Those involved in the production and distribution of non-fiction programming are used to addressing the myriad details required to have the ultimate work aired. Certainly wildlife productions have their challenges: a big, snarling, thrashing shark knocks the camera into the water; penguins glide down a wonderful ice slide, then stand up and make, ahem, a little doo-doo on what was a great shot; an elk burps… okay, you get the point. There are lots of things to consider.
For example, in licensing a program to National Geographic International, we had to secure E&O insurance as part of our delivery requirements for an underwater wildlife doc. The entire program was underwater, that is… Under. The. Water. There were no people, no boats, no anything human. Just sea creatures. My insurance representative quoted a number that was a bit high, so I called back to say, ‘Hey, it’s just fish – this quote is near what my last current affairs documentary was priced at, and that one had interviews with Bin Ladin’s family in it! This is just crabs, eels, plankton and a couple of whales.’
Their answer came as a bit of a shock to me. ‘Yes,’ they replied, ‘it was underwater, but someone shot it. There were music rights. Someone wrote a script. And someone narrated it.’ But, I said, here’s how we built this program: it was compiled from a single cinematographer’s library, of which he filmed every frame and owned outright. We hired a composer to score the documentary – an original score. (Seven music cues to be exact.) We hired a writer to write a script to wax on poetically about coral reefs and phantoms of the deep. Our British writer also fancied himself a voice-over career, and after auditioning for the producers, he was hired at a fair rate. (Fair rate included two or three bottles of wine in the recording booth to allow his tongue to glide along the words he had so carefully crafted.)
‘Yes,’ said the insurance agent, ‘but there was risk.’ How did we know the footage was all original, the agent asked. Because every frame came out of the cinematographer’s library – the one he shot and owned. How did we know the conductor didn’t copy another musician’s work and claim it to be original? How could any producer anywhere ever know if their bought-and-paid-for score was completely original without comparing it to every note of music ever written? How did we know the script is an original work? You get the point…
Okay, let’s be straight: E&O insurance companies don’t have it easy. Every producer probably has something to hide in obtaining a policy. And, while we know very few lawsuits are filed against broadcast docs, when they are and a judgment is made, it hurts big time.
But on more than a few occasions, and I’m not exaggerating here, we’ve accepted an offer just to pay for the insurance, the broadcast materials, and the distributor’s commission. (In these cases, reduced from 30% to 20%, if you must know.) The producer gets less than $500 for their work. The bad news is, it isn’t going to change anytime soon. Low license fees coupled with high delivery costs, including insurance, make this industry depend on hungry producers who want to get on the air – at any cost.
We eventually talked down the insurance agent to half the rate he originally quoted. We made the sale. Strangely, I never heard from any of the whales or plankton, although I do get calls from agents with very sharp teeth from time to time.