From cash to credits, the top news stories of 2002

Like the year that preceded it, 2002 was characterized by a series of highs and lows. But, out of the gloom comes a glimmer - the birth of the documentary credits coalition and the remarkable success of 9/11 on a U.S. network. The following are RealScreen's picks of the top news stories of the year.
December 1, 2002

International docs lose airtime

‘The international documentary is virtually dead.’ That is the alarming opening to a study of recent television programming trends in the U.K. conducted by the Third World and Environment (3WE) Broadcasting Project, released in the summer. Losing Reality concludes that the hours dedicated to harder, issue-focused stories fell to as little as six percent of programming in the year ending September 2001, down from 30% in 1989/90. The not-so-satisfactory substitute? Reality TV.

‘At a time when ‘globalization’ is understood to be intimately affecting every aspect of [our] lives,’ the 3WE report states, ‘the continued decline of informative and educative programming on the wider world is a disaster.’

However, all hope is not lost, notes Don Redding, 3WE’s coordinator. He points to Channel 4′s package dedicated to the Indian religious festival Kumbh Mela (Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth, produced by London-based prodco Rex Mundi) as an example of broadcasters providing thoughtful stories in peak hours.

Fight for end credits spawns doc coalition

The Los Angeles, U.S.-based Documentary Credits Coalition (DCC), an ad hoc group representing the International Documentary Association (IDA) and a variety of guilds and unions, was formed mid-year in response to plans by Discovery Networks U.S. to move production credits off the screen and onto a dedicated website. The DCC helped Discovery understand producers’ concerns about the slippery-slope effect that moving the credits might trigger, and Discovery relented – a definite victory for the indie community.

After that, the DCC announced it was putting E.W. Scripps (parent company of HGTV and The Food Network in the U.S., among others) and National Geographic on its ‘watch list.’ Michael Donaldson, the co-chair of the DCC and president of the IDA, says the lobby group’s success is rooted in its membership: ‘It was a broader group than one is usually able to get together on any issue.’

Now that doc-makers have banded together to fight for recognition, maybe program rights will be next. Broadcasters, keep watching…

9/11 pulls in record ratings

Rarely have documentaries commanded such attention as in the wake of September 11. An unprecedented number of viewers flocked to factual programs in primetime, as evidenced by the success of New York-based doc-makers Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s film 9/11, which first aired on U.S. network CBS six months after the tragedy.

Based on 180 hours of footage that includes the moment when the first airliner slammed into the World Trade Center, the film netted an astounding audience for any program, but particularly a doc. Nielsen data indicates 9/11 pulled in 39 million viewers in the U.S., a ranking 31% higher than the number two show for the week. The size of the audience was in the range usually associated with the Super Bowl and Olympic competitions.

The two-hour program ran uninterrupted except for three commercial breaks (totaling seven-and-a-half minutes) from the doc’s sole sponsor, Nextel Communications.

Despite the success of 9/11, don’t expect to see more documentaries on U.S. networks. A November study by the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that ‘irrelevant national news’ once again dominates current-events programming.

C4 plumps and prunes

Mark Thompson’s speech at the Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival in August foreshadowed the major maneuver he was about to execute with money-losing U.K. broadcaster Channel 4.

‘We are trying to approach the Channel 4 schedule not as a legacy of the past two decades, but as if we were launching an entirely new channel,’ the C4 chief said. Scarcely two months later the company rolled out a restructuring plan that saw the layoff of 200 employees in a bid to trim £36 million (us$56 million) a year – this after roughly 100 staffers were let go earlier in 2002.

A few months previous, Thompson had implemented a streamlined commissioning structure. Under the change, non-fiction programming is handled by two main groups: contemporary factual, headed by Sara Ramsden, and specialist factual, led by Janice Hadlow.

Kirch crashes, VU falters and AOL Time Warner wobbles

Time and the markets have not been kind to Germany’s KirchMedia, France’s Vivendi Universal, and the U.S.’s AOL Time Warner. Viewed at the dizzying peak of their fortune in 2001, the three stood among the largest and most wide-reaching media players in the world. But in true Goliath fashion, their success proved only a precursor to a great fall. Kirch’s bankruptcy in April set a German record; VU is furiously shedding staff and assets to avoid financial disaster; and AOL Time Warner is facing investigations over accounting ‘irregularities’ as it tries to marry its CNN to Disney’s ABC News unit. Debts for all three ring in at a total of about US$80 billion.

Perhaps the most direct impact on documentary producers has been the quiet July closing of VU’s Docstar (a distrib owned by Canal+) and the removal of so many euros from project financing in Germany. As Walter Kohler, commissioning editor at Austrian pubcaster ORF, noted wryly about the Kirch collapse: ‘For the small independents…the situation was bad before, and it’s been bad after.’

U.K. axes prodco tax break

Independent doc-makers in the U.K. suffered a heavy blow after the British government called an abrupt halt to the ‘sales and leaseback’ tax scheme for non-theatrical projects, an important source of production financing for tv doc producers. The Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television fought to win some concessions, including a rollback of the termination date (it was effective immediately), but to no avail.

Originally introduced to stimulate domestic film, the tax relief program had become a lifeline for many doc-makers. Charles Brand of London-based prodco Tiger Aspect estimated a loss for this year of £750,000 (US$1.1 million) as a result of the tax break withdrawal and other structural changes in the industry. Tiger Aspect later shuttered its Bristol documentary unit (a distinct entity from Tigress Productions, which remains alive and well) and another programming office in Glasgow.

Without the tax break, U.K. doc prodcos also have less to offer international copro partners. From all the doc-makers: Thank you, Mr. Blair.

Artsworld survives cash crisis

When it comes to broadcasting in the U.K., these are interesting times. The BBC is faring better than most, but many in the commercial sector are struggling to hold their ground – in particular, the fledgling digital channels.

This summer, two-year-old arts and culture digicaster Artsworld suffered the corporate equivalent of a near-death experience when the channel ran smack into a cash crunch, caused in part by stiff competition from the likes of arts rival BBC4.

The airwaves were to fall silent at the end of July, and as the month came to a close the channel’s demise looked inevitable. In the 11th hour, however, pay-TV company British Sky Broadcasting, which carries Artsworld, stepped in with bridge financing.

‘We’re very happy that our investors have put up further money to keep the channel in operation,’ Artsworld head John Hambley noted this fall, adding that the company continues to look for new investment.

Score one for tenacious upstart digicasters everywhere.

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