ATI’s David McKenzie on socially conscious programming

LA-based Associated Television International has been around for almost 40 years and its quality of programming can be seen in such syndicated factual and reality series such as Crime Strike and American Adventurer, which has been running for 14 years. But president David McKenzie felt a responsibility as a program maker (and, particularly, as the father of a 13-year-old daughter) to make more socially relevant programs. Realscreen spoke with McKenzie about the sustainability of these types of shows and how to connect the messages with audiences.
February 18, 2009

When asked what made him get into producing socially conscious programming, David McKenzie (pictured), president of Associated Television International, immediately responds: his daughter.

‘If you watch children’s programming you become concerned and you say to yourself, ‘What would I like her to watch? What can I sit and watch with her that will make an impression on her?” This thought lead McKenzie and his company to make an effort to create, what he calls, ‘important shows.’

As syndicators for nearly 40 years, McKenzie says ATI’s in the enviable position of being able to get nearly anything it creates on television. But he feels that this comes with a responsibility. The company had donated its services to charities in the past, but McKenzie felt they could do more. ‘Now we do about six to 10 major projects every year that really speak to important topics that people should be concerned with. We try to garner a large audience and work it so we either syndicate it on a national basis or we get one of the networks we work with to carry it.’

ATI works with channels from ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC to USA Network, E!, Spike TV and TLC, and as for their socially conscious programming, CW Network opted to carry the two specials they created last year: America’s Invisible Children and Who’s Who of World Giving. Both programs were nominated for Emmys and America’s Invisible Children, a Joan Lunden-hosted look at the plight of homeless children in America, won the Emmy for Best Television Special.

McKenzie says that recognition from the Academy helps them to convince networks to run this type of programming. ‘Is it easy to place this sort of programming? Absolutely not. It’s really tough. It’s a firefight,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they just don’t think it’s commercial. However, in the environment that we’re in currently, and seeing the track record of what we’ve been doing over the last few years, that’s just not true.’

McKenzie knows this not only from the ratings, but also from audience response. For each program ATI makes about a social issue, it also creates a website to go with it where viewers can send feedback. The prodco has had to increase the capabilities of its websites to meet the demands of viewers, who flock to them after each airing.

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