In the world of unscripted programming, where showing viewers unknown people and places is integral, access is key, delegates attending Realscreen West’s opening day (June 6) heard.
“I think in this day and age, where access is almost synonymous with storytelling, people want to get into subculture. They want to experience how someone experiences their life. Storytelling is now associated with access,” said Knute Walker, SVP, programming and production at Peacock Productions, the long-form production unit of NBC News.
Walker took part in the panel “Trendwatch: All Access Unscripted”, along with Charlie Parsons, VP, development, National Geographic; Abby Greensfelder, co-CEO & executive producer, Half Yard Productions; Nicole Page, partner, Reavis Parent Lehrer; and Aaron Saidman, president, co-founder, The Intellectual Property Corporation.
The panel, moderated by Barry Walsh, content director and editor at large for realscreen, examined what it takes to gain the necessary access to subjects and storylines, and the challenges and complications that are often associated with that process.
On a true crime series, such as Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared, which features 10 different cases per season, the team needs to have access on both sides of the case in order to tell the story accurately. This means having access to both the victim and the perpetrator.
“Most people want to tell stories. Most perps have a burden they want to unload. We have to make them feel they can do that in a credible way,” Walker said.
Half Yard’s Greensfelder said while trying to gain access to a subject, the development team needs to ensure that they give themselves enough time to get that access. Many organizations or subjects contacted don’t want anything to do with television, she said.
Half Yard Productions is behind Discovery’s The Last Alaskans — a show that takes audiences into the lives of the last families allowed to inhabit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. One of the families showcased is Heimo Korth and his wife Edna who have been living there for the past 40 years.
“This is not a person who wants to be on television or who needs to be on television. So, how do we get him to open up his life, which is an act of great trust?” said Greensfelder.
Half Yard had a development executive on the ground, spending time with Korth. This exercise in trust included the promise that producers would not construct the show, but would focus on his authentic way of life.
“As producers today, every project taken out to networks, we will not pitch unless we have talent signed,” she said. Other companies had tried to pitch stories about Korth that never materialized because he didn’t sign on.
Saidman’s advice when it comes to access for producers, is to keep in mind if the show is producible when they are in the development stage of a project.
“[You] have to learn quickly as a producer that an idea isn’t good if it’s not makable, and that often means you don’t have access to that world,” said the co-founder and president of California-based IP creation and production studio, The Intellectual Property Corporation.
Saidman said that for Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, produced by his company, that even though they had the sources they needed, it was still tricky to navigate when they would be accessible. Key figures would sometimes live off the grid, be difficult to contact, or reluctant to participate. Building trust with Leah Remini and Mike Rinder wasn’t the end point for gaining access for the series.
What to do when access has been granted but doesn’t materialize with the desired content
Nicole Page, with Reavis Parent Lehrer, said as someone who represents production companies, she is often the go-between for the production company and the networks about expectations. It’s a balance between wanting to get the best story and access, but also trying to be authentic and not over-promising on what can be delivered.
In cases where producers have gained access but the storylines don’t materialize as originally planned, often there is tension between wanting to keep the network happy and to deliver the content. Page said she has worked with many prodcos that scramble to manufacture material when there isn’t a story.
This could be more problematic in the end, as producers are not only unable to deliver on their promised show, but also risk entering into a legal grey area.
“Be careful of that balance. It may not be worth it to go all the way on one particular project if it is going to not only end up damaging your relationship with the network, but also now you are out there developing a reputation as a company that is not true to its word, and that is going to make trust-building exercises so much harder,” Page said. “You kind of need to know when enough is enough.”
Industry practice of payment for access comes under the lens
With recent controversies like that associated with the production of the now-cancelled Escaping the KKK, the practice of payment for access in the unscripted world has been questioned.
As someone who has worked both on the side of the network and as a producer, Greensfelder said the standards of news production is different from unscripted, which was not born out of a news culture. There is a different ethos and history in the unscripted world than in journalism with most shows having some form of payment for access. This payment isn’t necessarily in the form of money, it could also include making purchases for the subject.
“They [networks] get sensitive once they are in trouble, but they weren’t sensitive until they got into trouble,” she said of the practice of payment for access,” she said.
Saidman said although they started the Scientology docuseries before the controversy over the KKK project arose, they didn’t offer money because they had to operate like journalists for legal reasons. They knew they were potentially facing an organization that had a reputation for being litigious.
“It was important for us to dot all our I’s and cross all our T’s. But I think the fact that networks are now sensitive to it and paying attention to it is probably a good thing,” he said.