Letter to the Editor

December 1, 1998


1998. The year started off on a high note. Still beaming from success at Jackson Hole, we carried over so much enthusiasm. The development department was having great success. We added staff, and re-organized our internal structure to deal with the new business. We then embarked for NATPE, returning with even more optimism.

With seven hours in production at Discovery, and more on the development slate, things looked good in Bethesda. We began work on two new seasons of The Living Edens for PBS, after they had optioned eight new episodes. Pitch meetings were going so well that we began planning the expansion of our L.A. offices to handle all the new production.

But, in February, things started to get a little weird…

It was announced that our boss at ABC Entertainment was transferring to ABC Sports. His successor was a Disney executive. Having witnessed the shutdown of ABC Productions, and the spin-off of DIC to Disney, we all wondered what it meant.

The day after ABC Pictures got the boot, we found out – ‘You’re gone.’

After months of review by the Disney team, during which we were in virtual paralysis, it was announced that ABC/Kane would be sold. So we settled in as pawns in a strange game, as buyers came by to inspect the ‘goods.’ We became information managers, churning out financials, distribution statistics, revenue projections – it went on and on. Production continued in this unsettled environment, but the distractions were taking their toll.

Amidst all this anxiety, September brought a wonderful surprise. ABC/Kane had been nominated for 11 Emmys, ten for The Living Edens alone. At the awards ceremony in New York, we walked away with five trophies. Ironically, little ABC/Kane had won more Emmys than the rest of the ABC Television Network combined, which prompted one executive to exclaim ‘Hey abc, kiss my Emmys!’

When the afterglow had worn off, the angst returned, coupled with some new emotions. As productions were being completed, and the business wound down, staff were being released. Dennis Kane, Nick Durrie, Nick Stein, and Dianne Murphy – with almost 40 years of service among them – were all terminated on September 30. Kane and Durrie had founded the company ten years ago, and their departure meant more than just a few empty offices. Melancholy was the mood. It really was the beginning of the end.

Ironically, October commemorated our tenth year in business, years which produced World of Discovery, several primetime specials and two children’s specials for ABC-TV, Amazing Games and Unbelievable Sports for ESPN, Wildlife Tales and Secret Weapons and many more hours for Discovery. And The Living Edens forPBS. We even sold Buena Vista a series, The Great African Wildlife Rescue, before they dissed us.

With 13 Emmys, six Genesis awards, numerous awards from Jackson Hole, WildScreen, New York Festivals and countless others, we’ve got a lot to be proud of.

But business is business, and we truly understand Disney’s decision. We’ve been called a ‘gnat’ in a distribution empire whose revenues approach the billion dollar mark. The re-release of Snow White to home video resulted in more profit than we could make in a hundred years. An operation like ours doesn’t fit in the plans of the Big Mouse. But surely we have a reputation in the documentary community and a terrific library to show for our efforts.

Doesn’t anyone want to buy us?

Bill Larkin

Director of Administration & Business Affairs, ABC/Kane, Washington office


In response to your October feature, ‘Home is Where the Sales Are: Looking to International Home Video for Fun and Profit,’ I would like to clarify several points about the educational or non-theatrical market, and why it can be an attractive alternative to home video for non-fiction programs.

Although the educational market is a niche market, and not all programs are appropriate, those that are can have extremely high profit margins. Teachers, professors and librarians are able to pay a premium for quality products that are not available elsewhere. In turn, a producer of a documentary can earn a high dollar profit on each program sold. For instance, Films for the Humanities and Sciences sells its programs for US$149.00 each on average, for which a producer will receive a 20% royalty. This is just under $30.00 in royalties for each unit. A strong title over seven years can earn a tidy profit in this after-market.

They key in this sector is to promote programs that are not widely available elsewhere. This does not include wildlife. It does, however, include astronomy, anthropology, architecture, art history, Asian studies, biology, chemistry, business, communications, classics, environmental science, geology, history (American and European) and women’s studies, to name just a few subjects. Most of the programs that perform well in this market are exactly those that would not do well in home video. Who would buy a six-part series on the Hapsburgs to watch on Saturday night? But every European History teacher will want this title to show in their classroom. Likewise, a title on Richard Wright, or Margaret Sanger, or Latin American Women, will be a `blockbuster.’

The educational market is often overlooked, but it is by no means a ‘low margin’ business. Many prominent public television producers, and many other independent producers, have found it to be very lucrative. The secret is to place the appropriate non-fiction programs with a strong distributor who will market them aggressively.

Elizabeth V. Sheldon

Program Acquisitions Manager

Films for the Humanities and Sciences

Monmouth Junction, New Jersey

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About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.