Summit ’16: Cable nets find unique voices in docs

Programming execs from National Geographic Channel, CNN, PBS, Showtime and Discovery explained how a renewed interest in big-budget docs is helping networks carve out brand identities in a crowded TV landscape.
February 4, 2016

Long-form documentary features and series have remerged in a big way over the last year as a way for cable networks to compete with emerging platforms that are pouring millions into acquisitions and high-end original productions.

“Premium” was a big buzzword at this year’s Realscreen Summit in Washington, DC, but while less constructed documentary techniques are finding their way into all manner of unscripted programming, the big-budget docs are largely playing a brand- defining role at cable nets.

Whereas the boom in reality TV resulted in a homogeneity across networks, the shift to documentaries has become a way for networks such as National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, CNN and History to differentiate.

“What’s so interesting is that you see all the different outlets are trying to find their voice in a very crowded space,” Vinnie Malhotra, SVP of documentaries, unscripted and sports programming for Showtime, told a standing room-only audience during the “Revenge of the Doc” panel on Tuesday (February 2). “People are much more selective with what is going to work with their brand. You really have to figure out what is going to work for you.”

The panel – moderated by Trapped and Gideon’s Army filmmaker Dawn Porter – brought together five network execs who outlined their respective strategies for competing with SVOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, both of which made headlines for reportedly spending millions on doc acquisitions during the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Since Showtime is a subscriber-based cable net, Malhotra’s mandate is the most similar to those of premium SVOD services Netflix and Amazon, or an HBO. He commissions and acquires cinematic feature docs and series pegged to issues and personalities in the zeitgeist, such as The Circus: Inside The Greatest Show On Earth and Weiner, which the network picked up at Sundance.

“I’m the luckiest person on the stage because I have a bulletproof brand that is not narrowly defined,” explained Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive and general manager, general audience for U.S. pubcaster PBS. “It’s about figuring out the strategy for each project.”

At PBS, that might mean scheduling binge-watch for a Ken Burns miniseries or pushing to reach a digital audience for indie documentaries.

She also rebuffed the notion that PBS should be chasing younger viewers to compete with Netflix, arguing that as a pubcaster her mandate is broad, and includes such films as the doc Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which played at Sundance.

“We are much more about diversity, inclusion and people that are underserved. We’re not just about chasing a demographic,” she said.

Echoing National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe‘s comments a day earlier, National Geographic Channels’ president of original programming and production Tim Pastore said the network is using a “sizeable investment” from parent company Fox to commission big-budget documentaries and doc series.

“We’re not dropping hours,” he clarified. “We’re rearranging where the emphasis and focus should be.”

“We’ve been paying a little too close attention to what our competitors are doing,” he added. “We’ve been running their race instead of running our own race.”

To illustrate the kind of filmic projects he is looking for, Pastore showed a teaser for the Antarctica-set Deep Freeze. The National Geographic Studios-produced series follows scientists living on the isolated continent and the support staff that “keeps them alive.”

He wants the network to be more “unsuspecting” in the ways it approaches science, adventure and exploration and emphasized the importance of “inside access to a topic.”

Discovery Channel EVP of docs and specials John Hoffman is taking a similar approach, but stressed that environmental issues will be a key focus in the network’s doc programming in addition to adventure and exploration. After the global roll-out of Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction, Hoffman is already looking at programming slots for 2018 and 2019.

During the session, he played a sizzle reel with a tagline that couldn’t have been more direct: “Back on brand and better than ever.”

The network also has a few limited doc series in production, but Hoffman did not spill details. He added that the environmental focus is new for the channel and a “big opportunity for the people in the room.”

For the past few years, CNN has been using documentaries such as The Hunting Ground and Blackfish as well as host-led series such as Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain to refocus the cable news network’s brand as one that presents strong points of view on issues.

The network’s EVP of talent and content development, Amy Entelis, has started noticing trends in what type of docs and series work. She noted that serialized series or cliffhangers do not work for CNN because the network programs in response to current news events.

“We have better success with things that are close-ended,” she explained, adding that docs and episodes about timely topics will be repeated multiple times around a breaking news story and rate “very well.”

The network also commissions a mix of talent-focused shows, such as Parts Unknown and the upcoming United Shades of America starring comedian W. Kamau Bell; limited series, such as The Sixties; and narrated series such as Race for the White House featuring Kevin Spacey.

Although each network has different needs, one thing they all want is access, which can sometimes take years to negotiate. So although the bar for entry has risen at these networks, a new producer can potentially break by delivering exclusive access to a subject.

“The level we’re all competing on has to do with access,” said Hoffman. “Access is everything. That’s the first thing I’m looking for and then I’m looking at what team is bringing it to us.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.