In 1997, realscreen published its first issue. Over the past two decades, we’ve charted the evolution of the non-fiction content industry, chronicled the rise of reality, and explored the emergence of new platforms aplenty. In honor of 20 years of realscreen, we’ve rounded up several top producers and network execs to discuss the evolution of your industry, from their perspectives, in our Real Deal Q&A series.
Chief programming executive, GM, PBS
Over the past decade, cable networks in the U.S. have moved away from documentary programming towards more reality-oriented fare, leaving docs on TV as the domain of public television. Now, some are dabbling in docs once again. What does that say about the genre, and how much of a priority is it for PBS in the latter half of this decade?
It is much easier and more cost effective to make formatted reality programs than one-off, investigative or longitudinal documentaries, so it is no surprise that reality became the bread and butter of many cable nets. Set it in an exotic location, fold in some entertaining characters, whip up a dramatic surprise — and voila — TV gold! But at a time when media is under fire, there are deep partisan divisions and questions of trust around our government, and climate change is starting to ravage the world we live in, it is heartening to see media organizations around the world taking a bigger interest in documentary. It is an excellent genre for exploring the important truths about people and our culture.
Documentary has been a staple of PBS programming since its inception. We have stayed the course with it, and it will continue to be a huge part of what we do for many years to come.
The good news for everyone is that people love video content and lots of it. And I think the good news for PBS is that in a more fragmented media environment, brand will matter more than ever.
What other non-fiction genres do you think may be due for a renaissance, either via PBS or television in general?
I hope to see what we used to refer to as ‘Experiential History’ make a comeback. (Full disclosure: back in the early 2000s I was on the producing side, and these were my babies.) PBS partnered with Wall to Wall Television and Channel 4 for 1900 House, Frontier House, Manor House and Colonial House. They were wildly successful and really entertaining ways of exploring the tools, technology and the lives of everyday people in the past. The BBC has stayed in the game with Turning Back Time and Home for Dinner, Home for the Weekend, et cetera, but I would love to be part of bringing back a really epic swing at this type of history.
Having been on both sides of the fence as a producer and network exec, and with the added perspective of working in public television, what do you think the television industry will look like by 2020?
Where different networks are going to land with digital distribution is a game you have to follow daily. There are some new powerhouses like Netflix and Amazon, and while they make competition for the best content tougher for those of us on the network side, they also create more opportunity, and dollars, for producers to go after. A totally simplified world of skinny bundles and cable going off a cliff was never going to happen, but there will certainly be winners and losers as we see consolidation like the Scripps-Discovery merger, while at the same time disintermediation means content can be supplied more directly to consumers through platforms like YouTube and Facebook.
The good news for everyone is that people love video content and lots of it. And I think the good news for PBS is that in a more fragmented media environment, brand will matter more than ever. We’ve worked hard to ensure PBS is a trusted and valued brand that audiences know will deliver content of the highest quality available across PBS stations and a wide array of digital and mobile distribution platforms including PBS.org, AppleTV and Roku, among others.
What’s your favorite non-fiction series or doc from the past 10-15 years?
OJ: Made in America was absolutely brilliant television. It was documentary at its best. You went into it thinking you were revisiting a pretty well-known story, and you came out of it thinking about culture, about race, about who we are as a country. Having one of the best documentary series in years come from ESPN — a sports network — really underscores the Wild West we are currently living in in the factual space, and in television generally.
What words of wisdom would the Beth Hoppe of 2017 offer to 2007′s Beth Hoppe about how to navigate a career in this industry?
I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to work in this industry in many different jobs and see it from many different sides. Looking back, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I suppose I would tell the 2007 me to take even bigger risks and, most importantly, to stay true to quality content, but don’t be afraid to have some fun at the same time.