Summit Keynote Address

Chris, Cramer, the President of CNN International Networks, shares some of his thoughts on documentary filmmaking today.
February 21, 2002

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to you at the start of the 2002 Realscreen Summit and give you this Valentine’s Day address.

I want to offer you a few romantic notions and maybe about the work you are involved in.

I’d like to talk to you this morning about the sheer power of the documentary to ‘make a difference’

About some of the broadcasting issues, and I hope some of the lessons learned, following the events of September 11th

And also to offer you some of my own thoughts – a crystal ball look ahead – on what tactics are necessary for ensuring a healthy long form programming industry.

And finally, filmmaking ‘in harms way’. The dangers you face and what you might do about it (spare a thought for the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl this morning)

As today is February 14th, how fitting to begin my remarks with a Valentine’s Day story about when I took my American partner to the very romantic Italian city of Verona last year. After paying the mandatory visit to the Romeo and Juliet balcony, we found ourselves very late at night beneath the city, in the catacombs, the roman ruins, casually looking at some exhibition about war correspondents and their photographs or something.

It was about midnight, beneath the city of Verona. There was no one there and yet, as we turned a corner,we happened upon a dozen or more people clustered around a tv set ,watching Sorious Samura’s remarkable documentary on Sierra Leone, Cry Freetown, a film commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 and CNN, produced by Insight News and Ron McCullagh, who is in the audience here this morning.

Here was a film which was so compelling that it was quite literally capable of stopping inebriated tourists in their tracks. The audience was entranced by a film which, presumably for many of them, wasn’t even in their own language. That’s what I mean by making a difference. The power of the documentary. The power that many of you here in the audience hold this morning.

Something quite similar happened in my home in Atlanta, Georgia, in early summer last year when I invited a small group of friends around for dinner. I sat my guests – none of them media folk – sat them down to watch a rough cut of Saira Shah’s documentary about the treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Beneath the Veil, which CNN had also picked up with Channel 4.

This was not after September 11th. This was three months before – long before many people in this country knew where Afghanistan was on the map, let alone what was going on in that country.

And my dinner guests were entranced – in fact they were horrified by what they saw. ‘We didn’t know that,’ they told me. Very simple words, but ones that pack a punch for sure and warrant repeating: ‘I didn’t know that’… ‘If only you had told us before.’ So much for the U.S. audience not caring about the outside world. It wasn’t true before September 11th and it sure as hell isnt true now.

That’s the responsibility all of us here today have.

Maybe the only good thing to come out of the events of the past few months is to produce a window of opportunity for the factual program-maker here and around the world. A little skylight which has been forced open and through which we can all shine a light for our audiences.

I got angry after September 11th. I got angry about how I felt some of the media here in the States had let the public down when it came to preparing them for the tragic events of that day. I wrote an op ed for a french newspaper le Monde in which I argued that the bulk of the media here – with one or two notable exceptions – had sold the American public very short when it came to covering the outside world. And, the crime was not restricted to us here in the States. In other countries, too, news organizations – newspapers and broadcasters – had lost their way in demonstrating what their mission should be.

Many of us in positions of influence had subscribed -indeed had perpetuated – that myth, that oh-so-dangerous myth, that the public didn’t give a damn about the outside world. The myth went – you know it well – that entertainment, lifestyle and medical stories were all that matter.

Oh, and thoughts on how to get rich quick. That ‘reality tv’ is what it’s all about. That real life is defined by a dozen or so morons on a desert island working out who lays who next. (And how often. And whether they can get away with it away from the camera.) That’s what rings the public’s bell. All the focus groups tell us that – q.e.d – it must be true.

Think back to the summer of 2001 and the news agenda prior to september 11th – sort of makes my point. We had the excitement of the 11 day stand off between the U.S. and China back in April, but for real news that was about it. We had to make do with a diet – well more of a feast really – of Gary Condit and his girlfriend. Did he or didn’t he ??? An outbreak of bad tempered shark attacks around the u.s coastline. Actually fewer last year than most years before. And, the drinking habits of George Bush’s daughter.

Hardly the stuff that the history books are made of.

Not that any of us should feel complacent about where our heads were. Many of us – most of us maybe – were feeling the effects of the economic downturn, recession, call it what you will. Fighting what we thought in the news business was a tough struggle to protect our international bureaus, our international coverage and the integrity of our international reporting. Here, I think most of the media had already given up.

Disturbing to think that before September last year the three main broadcast networks in the U.S. had a grand total of 16 foreign bureaus between them. CNN has 31, the BBC nearly 50 andReuters nearly 80 capable of doing TV alone. Another 120 for Reuters news and business.

The tragedy of this retreat from coverage – this retreat from journalism, explanation and knowledge – was that highly intelligent exceutives actually saw fit to support it. (I heard one U.S. network executive stand up at a conference like this last year and defend this cutback, Which is corporate loyalty gone mad.)

I think that a large part of the media here and elsewhere – and it’s print as well as broadcast – have committed a far worse crime than trivialising the news or cynicism or arrogance that the rest of the world doesnt matter (foreign news ain’t sexy). They’ve utterly failed to make the significant stories around the world compelling enough to watch and appreciate.

And I’m indebted to a good colleague for this phrase: They’ve failed to make the important interesting.

One of the reasons was our retreat from the commitment to cover the world as it should be. The decision by many organizations to shut up shop overseas and rely on agencies or stringers, or to practice the art of parachute journalism.

Throw your staff on a plane when something big happens in a foreign land…

First class of course… Bung em a few newspaper clippings to read on the flight

And bingo you’ve got it covered. We have seen it a lot recently.

A broadcast star flies into a foreign land for a few days of exposure, and works out long before he or she arrives who the good guys and the bad guys are, prances around for the camera, a couple of weeks in the local Holiday Inn – and back to the office for a hero’s welcome.

If that is what international journalism has come to in the year 2002, then God help us.

There has got to be a greater need than ever before for the inquisitive reporter on the ground. The correspondent with a sense of wonder, a keen sense of awe.

We need to invest more than ever in the permanent deployments of our correspondents and reporters overseas. Their wisdom is too important, too valuable and far too precious to be confined to base and wheeled out for the occasional spectacular.

So, will September 11th change all that ?

It’s been a painful experience. A very rude reminder for you and me, I think, that we have a duty, a public service duty, a civic duty if you like, to prepare our viewers for what might happen. The public’s anger, very real anger, directed at us, the media, after September 11th should in fact give us renewed faith in what we do.

For documentary makers and those who encourage and commission them, I do believe it should have provided fresh inspiration. And that window of opportunity,that information skylight I spoke about, is now wide open – maybe for the forseeable future. For all of you.

An opportunity to produce significant,relevant and compelling programming which folk will watch and watch in large numbers. Not the shallow, titillating, flash-in-the pan commissions which may have prevailed before. An opportunity to dump the banal, meaningless programming we have seen in recent years. Replace them with meaningful documentaries which can provide the background ,the context to the news of the day. The intellectual drill down. The primer for those with a renewed interest in the world around them.

What a delight it would be if we played a very small part in renewing folk’s interest in the world. Somebody told me recently that the average pre-school child asks 125 questions a day…you know that’s true!!!!!

And – wait for it – the average adult asks how many? Six! They tell me the brain goes soft. (Where’s the beer?? What’s on HBO??? Why are we watching Fox News and not CNN???) Six questions a day. It’s sad.

What a thrill it would be if you managed to crank that number of questions up by just a few.

I do have the privilege of knowing a few of you here this morning. And i know the passion that all of you feel for the craft of film making . And your passion for the world.

I have sat on both sides of the fence – or on three sides of the fence, if that’s possible. As a reporter for some years. As a newsgathering producer and manager at the BBC for more years than I care to mention, Where I observed a vibrant news, factual and documentary filmmaking culture which benefitted from public money to provide some of the best reporting and analysis available. A privileged existence certainly, but one in which the finest traditions practised by the industry continue to flourish. The entire industry has benefitted from nourishment at the breast of Auntie BBC. A good few of them here today I can see.

In more recent times I’ve observed the development of our craft through a wider lens at CNN, as head of the international channels and websites. And, it’s from this most recent vantage point that I want to applaud all of you for what you do.

And, maybe spend a few seconds applauding CNN – and Ted Turner – for his vision when it came to supporting not just breaking news around the world. Remember he invented the genre on television. But also for supporting and for funding documentaries. Tough documentaries. Ted’s passion for the world is well known to us all. As is his – how shall we describe it – his personal brand of candor. But, he was genius enough to see the appetite for global television news.

He also said that nuclear war would be the death of cable tv as we knew it(which is tough to argue against).

Ted’s been fighting the battle for factual programming for years. He put his money where his mouth was to set up Turner Original Productions under Pat Mitchell (now head of PBS). They were determined to tackle tough subjects, first for Turner’s entertainment channels and then in 1997 for CNN.

Running documentaries on a news channel was a controversial subject – inside and outside the company. How do you possibly guarantee air time on a breaking news format?? (And, there were a few times when we ran the titles and then crashed out for something else.) And, some of these films were not cheap – I think we are still paying for Cold War and Millennium!

But, as a channel controller it occurs to me that we have a special responsibility to engage the overseas audience on a broadcast platform which wouldn’t normally run long form. And it countered at a stroke the past criticism that CNN was – shall we say – a mile wide and an inch deep.

* No analysis.

* No depth.

* No texture.

With the right on and off screen promotion, it has delivered real patina to our brand in a way we couldnt have envisaged. It reinforced the view that we cared about the world – not big audiences, but influential ones.

Where Ted and Pat started, Vivian Schiller – known to you I’m sure—Vivian has continued. Continued to commission truly great films such as Nic Robertson’s Dying for Peace on Northern Ireland – last month’s Dupont winner. And Sorious Samura’s Cry Freetown and Return to Freetown and Exodus. Tough, gritty, hard to watch, hard to turn away from. Impossible to switch off.

And, if their heads do turn, many are looking to the internet, the web for greater knowledge and gratification on these difficult subjects, which amplifies the urge for in-depth long form programming even more. Futher bolstering the importance of the web, I read a report last week that said that one-half of the population in this country is using the industry and eslewhere–the digital divide is closing as we speak.

We had seen this pattern long before September 11. Cross promotion of the web and tv was fulfilling a need for a greater depth of knowledge. Companion sites for documentaries drawing a large amount of web traffic. And, in the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center, millions of online users learned more about the Taliban government by clicking through the interactive application explaining the history of the governing rule in Afghanistan.

But, powerful documentaries are not all about wars – bombs and bullets. Take for example The Proving Ground, a harrowing account of how a sport such as yacht racing can turn into tragedy, or Charlene Hunter Gault’s simply stunning account of how a generation – or maybe two or three – is disappearing to AIDS in South Africa, in A Dream Deferred. Each different, each utterly compelling and each of them what the audience expects from you and me.

And then Saira Shah’s prescient work from Afghanistan , Beneath the Veil, and then Unholy War, when she went back to Afghanistan at the height of the fighting after September 11th.

I said earlier that CNN aired Saira Shah’s first documentary several weeks before September 11th. Channel 4 aired it in June last year with considerable success. Its success on both channels might have been a fluke of course. Might have been down to massive promotion or a dull night on other channels. But, I like to think it represented one of those films which not only touches all of us, but is a stepping stone for the audience. Something that reinforces that appetite which exists in many viewers to be shown something difficult (something which is the opposite of instant gratification).

And, the partnership between CNN and Channel 4, certainly pointed the way to how many commissions are working these days. National Geographic and NBC have worked particularly well in recent months over the promotion and screening of their Pearl Harbor documentary, and drew much greater audiences than they might have separately. In last month’s Variety, Michael Katz from A&E said financial contraints have brought much more sharing across various broadcast and cable platforms. And, Rick Rodriquez from Discovery Networks has added that he’ll be more proactive about looking for partners on future projects.

Partnerships – some would say unholy alliances – are the way of the future. They perpetuate healthy business, (a virtuous rather than a vicious circle), because you, the documentary makers, need to know that your work will be shown, cherished, promoted and not made a scapegoat if the ratings were not what the networks wanted.

But, I am well aware of the frustrations that partnership commissions can bring the independent. One small indie that we work with pleaded with me recently for CNN to be the single commissioner for him. He much preferred to work with one editorial partner rather than trying to satisfy two or three. In fact, I heard it said that CNN leaves indies alone to get on with their film – offers light touch editorial guidance.

He listened politely to me while I droned on about the six or seven major changes I would make before transmission, and then kind of gently let me know that it had been broadcast the night before. (I think that’s what they mean by light editorial touch.)

Let me end on a note which is very dear to my heart, though I doubt it will feature on your program of events this week – maybe next year – that of safety.

And, how we the broadcasters and you the filmmakers should be partnering to keep you out of harm’s way.

It’s a pretty humbling thought that something like 100 journalists and production staff have died on location around the world last year. (If you remember, eight in Afghanistan alone in a single week. And, that 100 represents the ones we know about.) One commentator in Britain wrote recently that it’s now safer to be a member of the fighting forces than a representative from the media.

What is irrefutable is that journalists, and those who work with them, have become legitimate targets.

For those of you who work with big broadcast partners, there is obviously a level of protection which the single indie – operating maybe on spec, without a commission – does not enjoy. Clearly, when Sorious Samura and his team from Insight News were arrested in Liberia in the summer of 2000, Channel 4 and CNN were able to make things decidedly uncomfortable for the Liberian government to get them out. But they were the lucky ones.

If we the broadcasters are to ask you the filmmakers to put your arses on the line, then there’s more to that bargain than money alone. We have to be prepared to train and equip you, yes and insure you against what might happen. We should make no distinction between you and the staff that work for us.

Some of the more responsible broadcasters around the world – BBC, CBC, NBC, CNN and some of the film agencies like Reuters and APTN – have partnered up recently to issue guidelines for safety when operating in hostile areas. These guidelines offer no distinction between staff and freelancers. It would be only right if some of the distinguished tv channels represented here this week were able to add their names to this campaign. We are all part of the same team. And we shouldn’t be cutting any corners when it comes to the safety of those who work with us or in our names.

To end, I see independent film makers as international town criers for society. You are out there to tell us when all is not well with the world (journalistic barometers if you like). You are there to detect, report and document shifts in society. Expose evil. Recognize the heroic. You’re there to force the audience into that magical emotion,those magical words, ‘I didn’t know that’. And you are certainly there to make a difference.

I salute you all.

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