Courageous broadcaster

For the second year running, RealScreen readers held to their choice of the U.S. pay channel as the most courageous broadcaster, based on its achievements in 2003. And for the first time, the BBC and Discovery enter the top three
November 1, 2003

For the second year running, RealScreen readers held to their choice of the U.S. pay channel as the most courageous broadcaster, based on its achievements in 2003. And for the first time, the BBC and Discovery enter the top three

When explaining her nomination of HBO as 2003′s most courageous broadcaster, one Year in Review survey respondent wrote, ‘As usual, [hbo] continues to produce the most creative and daring work for television. The reason is simple – they respect their audience and they respect the vision of the artists who create their programming.’ This person was not alone, as the New York-based pay-TV channel has been recognized for the second year in a row.

Courage denotes choices – and having the guts to stand by the ones you make. For VP of original programming Lisa Heller, a flexible programming philosophy allows HBO’s decision-makers to follow their gut instincts. ‘It’s a pretty remarkable place that sees itself as a media laboratory,’ Heller explains. ‘We want what viewers want: compelling characters; exciting stories, something that brings a new truth to a story you might have thought you knew before; and unique access, a window into a world audiences might not often get,’ she adds.

Courtesy of hbo’s support, several doc-makers in 2003 were able to open windows into many worlds, including the dark corners of U.S. history in Unchained Memory: Readings from the Slave Narrative. Produced by Jacqueline Glover, the 90-minute one-off retells the recollections of former slaves (as documented by a group of writers in the 1930s) using readings by actors such as Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as archival footage. It was broadcast last winter.

Another gamble that paid off this year for the pay-TV channel – and its doc-makers – was its support for the theatrical premiering of docs. A reversal of an HBO-premiere-only policy, the gambit was first tried with the February release of Amandla! a revolution in four-part harmony by Lee Hirsch and Sherry Simpson. It was followed by the rollout of Andrew Jarecki’s acclaimed Capturing the Friedmans; Jeff Blitz’s Academy Award-nominated Spellbound; Jonathan Karsh’s 2003 Sundance Festival hit y Flesh and Blood; and Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect.

‘These theatrical collaborations have been exciting,’ Heller says, adding, ‘They represent a forging of new relationships with the theatrical market.’ The challenge involved learning ‘how these worlds can inform each other, rather than dilute each other.’ HBO will continue the experiment next year, she points out.

Another arena where HBO and its sister channel, Cinemax, took risks last year was in airing non-fiction stories from beyond U.S. shores. One film, Weijun Chen’s To Live is Better than to Die, is a poignant look at how the AIDS crisis has devastated entire families in China. The film aired as part of an awareness-raising initiative backed by doc broadcasters around the world. Heller says HBO plans to broaden its international copros and acquisitions mission. Docs on the programming slate for 2004 include Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget, Carlos Bosch and Josep M. Domènech’s Balseros and José Padilha’s Bus 174.

Runners-up: BBC, Discovery Channel

The BBC landed in the second spot for its support of docs, and through its willingness to question the U.K. government’s pro-war stance. As one reader explained, the pubcaster got his vote in part ‘for daring to question the government over Iraq and its reasons for going to war, knowing full well that their fate entirely depends on the license fee [that all U.K. TV owners must pay] allocated by the government.’ On the doc front, respondents pointed to the Beeb’s willingness to stay the programming course. ‘They stuck with blue-chip programming…and were not seduced into producing low-budget, wrestling-with-crocodiles stuff,’ one voter said.

Silver Spring, U.S.-based Discovery Channel finished a respectable third. It was lauded for its ability to change. As one respondent put it, ‘the reason [to rank Discovery as the most courageous] is they have drastically changed their line-up, not only with an influx of non-war/non-nature programming but also with more reality (but not Fox drama-esque) shows.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.