Investigating Bill Kurtis

With three top-rated series, executive producer/host Bill Kurtis is riding high on the success of current affairs on cable. Brendan Christie talks to A&E's brand name about his jump from PBS, the growth of U.S. cable and the decline of network...
May 1, 1998

With three top-rated series, executive producer/host Bill Kurtis is riding high on the success of current affairs on cable. Brendan Christie talks to A&E’s brand name about his jump from PBS, the growth of U.S. cable and the decline of network investigative reporting…

‘I have the best job in the world,’ says a smiling Bill Kurtis. The sometimes-stern host of a&e’s American Justice, Investigative Reports and The New Explorers is not what you’d expect in person. With more than 30 years of journalism experience, he answers every question with a deceptively casual confidence.

As identified as he is with his news coverage on cbs, Kurtis is best known to viewers for the work he’s been doing on a&e. As executive producer and host of three series, he has made his mark off-network, joining a select list of personalities who have become cablecaster brands unto themselves.

Trained as a lawyer, Kurtis began his news career in the mid-60s, becoming one of the first foreign correspondents for wbbm-tv, cbs’ Chicago affiliate in 1973. For almost a decade, Kurtis covered international hot spots from Northern Ireland to Africa, sometimes getting a little too close to the action. He managed to get out of Vietnam only days before the fall of Saigon.

Returning to work full-time in the States in 1982, Kurtis joined the CBS Morning News as anchor. The mid-80s saw him move into hour-long documentary with a series for CBS Reports, exploring topics from airline safety to organ transplants.

Endurance has always been a Kurtis attribute. Investigative Reports has aired on a&e since 1991; American Justice began the season after. The u.s. cable network has also been home to The New Explorers, now in its eighth season, for the past year.

The idea for Explorers, a series about the pursuit of scientific discovery, germinated while Kurtis was still at wbbm. After a season on the cbs affiliate, it was picked up by pbs, where it stayed for six years. Lacking support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kurtis gave up the constant fight required to raise the us$2 million-a-year budget for each eight-episode season, and the series jumped to a&e.

‘I found that the appetite of corporate funders, which is where I had to go [for money], was very low, because pbs will only give 15-second credits at the top and bottom, and is very restrictive on wording,’ he says. a&e gave the series a home and a guaranteed source of funding, but security comes at a price: Kurtis only retains about 10% ownership in the work he does for cable.

With demand growing exponentially, a&e keeps Kurtis and his Chicago-based company, Kurtis Productions, in a state of perpetual production. His contract commits him to host every new episode of the three series, as well as annually producing four to eight new Investigative Reports, eight New Explorers, and 22 new episodes of American Justice (the last with coproducer and fellow Chicago-based company, Towers Productions).

Having only an over-worked avid and a permanent staff of 12, Kurtis builds a team for each show from a list of freelancers with whom he’s worked regularly. This allows him to be more flexible and produce less expensively. While The New Explorers usually runs at a budget of around us$200,000 per episode, the other series are produced for roughly half that.

Kurtis and his staff research extensively for each episode to avoid false starts, but blind alleys are unavoidable. A recent Investigative Reports episode on high-tech weapon systems, meant as a topical tie-in to the Gulf War (round two), is now up in the air as the crisis seems to have disappeared overnight. Another on Hillary Clinton, which featured exclusive coverage of her homecoming last November, was well in the works when recent events at the White House disrupted plans. The Clintons rescheduled interviews, putting production into low gear.

Whatever difficulties he may have getting a project to the small screen, Kurtis’ viewers appreciate his approach. He offers several reasons for this, the cablecaster revolution among them. ‘We’re offering information, substance, content, when everybody else is not. a&e has become kind of a home base for people.

‘The other thing is, I think network programming has begun to deteriorate. They’re desperately going after a mass audience, so that usually means a situation comedy most of the time. They’re going after the 18-45 or 18-34 [demographic] based on the theory that… even though it’s the over 50 [group] that have money, once the young people establish a habit, they’ll stick with it.’

Kurtis doesn’t view the drive for ratings as a bad thing, but he questions sacrificing content to reach the lowest common denominator. He is especially critical of network news departments, which seem to have fallen prey to the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality.

‘I spent a lot of time in local television,’ explains Kurtis. ‘It has eroded to the point where I don’t think anybody observes any ethical standards anymore.

‘When Reagan deregulated the broadcast industry, it no longer had the obligation to do public service, like it had to, to get licenses. I got into broadcasting and news because of public service. Since the early 80s, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody mention those two words. It’s an afterthought.

‘Because it has become an incredible profit center, the networks now feel they have to make 50 cents on the dollar. There are very few other businesses you can do that in. Consequently, businessmen – non-broadcasters – got a hold of the stations and have injected the phrase ‘maximize profit’ into the newsroom.’

This criticism might sound out of place coming from a producer who has covered his fair share of murders and corruption, but Kurtis explains that it’s all a matter of proportion and discretion. ‘It’s not wrong to cross that line once in a while, but when you fill out the first ten minutes night after night by covering all the murder stories, then you’re out of balance. Your news judgment is out of whack.’

Whatever his formula, the audience is responding in large numbers, placing Kurtis’ series among the highest rated on a&e. ‘For 20 or 30 years,’ observes Kurtis, ‘we would talk about the grand old days of Edward R. Murrow starting the 60-minute documentary. This is the golden age of documentaries.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.