Upfront: Non-fiction News

September 1, 1998


Although the parties involved would not comment, a source at Washington-based ABC/ Kane confirms Disney has the award-winning production company up for sale.

While requests for a comment from Disney’s corporate public relations department went unanswered, RealScreen has learned from ABC/Kane sources that the broadcaster is hoping the sale will be completed by the end of the fiscal year. Several offers have been tendered, including one from ABC/Kane themselves.

Disney has reportedly expressed its preference to keep the company intact and sell it off in one piece, but will consider all options, which could mean divesting of the library and production facilities individually. Disney has issued no guarantees to ABC/Kane staff that their jobs are secure, telling them only to continue on a `business as usual’ basis until a decision is made. The producer has existing multi-year commitments to pbs and Discovery, among others.

ABC/Kane recently garnered ten Emmy nominations for The Living Edens, including acknowledgments for cinematography, sound/ audio, editing and music. Also being recognized with a nomination for writing was Tales From the Tomb, a special for ABC’s World of Discovery, a natural history slot the network cancelled a year ago.

One source at the production company commented on the irony of the unexpected turn of events: ‘The company that just spent over two billion dollars building an animal park in Orlando has no room for a documentary company that specializes in natural history.’

While any speculation on the rationale behind the sale would be guesswork, the news of the impending sale comes as Disney announces a US$600 million bid for National Hockey League broadcast rights in the U.S. over the next five years. Disney’s ESPN is in a dogfight with FOX Sports for domestic sports supremacy. Fox now controls the rights, with a five-year, $155 million deal, but the deal expires next season. Brendan Christie


Tim Gardam, recent controller of news, current affairs and documentaries at Channel 5 (U.K.) has been appointed the new director of programmes at Channel 4. This is the No. 2 post to chief exec Michael Jackson.

The recent departure of Steve Hewlett was a blow for the company as his brief included arts, science, history, music, education, multicultural, religion and docs. His exit led Jackson to step up the search for a director of programmes with the intention of amalgamating Hewlett’s role into it. The post had been vacant since the departure of John Willis last fall.

The result of the change for other, unsuccessful candidates is likely to be the resignation of Karen Brown as current deputy director of programmes and a bright future at the bbc for Jane Root, now staying as head of its Independents’ Commissioning Unit. Andy Fry


Stephen Lambert, the respected editor of BBC2′s Modern Times, has surprised the U.K. industry by leaving the corporation to join fast-growing indie producer RDF.

Lambert, who has taken a stake in the company, was seen as a rising star at the BBC. He will take on the role of head of programmes at RDF, which is best known for the controversial environmental series Against Nature and the critically acclaimed one-off documentary Tottenham Ayatollah.

Lambert’s departure has not ended his relationship with the BBC. He is still in charge of the autumn run of Modern Times and various other projects which he has been executive producing.

However, his departure is the latest in an alarming trend. Aside from Steve Hewlett’s departure from C4 earlier this summer, another trio of respected BBC producers, including Jeremy Mills, took the plunge into the indie sector last year with the formation of Lion Television. Andy Fry


CBS has named Nancy Tellem as president of the company’s entertainment division. Tellem succeeds Les Moonves, now chief executive of CBS Television, and becomes the second woman to head a network’s entertainment division, the other being Jamie Tarses at ABC. Tellem will oversee CBS’ factual output which includes 60 Minutes and 48 Hours.

In a separate announcement, Disney named Anne Sweeney president of Disney/ABC cable networks. Sweeney, previously executive VP, replaces Geraldine Laybourne. Laybourne departed in May to set up her own company. Disney’s cable interests include The History Channel, A&E and E! Entertainment. Sweeney says she will be looking at new and developing properties.

In August ABC confirmed that Patricia Fili-Krushel is to become the highest ranking woman in American television. Fili-Krushel is to replace Preston Padden as president of the ABC network. Padden is moving to Washington to become a lobbyist for parent company Disney.



Discovery Communications has taken over the reins of money-losing New York-based cable channel CBS Eye on People, operating as the managing partner. The channel, which has reportedly lost between US$50 million and $70 million since launching in March 1997, will operate as a joint venture between Discovery and CBS. It will be renamed Eye on People and Discovery will fund future investments in the channel.

Discovery did not put up any money to acquire its 50% share but has committed itself to covering the costs of running the channel until it matches CBS’ investment to date.

Discovery and CBS first began discussing a partnership to create a people-focused channel a decade ago, and when CBS launched the channel it intended to eventually create programming with Discovery.

‘We have long been a believer in the programming concept behind Eye On People,’ said John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery, in a statement. ‘The network’s high quality, reality-based programming is a perfect extension of Discovery’s non-fiction networks.’

The channel will continue to focus on programs about famous people. CBS News will continue to generate most of the programming through original productions and its own library, but Discovery plans to begin developing shows for Eye On People soon. A ten-part series entitled Legends, Icons and Superstars of the 20th Century, produced by David L. Wolper, is set to premiere in November.

Discovery is optimistic it can increase the number of subs. The service currently reaches about 11 million homes in the U.S. John Kennedy


Mike Phillips has been appointed director of international television at BBC Worldwide. One of Phillips responsibilities will be to acquire programmes from indie producers. Phillips joined BBC Worldwide in June 1996, making the switch from Pearson PLC, where he served as head of Thames Television.

Sheila Arnold has joined Discovery Communications Inc. as president of Discovery Channel Retail. Previously, Arnold was senior vice president, general merchandise manager at Natural Wonders. Arnold will help spearhead the conversion of The Nature Company chain of retail outlets into Discovery Channel Stores.


ITV has commissioned London’s LWT Productions (Ibiza Uncovered, Airline) to make a 20-part history of Christianity to coincide with the new millennium. The series is to be fronted by the respected arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, controller of arts at LWT.

Each episode will be one-hour and tackle a different century since the birth of Christ. The format will combine a documentary film with a lengthy debate chaired by Bragg.

ITV has also unveiled its first fall schedule since director of programmes David Liddiment took over scheduling responsibilities last year. As expected, it contains a much greater commitment to factual shows in peaktime.

Docusoaps, in particular, feature strongly with Granada TV’s Motorway Lives and Carlton/Shearman Productions’ The Estate Agents. The creator of Hollywood Women, September Films, has also been commissioned to make a series called Teen Spirit. Andy Fry


L.A-based distributor Unapix Entertainment has formed a television production unit to produce children’s and dramatic series as well as reality programming for U.S. network and cable outlets.

Veteran TV producers Jim Coane and Mike Fleiss have been hired as president and exec VP of the division, Unapix Productions, which recently opened new offices in Culver City, California. The duo will create and develop short and long-form non-fiction programming for broadcast and cable networks.

‘A number of broadcasters have expressed an interest in our network specials,’ says Coane, ‘which have the potential of being developed into series.’

Unapix Productions will also expand into the children’s arena. Among the projects in development is The Real Deal, a live-action reality series for children.

Before joining Unapix, Coane worked as a producer at Columbia TriStar Television. Fleiss created and produced over 40 one-hour network non-fiction specials like ABC’s Before They Were Stars with Nash Entertainment. They have worked together on projects like the Fox series Totally Hidden Video and Discovery Channel’s Hollywood Stuntmakers.

The company also handles special interest and entertainment home video titles.

In other news, the company has promoted Robert G. Miller to president, Unapix North America, which is in addition to his responsibility as executive VP for Unapix Entertainment. ‘We are working to maximize the synergy between all our departments,’ says Miller. Unapix will continue to expand its base in the nonfiction arena, ‘and look for cross media opportunities with publishing, video and merchandising.’ Susan Hornik


Earlier this summer at Licensing 98 International, the annual global licensing event held in New York, gadgets, gizmos, toys and travel were among the new product areas that licensors of non-fiction programming are using to break beyond home video and publishing. Can apparel and action figures be far behind?

Imagine the possibilities: Get your Biography General Patton action figure with the kung-fu grip; Discovery Channel virtual species – keep it alive or it goes extinct; play with your National Geographic baby animal dolls, they scratch and bite like real animals do!

‘The whole category of reality-based products is really in its infancy,’ says Robin Sayetta, vp of worldwide licensing for the Discovery Channel, which began an in-house licensing division in 1997.

Lackluster results for big budget movie licenses and the popularity of brands like Discovery and National Geographic make it an opportune time for non-fiction program suppliers to explore licensing options. Retailers and licensees are looking for safer choices with longer shelf lives, and parents are looking for products with educational appeal, according to Sayetta.

‘The challenge is that there are no models to build upon,’ says Jonathan Paisner, manager, consumer product development, A&E.

United Media, worldwide licensing agent for National Geographic Society, is going the traditional route. It has licensed a broad line of toys including play sets, vehicles, games and plush products that feature ‘fins, feathers, fangs and fur,’ according to Wendi Daniels, director of marketing and sales. The campaign is targeting children to bring fresh blood into Nat Geo readership and viewership, which primarily skews over fifty.

Discovery is targeting families through promo partnerships (including Holiday Inn) and with a line of educational children’s toys under development by Chicago-based Learning Curve International. It also plans to target men with a line of ‘boys’ toys’ and gadgets.

Extending the Biography brand, A&E and EMI/Capital Records have recently released a set of five greatest hits collections of classic artists like Lena Horne and Judy Garland.

Non-fiction licensing opens up new areas not previously exposed to traditional character licensing, such as travel. Beyond its Holiday Inn promo, Discovery is developing a reality-involved experience for kids tied into a major resort. History Channel Traveler, a concept born in 1997, is a partnership with Mayflower Tours and specific historical societies and organizations around the U.S.

Still, it’s in the potential more than the reality where the intrigue for non-fiction based licensing lies. Paisner says it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Biography or History Channel brand could extend to product lines like re-creations of authentic period apparel (like WWII clothing); home furnishings (replicas of historical furniture, classic radios or telephones); games, collectible figurines and perhaps even some sort of educational action figure.

‘Some things may seem completely out in left field today, but in a couple of years they may not be,’ says Paisner. Ed Kirchdoerffer


DCI Europe announces digital line-up

The face of Discovery in the U.K. has changed. Besides the launch of Animal Planet, and the extension of the Discovery Channel to an 18-hour day, three new digital channels have been unveiled. Discovery Sci-Trek, Discovery Travel and Adventure and Discovery Civilizations (all working titles) will air from 8am to 2am daily. DCI’s other digital voice in the market, Discovery Home and Leisure, will also increase its broadcast day from 10 to 18 hours, running from 6am until midnight.

Reader’s Digest & CAA

One of the world’s highest circulation magazines, Reader’s Digest, has cut a deal with Hollywood talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, to help it exploit its real-life stories on television.

The publishing company has specifically said it does not want to set up a TV production company, but is interested in others developing its stories of human triumph into a TV franchise.

Discovery hits new high with Titanic

Discovery’s two-hour live broadcast from the Titanic on August 16th was anything but disastrous. The broadcast was the second-highest rated program in the u.s. cablecaster’s history, gaining a rating of 4.1 in a viewer universe of 74 million. Stardust Visual’s Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster is still Discovery’s all-time winner state-side, with a 4.5 rating.

The program also broke records in Canada with 596,000 viewers, almost double the previous high-water mark.

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