Transformative times at Documentary Channel

Revamped programming, a new and improved web presence and the aim to push into more homes are all part of the immediate future plans for The Documentary Channel (DOC), says president and CEO James Ackerman.
February 17, 2010

Last summer James Ackerman was appointed president and CEO of the Documentary Channel (DOC), and around the same time the channel moved from being a public interest network to a fully commercial channel. Realscreen spoke with Ackerman about the relaunch of the channel last year and the space for docs on the channel in the years ahead.

When the Documentary Channel goes looking for docs to screen on its airwaves, it casts a wide net, says Ackerman. The range of topics is broad – from current events to history to the environment to people – and the lengths and formats also vary. While the vast majority of the docs that will air on the channel fit into a broadcast hour, feature docs and shorts have their place as well. In fact, the channel has recently begun stepping up its acquisition of shorts to help balance out the schedule.

Ackerman says roughly 90% of the docs aired on the channel are acquired, and around 70% of those are at least a U.S. television premiere. While all lengths and genres of documentaries seem to be on the table, the one thing Ackerman seems less interested in is series. The channel currently airs one original series called Doc Talk which takes a deeper look at the filmmakers and subjects behind featured docs, but Ackerman isn’t interested in moving into documentary series.

‘It’s our view that the elements that make a great documentary are at least twofold,’ says Ackerman. ‘One is that this documentary, whatever it may be, takes me into a world I might not otherwise have access to. The second is somewhat related, in that it shines a light on something that needs it.’

The channel went through a transformation last summer when it relaunched as a fully commercial channel. What that change means, says Ackerman, is that DOC must be more responsive to its audience. It also means the company is thinking more about promotions and themed programming. For example, March will be Oscar Picks Month, and each night primetime will kick off with an Oscar-nominated or winning feature or short doc. ‘You’ll see more of that kind of activity where we really focus on themes, stunts, holidays or anniversaries and program around those,’ says Ackerman.

Another key business focus involves growing the distribution of the channel. Currently DOC’s largest distributor is DISH Network, where the channel reaches nearly 14 million homes, says Ackerman. DOC is also currently in the midst of revamping its website, which will relaunch in April with the intention of becoming a one stop shop for all things documentary. It will feature resources for documentary filmmakers and will also stream and sell docs to users.

‘We see The Documentary Channel as the voice of the independent documentary filmmaker,’ says Ackerman. ‘What that means is we want it to be a conduit by which documentary filmmakers can share their craft.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.