A group of non-fiction producers and commissioners explained the ways they are responding to audiences’ desire for dramatic storytelling during ‘Reeling in the Eyeballs,’ a Realscreen Summit panel about programs that blur lines between scripted and documentary storytelling techniques.
Moderated by Scott Free Productions exec VP of non-fiction and branded entertainment Mary Lisio, the panel included Stephen David Entertainment president Stephen David, Raw TV founder Dimitri Doganis, Discovery Communications’ original content group exec VP Charles Foley, History’s senior VP of programming and development Elaine Frontain Bryant, and PBS’s chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming Beth Hoppe.
Foley explained the story behind one of the top-rated (and most controversial) shows in the history of Discovery-owned cable network Animal Planet, Mermaids: The Body Found.
“The question we asked ourselves was, is it an origin story? People like origin stories,” he explained. “But there aren’t a lot of origin stories for mermaids.”
Thus the premise of the show became, if mermaids were real, how would they have evolved and how would they survive in the face of environmental threats?
The CG-heavy special used aquatic ape theory – or the hypothesis that our human ancestors live a semi-aquatic existence – and a possible explanation as well as a report that U.S. Navy training exercises involving underwater explosive tests could kill hundreds of whales and dolphins. Actors played scientists and a disclaimer during the end credits stated that much of it was fictional.
Not everyone caught the disclaimer and the resulting controversy prompted the U.S. government to issue a statement denying the existence of aquatic humanoids, to reassure those among the more than 32 million unique viewers that tuned in to Animal Planet and sister net Discovery Channel who took Mermaids at face value.
Meanwhile, Arnold and Frontain Bryant discussed the History mini-series The Men Who Built America, which focused on lesser-known stories from the lives of U.S. industrialists such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Although Frontain Bryant was not working for History when the mini-series was greenlit, she said the program’s combination of documentary, VFX and dramatic storytelling – as well as the focus on lesser-known tales in the lives of well-known historical figures – appealed to producers.
“If you have a simple story, find another way to tell it and tell the side you think you know but don’t really know,” she said, adding that its success can be attributed to the story’s angle and the quality of the filmmaking, rather than marketing. “We loved the film but knew we had to allocate our marketing dollars into fully scripted [programs].”
PBS’s Hoppe explained the ways the network is attempting to build on its successes with scripted series such as Downton Abbey to further its ventures in the non-fiction space.
The British period drama is now in its fourth season and draws nearly 14 million viewers each week, enough to rank the U.S. pubcaster among the most-watched networks during the highly competitive Sunday night primetime hours.
“We haven’t seen these numbers in a really long time,” she said.
Noting that documentarian Ken Burns’ multi-part series and documentaries such The Dust Bowl continue to draw many viewers, with the latter attracting upwards of 7.4 million viewers, Hoppe is framing Burns’ forthcoming documentary miniseries The Roosevelts as a kind of American version of Downton Abbey.
“It’s just like Downton but it’s all real,” she said. “I predict it’s going to be a huge hit for us.”
PBS has already parlayed the drama show’s success into documentary series. When the network aired The Secrets of Highclere Castle, the English manor house where Downton is filmed, it “popped a three in the ratings,” Hoppe said. After that, the pubcaster created an entire series devoted to the stories behind British mansions, The Secrets of the Manor House, which is also popular.
“When you have a big hit, you can use that to reel in eyeballs without resorting to fakery,” she said.