Courageous Broadcasters

This year, HBO continued to raise the bar for quality, entertainment and innovation in documentaries. The outlet's unwavering dedication to the form won it the respect of RealScreen voters, who elected it the most courageous broadcaster of 2002.
December 1, 2002


In the high-strung political climate of 2002, the word ‘courageous’ became too weighty for many survey respondents to comfortably apply to a broadcaster. Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming at U.S. pay-channel HBO agrees. ‘I think courageous is when you go into the firing line for what you believe. I’ve never been willing to be shot for any of my documentaries.’

Nevins may not take a bullet for her factual fare, but she admits that HBO is always up for a good fight. ‘A good fight for the best product,’ she explains. ‘It’s not always easy making a documentary for HBO. Sometimes we buy it totally whole, like Southern Comfort, and sometimes we torture every point, like Monica [in Black and White]. There is no one HBO work experience.’

Whatever the method, it’s working. In 2002, ‘America Undercover’, the HBO strand for contemporary American issues, aired some of the year’s most talked about docs. Among the titles are In Memoriam, September 11, 2002, a collaborative effort between HBO and Brad Grey Pictures in New York; and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Sister strand ‘Cinemax Reel Life’ also aired an eclectic mix of indie docs. Sarah Kernochan’s Academy Award-winning short, Thoth, introduced viewers to an eccentric street performer in New York’s Central Park, while Edet Belzberg’s Children Underground followed five children living in a Bucharest subway station. (Romania’s population of 200,000 orphans is part of the legacy of former leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s anti-contraceptive/abortion policies.)

Enthused one respondent: ‘I would single out HBO, because they continue to take risks very few others will take, and consistently commission and fund smart, excellent, character-driven films. They know the difference between the fun (and slightly naughty) sides of life and the more profound aspects of the human condition; they’ve made a distinction between the two and offer non-fiction programs that cover all sides.’

Nevins says all HBO docs must be fearless and compassionate. ‘I would say costly, but not necessarily financially,’ she continues. ‘Costly to the filmmaker in terms of spiritual involvement and investment, and then possibly because they’re expensive, but that’s not what I mean. They have to be dear to someone.’

According to Nevins, budgets for HBO docs start at US$25,000 and go as high as $1.5 million, a range that gives the commissioning team the ability to tackle a variety of films. This point was not lost on survey-takers. ‘HBO took some chances,’ said one, ‘but they can afford to.’

Beyond budgets, HBO supports docs by awarding them plum spots in the schedule. ‘America Undercover’, for example, airs on Sunday nights at 10 P.M., following hit HBO series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Audience numbers jump for films with such strong lead-ins, but Nevins says the placement reveals a difficult truth. ‘To make fact live up to fiction is tough. You can’t always bring your story up to the theatrical level of what can be controlled,’ she explains.

In 2002, staying true to the uncontrollable was one of HBO’s biggest challenges. ‘In other words, not to move into manipulated reality, which isn’t documentary,’ says Nevins. ‘To let life evolve and end as it should – if you take that away from documentary, you have a quiz show and a game show, but you don’t have a replication of life as it is lived and struggled.’ KB


Anyone who has attended the annual pitching forum in Amsterdam knows that ARTE has a reputation as a channel willing to take risks. Commissioning editors around the table urge promising producers with unconventional ideas to seek out ARTE – if the projects fall outside of their own channels’ mandates. Says Christoph Jorg, a commissioning editor of the ‘Thema’ strand for ARTE France, ‘We like to surprise our viewers. We like to have controversial films rather than normal ones, things that provoke discussions.’

These are words doc-makers dream of hearing, which is presumably why ARTE was voted second (along with CBS/U.S. networks) in the courageous broadcaster category by survey respondents. Declared one individual, ‘This is, for documentary filmmakers, the most important broadcaster in Europe.’

Jorg notes that ARTE’s adventurous attitude is not difficult to understand. ‘We are a public channel. We are financed by license fees and government money, so we are free to take risks.’ The same could be said of most public channels, but in today’s ratings-obsessed climate, few embrace that freedom. ARTE’s status as a European channel (with programming units in France and Germany) also sets it apart from other pubcasters.

ARTE covers a wide range of subjects including culture, society, politics and global problems (a commendable point in its own right), and approaches them from a ‘slightly different point of view than all the other channels,’ says Jorg. For example, a thematic evening in January 2003 will address the question ‘Does capitalism work?’ using two docs – Greedy in Thailand (Pascal Vasselin) and Cry for Argentina (Angus Macqueen) – around the time other broadcasters will be covering the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

The pubcaster also actively searches out new storytellers. A series of upcoming films (coproduced with the BBC, TV 2 Denmark, Sweden’s SVT, Finland’s YLE, Norway’s NRK and SBS in Australia) were made by Chinese filmmakers. This Happy Life (Jiang Yue) and Secret of My Success (Duan Jinchuan) are two that will air on ARTE in February. SZ


The attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, were a direct hit to the U.S. financial center, but they also struck the backyard of major U.S. network broadcasters, such as Manhattan-based CBS. It was a local story with international ramifications, and the U.S. nets rose to the occasion.

One RealScreen reader praised ‘all the major newscasters who managed to break through their natural inclination to codify and quantify [the] horror surrounding 9/11′. CBS was singled out by others for coproducing and broadcasting the acclaimed documentary 9/11, made by Jules and Gedeon Naudet. The film aired in March to record ratings and was re-broadcast in September.

‘Obviously everyone is tremendously proud of it,’ says Dana McClintock, CBS’s senior VP of communications. ‘That was an extraordinary [doc] and they don’t come along very often,’ he adds.

McClintock explains that the film wound up on CBS due to company president Leslie Moonves’s friendship with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter (the Naudets had contacts at the New York-based magazine). ‘These aren’t the kinds of things that you can really plan for – they just happen,’ McClintock says.

Despite stellar performances around September 11, several survey respondents observed that the nets have ‘slunk back to a pre-9/11 level of conformity.’ On the bright side, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings has secured a deal to get more docs into primetime. Every year through 2007, the alphabet network will pay for, and air, at least four docs made by his PJ Productions. MS

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.