The Gatekeepers

Chosen for their daring vision and influence in programming
December 1, 2002

Nick Fraser

At a time when the U.K. television industry is becoming increasingly fascinated with its own navel, the BBC strand ‘Storyville’ offers a welcome view of the world at large. The man behind the strand is Nick Fraser, a commissioning editor doc producers around the world both fete and fear. He commands more than 50 ‘Storyville’ slots on BBC4, and is guaranteed between 15 and 20 more on BBC2. In 2002, he worked with production companies as far-flung as Iceland, Namibia, France and China, and backed films on subjects ranging from the personal to the political. Barry Steven’s My Sperm Donor Dad chronicled the filmmaker’s search for his genetic father, for example, while Angus Macqueen explored the aftermath of economic collapse in Cry for Argentina.

‘With all these slots I can really use the engine of the BBC to encourage things,’ says Fraser. ‘There are people all over the world making good documentaries. We search these people out and try to help them, or bully them, or cajole them into making shows that work in all sorts of different places.’

These days, the first steps in that process often take place at formal pitching forums. Fraser says he likes these events, because they provide an opportunity for public debate about the direction documentaries are going. ‘Producers are so eager, obviously, to talk about money that it’s hard to make space to discuss what documentaries should or should not be made,’ he explains. ‘I think it’s fun to have public debates over subjects, because it gets people to think about projects.’

Fraser’s comments around the pitching table have won him a reputation for being tough, if not downright withering, but he insists it’s all just talk. ‘Commissioning editors are rather like the old man in The Wizard of Oz,’ he says. ‘They seem to have a lot of power, but it’s all wind. The people who make the films are the important people.’ KB

Stephen Segaller

Stephen Segaller knows how to make good things happen. Three years ago, the director of news and public affairs programming for New York public channel Thirteen/WNET came up with the idea for a primetime doc slot dedicated to international issues. This year it materialized in the form of ‘Wide Angle’, one of the most critically acclaimed offerings from PBS this year.

The strand debuted in July with a run of 10 programs over as many weeks, each addressing a different theme and produced by a diffent prodco. Titles included Greetings from Grozny(Paul Mitchell and Tania Rakhmanova) and Saddam’s Ultimate Solution (Gwynne Roberts). Segaller, who had early on convinced PBS head Pat Mitchell of his idea’s merits, secured national carriage of ‘Wide Angle’, and the series attracted 1.7 million viewers on average – no small achievement in the notoriously America-centric U.S.

PBS has already committed funds to a second season, a smart move on its part. Thanks to Segaller, the public broadcasting service’s reputation as a standard-bearer has been substantially reinforced. SZ

Brian Graden

One year ago Ozzy Osbourne was best known as the legendary ’70s rocker who had miraculously cleaned himself up after living the drugs-and-alcohol lifestyle so hard it should have killed him. That was until MTV rolled out The Osbournes.

The brainchild of MTV president of entertainment Brian Graden, The Osbournes became an instant hit, and typified MTV’s uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist of America’s pop culture-savvy youth. Graden oversaw the birth of the unlikely premise, a postmodern blending of the old-faithful sitcom program with the celebrity-focused reality-show. It broke ‘genre molds’ in ‘unexpected ways,’ he noted at the time of its premiere.

Graden continues a tradition of innovation at MTV when it comes to non-fiction programming. Truth be told, the innovative Santa Monica, U.S.-based company has been developing reality programming since the early 1990s.

The voyeuristic Real World series premiered in 1992, and Road Rules, an open-ended extreme road-race concept, debuted in 1995. The channel is also a platform for harder-edged fair, such as the Staying Alive series of documentaries on AIDS. MS

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