No two films are the same, and the way they’re handled by broadcasters shouldn’t be either. Such is the thinking of Michael Rubin, VP of long form programming at MSNBC TV, a New York-based cable channel that’s known for its live, breaking news coverage, but has boosted its doc profile since January 2007 with its rejuvenated ‘Doc Block’ slot. Half of the slot’s content comes from indie production companies and, as Rubin says, ‘If we had a different name we would call ourselves ‘Handmade Films’ because every deal we do is handmade; we re-invent the wheel for every project.’
On air from 11 p.m. through 1 a.m. Monday to Friday and 12 hours on weekends (7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.), the ‘Doc Block’ has more than tripled the amount of docs it produces over the past two years – it’s now roughly 100 per year. ‘For those, we might buy, license, coproduce or give completion funding,’ says Rubin. ‘We acquire or give completion funds to five percent of the ‘Doc Block,’ but we’re looking to spend more in 2009.’
MSNBC gets involved with docs at various stages of production. If Rubin and his team get onboard with a project early on, they’re heavily involved throughout its production. Other times, they’ll customize a completed project for American audiences, as they did after a recent acquisition deal with a British broadcaster. As part of another negotiation, Rubin is helping a film get into New York and Chicago theaters because the filmmaker wants it to be considered for an Oscar.
While ‘Doc Block’ agreements with producers vary, one thing about its viewers doesn’t. They all want to be challenged by the content, says Rubin, adding that viewers are an almost even female/male split in their late 40s. They come over to the ‘Doc Block’ from watching channels like History, A&E, Discovery, CNN and Fox, he says, then go back to them after they’ve had their ‘Doc Block’ fix.
What keeps them clicking over to MSNBC for docs is the up-close-and-personal approach its filmmakers use – something Rubin says all ‘Doc Block’ material must have. ‘We’re part of NBC News, so we’re looking for real reporting – original reporting – and if you’ve got access, then I should be screening your movie,’ he says. Take Conviction, a 5 x 1-hour series (which Rubin has renewed) about a prison therapy group for convicted murderers that talk about their crimes with fellow inmates. Rubin had a stipulation for Sirens Media, the Silver Spring-based prodco that made the show: ‘We said, ‘We’re happy to do it, but you have complete access to all these therapy sessions, right?’ And the answer was ‘Yes,” says Rubin. ‘So we got to see [the inmates] lying, and we got to see them called out on lying; the show wasn’t just talking about the therapy sessions – we were there.’
He stresses to producers pitching him: ‘You’ve got to have access and original reporting. They’re two simple things, but they’re incredibly hard to come by.’ Alicia Androich