Star Power

Content may be king, but a king needs followers. 'A documentary has to be able to punch above its weight,' says Tim Sparke, director of Mercury Media, a London-based distrib. 'It's no longer enough to make a great program; people have to know a great program is on TV,' he continues. 'You have to provide hooks - promotional hooks - for press departments to work with.'
January 1, 2004

Content may be king, but a king needs followers. ‘A documentary has to be able to punch above its weight,’ says Tim Sparke, director of Mercury Media, a London-based distrib. ‘It’s no longer enough to make a great program; people have to know a great program is on TV,’ he continues. ‘You have to provide hooks – promotional hooks – for press departments to work with.’

To this end, non-fiction producers are tapping into the hook that has served the fiction world so well – celebrities. Like a comely queen beside a curmudgeonly monarch, celebrities can help to soften a tough subject and draw in elusive viewers. More importantly, famous names garner the attention of the press, helping a program to break through the white noise of a crowded marketplace.

Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell – who oversees Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery Health, The Science Channel and a dozen other brands – says celebrities are an important part of the network’s efforts to cut through the competition. ‘We’re utilizing talent in an organic manner to let people know where our programming is, when it’s on and that it’s something they might be interested in,’ he explains. ‘Celebrities allow you exposure you might not otherwise have. It doesn’t ever guarantee viewership – it just allows people to know you’re on.’

To help facilitate this effort, Discovery Networks U.S. signed on New York-based Central Talent Booking in November to help wrangle A-list celebrities for Discovery projects. Founded in 1999, the company is helmed by Joanna Jordan, who earned her credentials booking talent for U.S. talk show Late Show with David Letterman. Jordan’s role, however, is more proactive than reactive. She explains, ‘[I'm] working with the gms of each network and their development team as the liaison with Hollywood and to look for celebrities that fit the sensibility of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of movement right now with that kind of thing.’

Jordan says celebrities are open to programs that can help raise the profile of their other projects or improve their image. This means stars will be ambitious about promoting their involvement, but that the program must also be promotable. ‘When you hear the word ‘evergreen’, that’s not a plus,’ says Jordan. ‘Evergreen doesn’t mean promotion.’

From the broadcaster’s perspective, stars shouldn’t be slotted into docs just to up the glamour factor. In Campbell’s words, they must feel ‘organic’ to the program. He admits, however, that sometimes the connection requires a bit of imagination. Model Heidi Klum diving with Caribbean reef sharks in Sharks Under Glass works, he says, because Klum is adventurous and likes to travel. Indeed, Klum is set to do an upcoming travel show with Discovery. Other programs that have performed well for the network include Discovery Health Channel’s hour-long Silent Angels, which looks at Rett syndrome and features actor Julia Roberts, and Growing Up Grizzly, a one-hour special for Animal Planet that looks at celebrity bears and is hosted by actor Brad Pitt.

Mark Green, National Geographic International’s senior vice president of programming, contends that for the partnership to work, viewers need to understand why the star is relevant. ‘Viewers are not blind – they can see right through a marketing push,’ he says.

For the one-hour Mars: Dead or Alive?, a copro with Boston-based pubcaster WGBH/’Nova’ airing this month, Nat Geo ultimately decided not to use a celebrity narrator. Says Green, ‘It was something we talked about. The celebrity appeal works well in English territories like the U.K. and Australia, but neither one of them felt it would add enough value to it.’ He continues, ‘We were talking about a voice-over and not an on-camera presence, so it would have been lost – other than in credits – in the 25 other languages we’re in.’

Broadcasters also like famous faces, because they encourage viewers to stay tuned to programs covering challenging subjects. Dogs of Peace is a one-hour one-off about the people and dogs helping to remove the estimated 10 million landmines in Afghanistan. Coproduced by Perth, Australia-based Storyteller Productions and Animal Planet, the program, explains Storyteller CEO Mike Searle, is more political than most ap programs. ‘Animal Planet went out on a limb with this,’ he says.

To make the AUS$580,000 (US$420,000) program more palatable, Mercury Media’s Sparke, who’s distributing the film, suggested a celebrity narrator. ‘Doing the show wasn’t conditional on finding the right celebrity presenter,’ he explains. ‘It was more our wish to really come through for Animal Planet, understanding that they were taking a huge risk with the show and had committed a lot of money.’

AP agreed, and the coproducers eventually settled on Heather Mills McCartney – wife of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and patron of the Adopt-a-Minefield organization – who consented to the project after five months of correspondence. Mills McCartney also tops and tails the show. ‘The purpose of having her was to bring [Dogs of Peace] to a wider audience,’ says Searle. ‘There’s no point making a program about landmines that doesn’t highlight the problems and look at some of the solutions, and it’s no good us making a program that just makes people switch off. It’s an important balance.’

Sparke says Mills McCartney was offered a fee, but turned it down. Instead, AP made a donation to Adopt-a-Minefield. Additionally, Mills McCartney is using clips from the program to raise funds for the organization. Says Searle, ‘If you’re looking for a star narrator and you have that trade-off, it’s going to be easier to come to a deal.’

ap has exclusive rights to Dogs of Peace in North America and a one-year exclusive window in the international marketplace that runs out in August. Says Sparke, ‘We haven’t started to market it yet, but all the senses we get are that it will be enthusiastically received by any broadcaster for which the name Paul McCartney or Heather Mills McCartney means anything.’

If the experience of Marathon International is at all indicative, however, that won’t necessarily be the case. The Paris-based distributor is having trouble getting European broadcasters to pick up What’s Going On?, a 10 x 26-minute series from New York-based production company RCN Entertainment that aired on Showtime in the

U.S. Aimed at a family audience, the series sees celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Michael Douglas and Angelina Jolie interacting with children who have been affected by such plagues as war, AIDS and famine. The $200,000-per-episode series was produced in association with the United Nations, and most of the stars are UN goodwill ambassadors.

‘We wanted to include celebrities, because we wanted to capture as large an audience as we could to shed light on issues we didn’t believe people were aware of,’ says Orly Wiseman, copresident of RCN. ‘We proposed it

because we’ve always known that when you have celebrity status, it’s much easier to sell a program and to get the distribution for it.’

Marathon CEO Olivier Bremond admits he would not have acquired the series if it had not included celebrities. Yet, the stars are standing in the way of sales in Europe. ‘The mix of glamour and painful stories, which is obviously well regarded in America, seems a little wacky to some of our broadcasters,’ says Bremond. ‘Also, it’s in English. If you don’t have the voice of the actor, it doesn’t work well. That’s another reason. But, maybe we haven’t found the right way to present it.’

RCN is currently working on a celebrity version of its popular Outward Bound series that will be aimed at tweens. It’s budgeted for $250,000 an episode and has won the interest of actors such as Scott Speedman, Joshua Jackson and Jessica Biel. No distributors or broadcasters are yet on board.

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.