It’s a tall order, programming documentaries that can hold their own on a schedule that includes such ground-breaking hits as The Sopranos and Entourage. Viewers expect films that delight, challenge, surprise and occasionally titillate or even terrify, but never fail to push the envelope. That HBO consistently delivers is creditable in large part to a willingness to break with its own traditions.
While Sheila Nevins is the undisputed docu-matrix at HBO, she doesn’t work alone. Vice president of original programming, documentaries, Nancy Abraham joined the documentary division of the company in 1995, and for the past 11 years has been key in developing and producing the pay net’s award-winning doc specials and programs for ‘America Undercover’ and the Cinemax ‘Reel Life’ strand. In 2004, she helped oversee production of hbo’s first primetime doc series, Family Bonds, which follows a bounty-hunting brood in Long Island over 11 x 30-minute episodes. Shot vérité style and crafted without script writers, it’s one step removed from reality programs, which have yet to invade the HBO doc brand. Although the show met stiff competition from similar programs on A&E and other cablers, there are plans to wade into the arena again. The channel is currently in development for a new reality-type doc series, though more specific details are still under wraps. ‘When we see a good story that’s compelling, we’re not going to turn it down just because it doesn’t fit the mold,’ says Abraham, noting that Bonds started out as a one-off but grew to a series when the material lent itself to that treatment.
On balance, Abraham estimates that half of HBO’s doc ideas are generated in-house – an impressive amount considering there isn’t a dedicated development department. Abraham and the other commissioning editors review the thousands of program submissions received themselves. Only those with promise of becoming a great story go into development. Still, about one third of the ideas pursued are ultimately abandoned because they don’t meet editorial standards. And hbo will pursue a doc for a long time.
‘We can’t react quickly to the news of the day,’ says Abraham. Instead, she looks for docs that could potentially air for five years or more. Sometimes that means following – and funding – a story for years before it goes to air. In the current tv climate, where trends come and go and channels launch and fold in less time than is allotted an Oscar winner’s speech, fewer and fewer broadcasters seem willing to take that risk.
Perhaps that’s why HBO enjoys such a strong showing at the Academy Awards each year. While the prestige of that honor is welcome, granting docs the chance to qualify for an Oscar is a tug on resources. As the market for theatrical docs has grown, however, HBO has been at the forefront of broadcasters looking for innovative partnerships that will leverage theatrical exposure.