Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues

The dawn of the millennium witnessed an embarrassing number of overly ambitious predictions about the convergence of tv and the Internet. Such talk subsided after the dot-com bubble popped, but small strides are still quietly being made. Most people continue to surf the net on a computer and watch documentaries on a TV, but if they're curious to find out more about a doc's subject, chances are they can log onto a branded website and do just that.
July 1, 2003

The dawn of the millennium witnessed an embarrassing number of overly ambitious predictions about the convergence of tv and the Internet. Such talk subsided after the dot-com bubble popped, but small strides are still quietly being made. Most people continue to surf the net on a computer and watch documentaries on a TV, but if they’re curious to find out more about a doc’s subject, chances are they can log onto a branded website and do just that. This isn’t the grand vision of single-terminus interactivity, but it’s convergence at work, and its success is having a trickle-down effect.

Broadcasters and producers are realizing the symbiotic relationship they enjoy with the Internet doesn’t need to be exclusive. What about good ol’ fashioned radio? As TV’s predecessor, radio has a compatible approach to content. Occasionally, it also shares owners, easing efforts to coordinate projects.

This fact isn’t lost on the folks at Boston-based public television channel WGBH and WGBH Radio Boston, the presenting stations for The Blues, a multimedia music documentary that originated with a 7 x 1-hour TV series and will include a 13 x 1-hour radio series. Premiering September 28 across the PBS network and public radio stations nationwide, The Blues is being produced in partnership with Seattle-based Vulcan Productions and Road Movies in Berlin. But, the project is the creative vision of executive producer and feature film director Martin Scorsese.

Four years ago, Scorsese approached series producer Alex Gibney, president of New York’s Jigsaw Productions, about doing a film on the history of the blues. ‘It worked out that by the time we finished, it was going to be 2003,’ says Gibney. The date was significant: in 1903, African American composer W.C. Handy (‘the Father of the Blues’) first heard blues music while standing on a train platform in Mississippi – a happenstance that greatly influenced American music. To mark the 100th anniversary of this milestone, the U.S. Congress proclaimed 2003 the Year of the Blues. The timing allowed the project to expand to its current complexity – other multimedia components include a website, book, DVD, a five-CD boxed set and educational initiatives.

Yet, the TV series doesn’t document the history of the blues. A rough chronological and geographical flow was established for the films, but they investigate the music from the perspectives of the seven filmmakers (Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, Charles Burnett, Marc Levin and Mike Figgis), who each direct an episode. The radio series then fills in the blanks for viewers who want a complete picture, by taking a more structured approach to blues music history.

Explains Gibney, ‘The idea was to give [the directors] more freedom than one normally would in a mini-series – stylistic freedom and, within certain boundaries, freedom of what they were going to talk about or visualize. That meant the film series wasn’t going to be the last word on the blues…[but] a series of first words. The radio series,’ he continues, ‘is doing what we didn’t do in the films, which is to go through the history of the blues in a linear fashion. They were designed to be complementary.’

Ben Manilla, president of San Francisco-based Ben Manilla Productions and coproducer for the radio component (along with Robert Santelli, CEO of the Experience Music Project in Seattle), says the project’s sponsor, Volkswagen of America, also pushed for the radio component. ‘When the pitch was made to Volkswagen, there was a laundry list of things put in front of them,’ he explains. ‘I was told radio might be dropped out. However, Volkswagen jumped on the idea of doing a radio series. With the people controlling the purse strings supporting us, we got into the mix.’

The films are budgeted for just under US$1 million an episode. The first episode – ‘Feel Like Going Home,’ by Scorsese – focuses on early Delta blues and tracks the roots of the music through the Mississippi and West Africa. The final film (‘Piano Blues,’ by Eastwood) explores the director’s passion for piano blues and features interviews with legends such as Pinetop Perkins. The radio series, which has a total budget of about $500,000 and is about 50% talk and 50% music, also opens by investigating the beginning of blues music in West Africa, but concludes with a look at the genre’s future in performers such as Moby.

Despite the shared subject, there was little opportunity to share editorial resources. Says Manilla, ‘I had 2,000 hours of audiotape. When the [TV] production started [in January 2001], I approached them and said, ‘I have all these archives, they’re yours.’ But, [the directors] were interested in going their own personal way. Then, when it came time to do the radio series [in January 2003], we asked for some of their tape. But, what we needed – the scholars and the historians – they didn’t have. We’ve since recorded another 500 hours of tape.’ Gibney also admits the nonvisual nature of radio prevented file sharing.

Still, the two elements expect to benefit from cross-platform promotion and shared marketing. The radio series is being distributed by Public Radio International, which has over 740 affiliate stations. Not every outlet has to air the program, but the number of possible carriers is encouraging. And in some markets, such as Boston, the local PBS TV channel is operated in cooperation with the local public radio station, making complementary scheduling easier. Beginning October 11, WGBH Radio will air The Blues on consecutive Saturdays at 10 P.M. At press time, Manilla estimated there were at least another 15 markets planning to work cooperatively. He also hoped to have 30-second promos for the radio series air on TV.

Says Gibney, ‘The original engineering of the radio project was to satisfy a thirst for the blues…that might have been stoked by the TV series. There’s a lot of cross promotion and that was always intended.’

International distribution of the films is being coordinated by Road Sales USA in Los Angeles (which will also oversee theatrical and video rights), while sales of the radio series is being steered by Ben Manilla Productions. Both will work with local distributors. ‘Within each territory there’s a different culture,’ explains Road Sales head Jon Kramer. ‘So, it’s important that this is localized.’

Kramer and Manilla basically function as managers, bringing together the various parties handling the music, radio and film rights in each territory. Says Kramer, ‘Once contact is made, it’s their job to make sure the coordination works. If they need help, they call us. But, these distributors are used to this and will often already know the parties involved.’

Manilla notes the TV series will likely drive international sales. ‘TV is the medium of choice these days,’ he says. ‘I don’t see [the radio docs] as a huge revenue stream, but as an opportunity to spread the word about the blues.’

The sentiment is shared by Kramer: ‘The idea is to bring the blues to a wider audience, and to use all of these various aspects – radio, CD, film – to lift awareness.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.