Like anyone who has ever quit a steady job to launch a business, Jonathan Towers has experienced the excitement, exhilaration and satisfaction that comes with striking out on your own – tempered by the fear, frustration and dread of wondering if you can really make it work.
The leap of faith he took ten years ago by handing in his resignation at CNN in order to produce his own documentaries has resulted in turning his company, Towers Productions, into a non-fiction workhorse. Today, the challenges may be different, but he still keeps the faith.
Launched from a spare bedroom in an apartment in 1989, Towers Productions has grown into a company with a staff of over 90 employees housed within a 23,000 square foot production facility in Chicago. The company is one of the leading producers of non-fiction programming on American television, producing about 70 original hours per year, mostly for A&E and The History Channel (THC), and projecting revenues upwards of US$8 million in 1999.
Towers series currently airing include the long-running American Justice (128 episodes to date) and The Unexplained (55 episodes) on A&E; The Wrath of God, a new weekly series debuting on The History Channel in August; selected episodes of Biography (A&E) and History’s Mysteries (THC); and numerous thc specials and miniseries including The Hidden History of Chicago, The Great Depression and Tales from the F.B.I.
One might think the success of his company would tempt Jonathan Towers to remove himself from the day-to-day management of multiple productions to instead sit in a corner office, stare out at the Chicago skyline and devote his time to the operational realities of running a growing company. Think again. He is all about the writing. He relishes rolling up his sleeves and writing, rewriting, editing and fine-tuning scripts and programs.
‘I’ve tried to stick to what I can do best, and leave the rest to other people,’ he says.
In 1989, the U.S. cable market was at an evolutionary stage where channels were just beginning to sink money into developing original programs. Jonathan Towers was in his late 20s, working in the Chicago bureau office of CNN, churning out one assignment after another, but, he felt, not really getting the chance to tell the stories he wanted to tell. The growing popularity of nonfiction-heavy channels like A&E and Discovery led him to realize there was a real and expanding audience interested in documentaries, a format which had virtually vanished from network TV in the 1980s.
Around the same time, Bill Kurtis, late of CBS News (where Towers got his start after graduating from Yale), was launching his own production company and traveling down the same path Towers had been contemplating. ‘Bill told me about his plans and gave me the kind of inspiration and mentoring that someone in his late 20s needs,’ Towers says in deference to his long-time collaborator.
‘We arrived at a time when the cable networks were looking for identity, and Jonathan and I happened to be lucky enough to find one [A&E] that wanted to make its identity documentaries,’ Kurtis adds.
The Kurtis/Towers relationship has flourished over the years, an alliance based on a mutual journalistic background. ‘We’re like-minded and approach stories in a similar way,’ Kurtis says. The pair have combined to work on such series as Investigative Reports and American Justice, Kurtis being the on-screen manifestation of Towers’ voice.
When Towers quit CNN in 1989 and launched his company from a spare bedroom, he says he started with an investment of US$10,000 from his parents, the only capital his company has ever had. He freelanced and worked nights and weekends for a local ABC News affiliate to make ends meet. ‘This was a company built entirely on sweat equity,’ he says, reflecting back on those turbulent early years. ‘My first desperate hope was that I could make a living.’ It wasn’t until 1991 that he no longer needed to freelance on the side and would begin to hire staff.
Making the transition from a reporter with several years of credentials to a producer with none is a difficult task, and one that becomes more complicated when thousands of dollars of production money are at stake. Sometimes, Towers believes, it takes banging on a lot of doors; sometimes it helps when somebody cracks open the door to give you a chance.
After producing an episode of The New Explorers for Kurtis, Towers got a big break upon developing a relationship with Michael Cascio, then head of documentaries, and current vp of programming at A&E. ‘It takes someone to believe in you,’ Towers says. ‘Michael believed in me. We developed a relationship writer to writer, producer to producer, and developed a mutual respect. Out of that respect came an ability for A&E to trust me and give me a shot at managing bigger projects.”
‘What I liked about Jonathan was that he came from a journalistic tradition, which meant he was devoted to getting the story in as objective and aggressive a way as possible,’ Cascio says. ‘His work embodies the qualities that we look for in documentary programs – objectivity, fairness, and factual accuracy.’
Towers refers to a&e as a childhood romance that has matured into adulthood, an association that now encompasses The History Channel as well. ‘Towers Productions is an extremely intelligent group of producers,’ says Abbe Raven, senior VP of programming, THC. ‘Its programs are extremely well-researched, well-written, accurate and have a nice spirit to them that is very contemporary in terms of being able to speak to today’s audience.’
‘They trust that as the company has grown, I continue to be the gatekeeper, and that I’ve stuck to what I know how to do well rather than sitting around doing payroll or worrying about the office,’ Towers says.
The increased demand over the past decade for non-fiction TV programs has resulted in dozens of production companies getting into the genre, but just as many eventually get out. The economics of the business allow only those companies which have developed efficient means of production to succeed within an environment of typically low license fees and budgets.
Towers believes his company has thrived in this competitive climate because he knows how to do more with less without the final product suffering. Or, as Kate MacMillin, director of development for Towers says, ‘We can make a great PBS show on a cable budget.’
‘He’s a good producer, and that makes him a better businessman,’ Kurtis says. ‘In cable non-fiction, you have to hold your budgets down and yet produce a good product. You have to be smart and learn to work tight and Jonathan has perfected that. It takes a combination of being a good producer to know what the business is about, and being a good businessman to know where to apply the pressure and hold the costs down.’
Towers sees his business strategy as one that will continue to work in the rapidly changing U.S. TV environment. More channels and smaller audiences translate into increased programming opportunities, but at costs that make sense for broadcasters. In other words, lower budgets.
Production-wise, the company has invested heavily in its own facilities and equipment. It does all post-production, including graphics, titling and animation in-house, and constantly reinvests in new equipment and technologies to keep its programs looking network quality. ‘If you spend your money with outside services, you’re going to go broke pretty fast,’ he says. ‘Our theory has been, invest in the software, invest in the artists who can learn to use that software, and your costs for doing that in-house will be less than half and sometimes a third of what it would be to go to a production house that specializes in that.’
The business model Towers follows is the one he grew up with as a reporter – that of Ted Turner and cnn. ‘Turner proved to the rest of us that you could run a TV network differently from the way it used to be,’ he says. Turner’s idea worked for CNN because he hired staff who put their trust in young people and nurtured that talent at a lower cost level, eventually being able to match or exceed the big three network news divisions, he explains.
Towers follows similar guidelines. The average age of its employees is a still wet-behind-the-ears 27 years old. Just as A&E’s Cascio put his trust in him, Towers puts his trust in young and raw talent, drawing from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom are TV virgins, but all with a common link of strong writing ability. ‘I guess I’m known as somebody who, to a fault, respects writing talent above everything else. I guess it’s because I’ve always been comfortable working with writers, it’s my bias,’ he says.
Editorially, Towers focuses on ‘good storytelling’ and on subject matters that have either been underexposed or are in need of reassessment. ‘If there’s anything that I’ve felt I could bring to this business, it’s the relentless focus on storytelling and relentless demand for accuracy and fairness.’
‘Good writing is important in the documentary world and Jonathan doesn’t skimp on it,’ Cascio says. ‘A lot of producers write last. He doesn’t. He writes along with the program or first. Good writing covers a multitude of sins and I think he’s figured that out.’
The company purposely avoids the racy exposés, verité and celebrity docs which pervade much of non-fiction TV, opting instead for difficult historical subjects, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn (recent Biography episodes) with the goal of having these topics make sense to viewers. The often salacious subject matter covered in American Justice offers the temptation to cross the line into sensationalism, an option the company says it declines. Towers strives to present a fair account of all sides of a legal conflict in a way which lets viewers understand both the human drama of the legal system and the law itself.
Towers admits that many of his programs are for niche audiences. ‘We’re not doing Buffy [the Vampire Slayer],’ he jokes. However, he believes that the niche is expanding in step with the graying of the baby boomers, who are becoming more reflective of the world around them and are looking for entertainment which helps fulfill that curiosity, without having it preached at them.
Towers Productions doesn’t retain the rights to any of the programs it produces for A&E or The History Channel, a decision made at the network level. Towers is fully-commissioned to produce these programs and it shares in a portion of home video and after-market sales. This arrangement, says Towers, allows the company to focus on producing instead of searching for funding, a production model A&E has stuck to and believes works for all parties.
The company doesn’t work exclusively with the A&E channels, but because of its long and close working relationship, Towers feels a loyalty to run ideas past them before taking them to other venues. ‘If opportunities arise for us that don’t conflict with A&E, we pursue them,’ he says. ‘But a company like ours has to be very respectful of those loyalties.’
Productions done outside of the A&E/THC banner include: On the Brink: Doomsday, for The Learning Channel; an episode of Intimate Portraits for Lifetime; and several productions for Chicago superstation WGN, most recently, WGN-TV: 50 Years as Chicago’s Very Own.
New Directions Along the Same Road
Among the newer concepts under consideration is the company’s first foray into fiction, The Edge of Nowhere. Based on four books by Lucy Johnston Sypher, it is a historically-based drama about an 11-year-old girl who comes of age on the prairie in pre-World War I America.
‘We’re looking at fiction as carefully and methodically as we would anything else,’ says Kate MacMillin, who adds that PBS has shown interest in the project. The types of fiction projects Towers may pursue will be based on true stories. ‘The fiction ideas seem to come out of the docs that we are producing. Some of these stories would make fantastic dramas,’ she says.
Towers and The New York Times are coproducing a globally-focused documentary series entitled Timezone, based on ‘The Journal’ section of The New York Times. The concept is to engage viewers in world affairs by centering on how one person’s life is affected by a particular issue or event. Oregon Public TV is a coproduction partner for the pilot, currently in pre-production.
‘I’m just trying to make sure that we move with the non-fiction universe as it evolves and understand this marketplace as it changes both economically and editorially,’ Towers says.
Towers crams in some 60 hours of work a week, beginning his writing, rewriting and editing regimen at 6:15 a.m., but making sure that he’s on a train home to Evanston at 5:15 p.m. to spend the evening with his wife and their two sons, ages one and two.
‘Jonathan gives 150% of himself and it’s incredibly unusual to see someone saying, `Here’s everything I have, take it,” MacMillin says.
‘He’s not concerned about the trappings of power,’ Cascio says. ‘He just has a devotion to the truth and well-produced, journalistically-sound programs.’
‘I love visiting his office because there is a lot of energy bouncing around the halls,’ Raven adds. ‘It has that nice young feel of creative energy coming out.’
‘I think it’s gotten more fun over the years,’ Towers says. ‘Part of the pleasure for me is developing these young writers and producers who come here with dreams and talent, and helping them become the documentarians that they want to be. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to develop those kind of writing and production skills.’
Skills those people may use someday, in a spare bedroom of an apartment, to launch their own companies and tell the stories they want to tell.
Timeline: Jonathan Towers
* 1989: Leaves CNN to launch Towers Productions
* 1989-1990: Produces The New Explorers: The New Language of Science for PBS
* 1991-1993: Produces episodes of Investigative Reports for A&E
* 1992: Production begins on the weekly series American Justice (A&E) (128 episodes to date)
* 1993: American Justice is nominated for a CableAce Award for Best Documentary Series
* 1993: Investigative Reports: Sins of the Father is nominated for a CableAce Award for Writing in a Documentary Special and a national Emmy for Investigative Journalism
* 1994: Begins producing Biography episodes (A7E) (5-7 a season)
* 1996: Production begins on the weekly series, The Unexplained (A&E) (55 episodes through 1998)
* 1996: Production begins on The Wrath of God, a mini-series for The History Channel
* 1996: Produces On the Brink: Doomsday, a two-hour special for The Learning Channel
* 1997: Production begins on The Great Depression, a four-hour miniseries for thc hosted by Mario Cuomo
* 1998: Produces The Docks: Trouble on the Waterfront, a two-hour special; Tales from the F.B.I., a four-hour miniseries; and The Hidden History of Chicago, a two hour special for THC airing in 1999
* 1998: Jonathan Towers named one of top 40 Chicago business people under 40 by Crain’s Chicago Business
* 1998: Moves into new offices/production facilities with over 23,000 square feet
* 1999: The Wrath of God becomes a regular weekly series on THC (August)