Operation Doc Slot

The nervous sense of impending war is as tangible as a tablet of Alka-Seltzer at channels specializing in factual programming in Europe and North America. But, there's no use trying to dissolve it.
March 1, 2003

The nervous sense of impending war is as tangible as a tablet of Alka-Seltzer at channels specializing in factual programming in Europe and North America. But, there’s no use trying to dissolve it.

‘It’s manic here,’ says Fiona Stourton, an executive producer of the BBC’s current-affairs unit in the U.K. ‘You have to deploy [journalists] as if there’s going to be a war, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen. There’s the danger of the extra expense that involves.’

Although so much remains unknown about exactly when, how or even if a war will break out as this story goes to press, this much is clear: TV news organizations around the world are preparing for a conflict that will put their prestige and competitive edge on the line, and at a tremendous cost. CNN alone has set aside some $35 million, or $1 million a day, according to the Wall Street Journal (though CNN would neither confirm nor deny these figures), to cover a war that promises to be like no other. ‘The difference with this story is the scale is a little bigger,’ says Tom Fenton, vice president of international news gathering at CNN.

That provides an added challenge not only to units like Fenton’s that cover breaking news, but also to those trying to prepare and schedule relevant long-form programming. At the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the task has sent executives on a search to acquire top-flight doc programming. Others, such as the BBC and CNN, are concentrating their long-form efforts on internal resources. And the more doc-focused outlets, such as National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel, are strategizing ways to maintain their audience base when up-to-the-minute reports are riveting the world’s attention.

Timing is perhaps the biggest issue, so Stourton’s current-affairs unit at BBC2 – which supplies some of its programs to BBC World, the pubcaster’s information news service – has found ways of creating programming that will be relevant no matter how the conflict evolves. Among the programs being planned in February was To the Brink, which focuses on the behind-the-scenes politicking and diplomacy. ‘If there is no war, it will be about how we’ve avoided it,’ Stourton says. Also in the pipeline at the BBC is a three-part series on the work of intelligence agencies and how they’ve changed in the wake of 9/11. ‘It’s a more reflective and investigative look at intelligence agencies and how far we’ve come since the Cold War,’ she notes, adding that it will debut in 2004.

Like the BBC, CNN has a global infrastructure for delivering hard news that stokes the engine for long-form production. Last September, CNN began rolling out a series of one-hour specials on the escalating crisis. Traditionally, the news cabler uses the CNN Presents banner for special reports and they debut infrequently. But the network has stepped up its specials tied to Iraq, scheduling a new one every four to six weeks and giving them their own unique banner, Showdown: Iraq.

These specials are televised at 8 P.M. on weekends, with the reruns updated as needed. ‘They’re a hybrid between pure documentary and news reports,’ explains Sid Bedingfield, who is executive editor of CNN News Group and oversees the docs.

Further north, the CBC is also increasing its coverage of the situation. ‘We’ve scheduled approximately 25 hours of special programs that focus on some element of the unfolding crisis,’ says Jerry McIntosh, the Canadian pubcaster’s director of docs. In December, the outlet aired a 12-hour special series titled On the Brink, and since January 1, it has devoted its twice weekly ‘Passionate Eye’ strand to the topic. The strand airs on CBC Newsworld, a 24-hour cable news channel, and features 45 to 90-minute films about the stories behind the big news events.

The CBC has journalists in the field reporting on the day-to-day situation, but McIntosh says it’s also ‘scouring the market internationally for documentaries already produced or in production.’ Given the worldwide demand for current yet insightful information on the crisis, McIntosh says the market is competitive. ‘We’ve been forced to increase our standard license of CDN$7,000 to $10,000 (US$4,600 to $6,700) by a small margin.’

McIntosh is aware that the Canadian audience, living right next to the U.S., is trying to figure out where it stands on the issue of war. ‘Is there a point of view that’s particularly Canadian, that has some distance from the American perspective we’re deluged with on a daily basis?’ he asks rhetorically, referring to the spillage of broadcast signals from across the border.

To that end, the CBC and Newsworld recently televised Generation of Hate as part of its hour-long ‘Witness’ series. In the film, Canadian doc-maker Shelley Saywell talks with Iraqi children at a seminal moment in their lives – after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and as a war becomes increasingly likely. ‘Shelley had difficulty attracting a network in the U.S., because [her film] takes an independent point of view on Iraq,’ says McIntosh.

The CBC is also coproducing Helen’s War, a CDN$500,000 ($340,000) doc that focuses on Australian nuclear activist Helen Caldicot, who recently wrote The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex.

Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Channel has decided not to focus on the conflict in special docs, but within its daily newscast, National Geographic Today, which will strive to provide a unique angle. ‘We’re not in the hard-news business. We’re able to look at the world through the National Geographic prism,’ says Andrew Wilk, executive vice president of programming, production and news for the channel.

‘Ours is not to worry about how many scuds are fired, but to talk about [such subjects as] the technology of this war,’ says Mark Nelson, who is VP and executive producer of Nat Geo’s news division and oversees NGT. ‘We’ll try to show something about the people.’ Because the programming volume of the daily news show won’t increase, the budget won’t be taxed by reports that center on Iraq and the Gulf region. ‘I don’t think there are any budget breakers on our horizon,’ says Wilk.

Nat Geo’s main competitor, Discovery, also plans to provide unique analysis. It is currently coproducing a series of docs with The New York Times that will feature the newspaper’s columnist Thomas Friedman, known for his analysis of the Middle East’s various crises. Discovery Networks International’s Rick Rodriguez, executive VP of content, says three or four episodes are planned, with the first one rolling out this month. ‘Internally, we’ve been referring to them as contextual documentaries,’ he says. Other recent programs on the subject include the Age of Terror series, produced by London’s 3BM Television.

Rodriguez says the channel can also serve the public by providing an alternative to the deluge of war coverage they will be subjected to if war breaks out. ‘We face a difficult choice, which has to be made at each regional level: Either compete and try to win back those news viewers with [analysis] that’s of a different pace than the news channels, or counter-program and wait for people to reach overload. I think we will do a bit of both,’ he says.

Rodriguez notes that Discovery’s big oceanic special Blue Planet, coproduced with the BBC, did very well when it premiered shortly after 9/11, so natural history is likely to be part of the plans. Another high-profile show that may serve Discovery’s non-war strategy is the two-part special DNA: The Promise and the Price, by London, U.K.-based Lion Television, which is scheduled for an April debut and marks 50 years since the discovery of DNA.

No matter how broadcasters plan their schedules, there’s little doubt the escalating crisis will continue to influence program choices. ‘This will be a long, long story,’ predicts CNN’s Fenton.

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