The Documentary Channel
Skewed slightly male, ages 24 to 48
(500,000 of which tune in once a week)
3.9 million Canadian households
(total digital audience)
Director of programming
‘If a film has a natural home somewhere else, [we send it there]. If it’s about food, current affairs or sports, we send it to the Discovery Channel. If it’s about World War II, we send it to History.
‘In general, we try to have unique, feature length, director-driven films you just wouldn’t conceive of seeing anywhere else,’ says Burns. ‘We’re the home for the iconoclastic, one-off film.’
There isn’t a common thread that runs through the films aired on The Documentary Channel – except that they are hopefully all good, says Burns. He’s also usually interested in projects nobody else is choosing. In other words, films that aren’t genre-driven.
While the channel usually passes on projects that fit easily into the war film mold, one notable exception is Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winner Fog of War, which makes its world TV premiere exclusively on The Documentary Channel in November. ‘[Fog's] interest is greater than those interested in war and politics,’ explains Burns. ‘It becomes a general interest film.’
He says many of the channel’s other films are also theatrically released, such as Hot Docs hit Stupidity – the most popular film he’s commissioned specifically for the channel.
Running at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., the channel’s ‘The Film You Are About to See’ strand plays feature length films, while its ‘Exposure’ strand plays edgy, sexy programming at midnight, including HBO’s Taxicab Confessions and America Undercover. (TDC is the exclusive purveyor of HBO docs in Canada.)
Burns advises that the number of originally commissioned films – which currently fill between five and 10% of the channel’s schedule – will continue to escalate, because TDC has unlimited rights to those films. He expects that in a year or two the number of commissions will grow to 25%.
Don’t Need It
Lifestyle concepts have no place on TDC. ‘I don’t even think we are permitted, by condition of license, to show that sort of thing,’ says Burns. ‘But even if we were, we wouldn’t. On a certain level, it poisons our credibility as a deliverer of great films. It isn’t that we hate reality shows, we just wouldn’t want to run them back to back with Fog of War.’
What’s On Now
Burns rhymes off a long list of films to be aired on TDC in coming months: Spellbound, My Architect, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, The Last Victory and Long Gone. By condition of license, the channel must invest 47% of its revenues from subscription and advertising from the preceding year into Canadian productions. Rather than spending it on a lot of hours, Burns says he wants to put large amounts on individual films.
One such film is Four Wings and a Prayer, a CDN$1.2 million (US$930,000) HD doc TDC has commissioned with France 2 and Canada’s NFB. It follows the migration of a monarch butterfly for one year. Says Burns: ‘It’s an immense, unbelievable, spectacular journey.’