergers. Layoffs. Launches. These were the big stories within the international factual community over the past year. In selecting the top news items of 2001, RealScreen looked at those with the broadest impact, both short and long-term. Using this criteria, the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11 and the aftermath was the biggest news of 2001 for every individual and industry, bar none.
Layoffs abound at year’s end
As advertising revenue spiralled downward throughout the last quarter of 2001, broadcasters reacted with cutbacks and layoffs. At press time, MTV Networks had eliminated 450 staff positions; the BBC, 129 (specifically from its Factual and Learning division); Channel 4 in the U.K., 80; E! Networks, 75; PBS, 56; and Discovery Communications, 47. Expect a few more companies to ‘streamline’ before the economy picks up again.
Granada’s growing pains
When U.K. commercial broadcaster Granada bought the TV assets of competitor United News & Media near the end of 2000, it set the stage for a year of upheaval and adjustment within the company.
One of the first big changes was the final demise of Survival Anglia and Partridge Films in early 2001. The natural history prodcos had co-existed within United Wildlife (a division of United News & Media) for over four years. After the amalgamation, Granada rolled United Wildlife into United Productions, and later launched a single wildlife brand – Granada Wild. Result? Survival and Partridge are no more. In June, Granada announced that 100 jobs would be phased out over the next two years, as part of the company’s efforts to bring down costs by £60 million (US$85million). Also in that month, Granada restructured its businesses into two divisions – Platforms and Content.
The newly streamlined Granada is prepped to proceed to its next goal – a merger with Carlton, which would place 92% of the ITV network with a single company. Who says imperialism is dead?
Nat Geo Channel launches in the U.S.
After setting down stakes around the globe, National Geographic finally launched a dedicated channel on its home turf – the U.S. – in January.
Expectations for the channel were high, set by Nat Geo’s international programming (some of which was previously available to American viewers via strands such as ‘Explorer’, now on msnbc), as well as the National Geographic Society and magazine. However, although 2001 marked its inception, it was not the year for the U.S. National Geographic Channel to make its mark.
Programming execs drew heavily on ngtv’s archive during the channel’s first year. In total, around 400 hours of original programming went out, but nightly newscasts absorbed 260 of those hours. The channel’s launch did provide opportunity for some indie producers, but not for as many as anticipated.
After a year to ramp up, the pressure is on the Nat Geo Channel to distinguish itself. More people will have access – by year end, the channel will be available to 15 million households across the U.S., with a goal of at least 35 million over the next four years. And, unlike 2001, in 2002 at least some program ratings will be recorded. We’ll see who’s watching.
The Beeb goes digital
September was a busy month for the BBC. The U.K.’s premiere pubcaster welcomed a new chairman, Gavyn Davies, and eight new digital channels – three television services and five radio networks.
Among the digichannels to get the green-light was BBC4, earmarked to feature ‘culturally enriching programs’ (read: arts and docs). Factual producers and distributors rejoiced at the addition of an outlet for their shows, but some commercial digicasters, such as Artsworld, were far from thrilled. The political argument was that the pubcaster is straying outside its mandate to provide services the commercial sector does not, or cannot, offer. For startup commercial digichannels, the more relevant issue was that a competitor with access to public coffers poses a serious threat, particularly at a stage when most are struggling to stay afloat.
Given the dearth of television slots for arts programs, it’s arguable that any additional venues should be welcomed with open arms. And, the BBC claims its presence on the digital scene will help, not hurt, the commercial outlets, by encouraging digital takeup.
Though the debate continues over the impact the BBC will have on the U.K.’s digital landscape, the pubcaster has assured itself a key spot as that landscape develops.
CNN finds order amid chaos
For two thirds of 2001, the Atlanta-based Cable News Network suffered through the pains of restructuring and struggled to find its focus.
In January, CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, merged with AOL and became a mega-media entity. That same month, 400 CNN employees received pink slips. By mid-year, executives were said to be re-evaluating the cable network’s emphasis on hard news, particularly federal politics and international events. In early September, CNN president Philip Kent resigned. Then, September 11 happened.
Amid the horror and confusion of the terrorist attacks, and in the days and months that followed, cnn was put to the test. Viewers suddenly wanted hard news. Did the station that shone during the Persian Gulf War 10 years earlier still have what it takes? The answer is yes.
On September 11, CNN was the only news network with correspondents already in Afghanistan. Later, it was the first to strike a deal with Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Channel, which had the only solid position in Afghanistan when the U.S. began air strikes.
CNN returned to its roots. Let’s hope it’s strong enough to stay there.
Surviving September 11
This year will be forever remembered in two parts: before and after September 11. Before the terrorist attacks in the u.s. and the subsequent declaration of a war against terrorism, we defined Big Brother and Survivor as reality TV, we boarded a plane with little more concern than driving a car, and our biggest worry was the coming recession. After, we turned to the news for reality, we hesitated to travel in the air (as evidenced by the drop in market and event attendance) and war usurped the recession as the greatest source of anxiety.
Within the factual industry, a new sense of responsibility took hold. Doc-makers grabbed their cameras, distributors searched their catalogs and broadcasters donated air time, all to provide viewers with as much information as possible. There’s no denying the business sense of these actions, particularly given the current economic climate. But, profit was not the sole motivation; duty played a role too.
Going forward, the question is whether that sense of responsibility to the viewer will persevere. The value placed on entertaining has crept up to the point where it sometimes outweighs informing. September 11 changed the world irrevocably. Next year will show whether it also changed tv. SZ