Building a history – Towers Productions spotlight

Towers Productions celebrates 20 years of storytelling
July 1, 2009

This year, Towers Productions Inc. turns 20. Looking back at the company’s production history is like reading a timeline of modern cable TV’s key moments: beginning with Investigative Reports in 1991, and moving through landmark productions like American Justice, Storm Stories and Inside 9/11, the company has established itself as a go-to producer of factual entertainment that is as concerned with the facts as it is about telling engaging stories.

‘The industry is always changing, and we’ve changed with it,’ says Jonathan Towers, chief creative officer of Towers Productions, who founded the company in 1989 with an investment of just $10,000. Towers started his career in television as a journalist, writing for CBS and ABC News and, later, reporting on-camera for CNN. He says that as he watched the birth of networks like Discovery and A&E in the 1980s, he saw a clear opportunity.

‘The strategy was to create a documentary production company that can service the needs of these emerging channels,’ he says. ‘All of these companies were looking for high quality programming, and they were looking to accomplish that at reasonable costs. With my background as a journalist and as a television producer, I understood that.’

When Towers speaks about his approach to production, two key elements come up most often: factual integrity and storytelling. Balancing the two was crucial to the company’s early success, which hinged on a pair of signature series that would go on to be among the longest-running shows in the history of cable TV: American Justice and Biography, both produced for A&E.

‘These were great stories that, if you told them well, in a sense told themselves – if you really had a fidelity to the facts,’ says Towers. ‘I think that’s what distinguished us. We believed deeply and totally that the truer these stories were, the better they would be.’

Crime documentaries were the prodco’s first specialty, but Towers soon saw the need to diversify his content. Having established the company’s track record with its work for A&E, he approached The Weather Channel, and in 2002 began producing the series Storm Stories, which served as a bridge for that network to move into long-form programming. Other forays into varied subject matter included seven episodes of History’s Mysteries for History, which helped the company develop its long-standing relationship with the channel, and the feature-length doc, Classic Yo-Yo Ma, for PBS.

‘Towers was pigeonholed in a sort of ‘crime and justice, plus wild weather’ category a few years ago,’ says John Ford, president and GM of Discovery Channel, for whom Towers produces a slate of programs, including the prison doc series Hard Time. ‘In the past five years they’ve really branched out and achieved success across five or six non-fiction genres and a variety of styles. They’re able to operate in all parts of the non-fiction spectrum.’

The company, however, was drawn back to the realm of crime and justice by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. After that event, programs about war and terrorism were in high demand, and Towers responded with what would go on to be the most acclaimed production in its catalog. Created for National Geographic Channel, the four-part series National Geographic: Inside 9/11, aired in 2005 and was a milestone for both Towers Productions and Nat Geo, garnering an Emmy nomination for outstanding non-fiction special.

‘It is the definitive program on the topic,’ says Michael Cascio, who first worked with Towers on American Justice while at A&E, and later oversaw the production of Inside 9/11 in his current position as SVP of production with National Geographic Channel. ‘At National Geographic, we have high standards for factual accuracy, and Towers fits into that nicely. Jonathan isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics. He’s very comfortable with sorting through programs that require a lot of research, so the programs have depth to them.’

Towers says engaging with subjects that other producers might consider too volatile is part of his commitment to factual entertainment based in the journalistic principle of objectivity.

‘With Inside 9/11, one of the unique things that people remember was that we used very disturbing footage, that nobody else wanted to use, of people jumping.

‘It happened. With any factual subject that is of very high value, you find things that you’re horrified by, that you agree with or that you don’t agree with. The challenge is to have a tolerance for all that – for finding out things that you completely disagree with, but that are true.’


Towers Productions got a major boost in 2006, when William Fisher, a former exec at STAR TV, HBO and Playboy Enterprises and a partner with Towers in the investment vehicle Collegia Capital, came on board as CEO. Through Collegia, Fisher had been working with Towers on acquisitions, and in 2005 they purchased the rights to Broadway Digital Entertainment, an extensive collection of plays produced for television, starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

‘Being able to build proprietary programming rights through an acquisition was a big part of what we did,’ says Fisher. The company now tries to retain rights whenever possible, and has amassed a significant library of its own material, as a means of building residual value into their work product.

On joining Towers as CEO, Fisher’s focus shifted to expanding the scope of the company’s own productions and reaching out to networks it hadn’t worked with before, such as Discovery, NBC and MSNBC.

‘Diversification of the client base was really a significant source of new revenue for us. It allowed us to effectively double the size of revenues in a very short period of time,’ Fisher says. Current series such as the half-hour comedy Sports Action Team, produced for NBC, and Animal Witness, produced for Animal Planet, show how the company has widened its net. The company’s slate currently boasts a varied mix of seven projects in production and four in development. (Both Towers and Fisher point out that the only company in Chicago bigger than TPI is Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.)

‘Slowly but surely we pushed the parameters of the kind of work we were doing, both in terms of genres and in terms of the networks we were dealing with, to the point that now we operate on a much bigger playing field,’ says Fisher. He also points to the company’s distribution agreement with NGTVI, which sells most of Towers’ factual programming, as a key growth factor. ‘Being aligned with an international distributor who has the ability to not only sell your program, but act as a partner and put some significant money to work on the financing and financing guarantees, has been significant.’

In growing the company, Towers and Fisher decided earlier this year that a greater division of labor was necessary to create a more efficient and productive business. In January, it was announced that the company would split into three distinct operating companies, to capitalize on its production facilities. ‘I said, ‘We’ve got this enormous post-production facility that is essentially captive to Towers Productions. We should spin that business off as a standalone entity,” says Fisher. ‘With all of our cameras, field equipment and sound recording stuff, [I thought] we should be renting that out to third parties who are also in production.’ The result is a triumvirate of standalone companies: Towers Productions, overseen by Mike Schmiedeler; Towers Post, managed by Corinne Whitney; and Towers Rentals, overseen by Trevor Park. All three are wholly owned subsidiaries of Towers Holdings, Inc.


Fisher says Towers Holdings, Inc. is on very good financial footing, and has even been able to turn the economic downturn into an advantage for the company by deficit funding some projects it’s coproducing, and building on its reputation for providing good value.

‘While no one wants to market themselves as a low-cost producer – and we don’t – we are a value producer,’ says Fisher. ‘We can achieve, I think, much greater results on the same budgets than many of our competitors. That’s created an enormous opportunity for us in this environment, where networks are extremely cognizant of what they’re spending and what they’re getting for their investment.’

Still, the unstable economy has only added to existing challenges presented by changes in the industry, which include the emergence of new technologies and the evolution of factual entertainment. Moving forward, Towers felt the company needed a major evolution of its own in order to continue to solidify its position in the marketplace. As such, in addition to the three-company restructuring, the company has refocused some of its energies on genres and formats it hasn’t traditionally worked on. Taking a cue from Web 2.0, the online world’s explosion of shared and user-generated content, they’re calling it Towers 2.0.

‘Factual programming is moving into new kinds of areas that are more character and access driven,’ says Ed Hersh, chief creative officer of StoryCentric, a company that helps other companies navigate the media environment. Hersh acts as a senior advisor to Towers Productions and sits on its board of directors – another recent development aimed at maximizing the company’s potential.

Hersh says he sees the company taking several key steps to help Towers 2.0 effectively meet the challenges presented by changes in the industry, pointing in particular to their branded content work. But he also sees Towers leveraging its core strengths in different ways, to build new approaches into relationships that have been developed over the years.

‘One of the secrets of their success has been their willingness to reflect on themselves, and say, ‘Is there a better way to do this?” says Hersh. ‘Jonathan spends an enormous amount of time managing relationships with the networks in the best possible way. He’s constantly asking, ‘What’s next for you guys? How has your network evolved? How is your business changing? What can we do as a company to be part of that growth?”

Towers himself points to Cook County Jail, a limited series for Discovery, as an example of a project that combines the company’s traditional strengths with what he calls ‘what’s happening now in the business.’

‘It’s about access to that institution, which no one has ever shot in the way we are,’ he says. ‘Our relationship with law enforcement is worth stressing – over the long haul, we’re one of a very small group of companies that has very deep relationships with American and international law enforcement. We’re trusted to do the really difficult subjects.’

Ultimately, it all goes back to the two elements that helped Towers Productions succeed in the first place: solid storytelling, and an insistence on sticking to the facts.

‘Jonathan and his colleagues combine exceptional research with tremendous storytelling and production skills,’ says John Ford. ‘He’s one of the most gifted producers in our business.’

The sentiment is echoed by many of Towers’ colleagues.

‘I admire Jonathan’s integrity as a journalist, producer and television executive, and I’m very fortunate that I’m working with him at NGC,’ says Michael Cascio. ‘To survive 20 years – that’s an amazing thing.’


The Towers Timeline

1989 – CNN correspondent Jonathan Towers founds Towers Productions, Inc. (TPI) with an investment of $10,000

1992 – TPI’s series American Justice debuts on A&E

1993 – Towers is nominated for first National Emmy Award for Investigative Journalism and first CableAce Award for documentary writing

1995 – TPI produces its first episode of Biography for A&E

1997 – TPI’s series Wrath of God debuts on The History Channel (now known as History)

1998 – Crain’s Chicago Business magazine names Towers one of the city’s top ’40 under 40′ business leaders

- TPI produces its 100th episode of American Justice, which is subsequently awarded a Gold Medal in the New York Film Festivals for ‘Best Public Affairs Program Series’

1999 – TPI produces The JonBenet Ramsey Murder, its first program for MSNBC

2000 – TPI produces Atmospheres, its first series for The Weather Channel, and Private Schools, Public Money, its first program for CNN

2001 – TPI produces Classic Yo-Yo Ma, its first program for PBS

2002 – TPI produces the first episode of the series Storm Stories for The Weather Channel

2003 – TPI produces its 200th episode of American Justice, and After Saddam, its first program for Discovery Channel Networks

2004 – Towers teams up with pay-TV executive William Fisher to create investment vehicle Collegia Capital

2005 – Collegia Capital acquires the 100 title library of PBS theatrical films Broadway Digital Entertainment

- TPI produces its first program for National Geographic Channel, the four part series Inside 9/11, which goes on to win the New York Festivals award for best documentary writing and best documentary series and a Primetime Emmy nomination for Best Documentary

2006 – TPI names William Fisher Chief Executive Officer

- TPI produces its first series for NBC, the improv comedy Sports Action Team, as well as the series The Final Report for National Geographic. The company also marks its 100th episode of Storm Stories

2007 – TPI produces its 100th episode of Biography

- Chicago Film Festival honors Towers with Hugo Award for lifetime achievement

2008 – A busy year: TPI produces the series Animal Witness, its first production for Animal Planet, as well as the first series for ID – Investigation Discovery, Undercover; Hard Time for Discovery Channel; Mobsters for Biography Channel; the three-part special Inside Vietnam and the series Perilous Journeys for National Geographic Channel and When Weather Changed History for The Weather Channel

2009 – TPI restructures and spins off new businesses: Towers Post and Towers Rentals

- TPI produces new series American Wasteland for the Discovery Channel

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.