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After the Surge of Mergers: TV Offers New Opportunities for Docmakers

By Tom White

From 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. Photo: Alex Franklin. Courtesy ov Sundance Film Festival

Toward the end of 2012, the documentary community heard a number of major announcements coming out of the television space that raised hopes that the independent documentary would have more homes, beyond the august stalwarts HBO and PBS.

In short order, CNN announced the launch of CNN Films; Participant Media acquired The Documentary Channel and Halogen TV, with the intent of creating a TV presence; Al Jazeera acquired Current TV, thereby gaining a valuable foothold in the US market; and KCET-TV, the Los Angeles-based public television station, made its first major move since departing from the PBS fold by merging with Link TV, the San Francisco-based satellite television network. In addition, Showtime launched Sho Close-Up this past March, a strand of profiles of controversial figures such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, record mogul Suge Knight and comedian Richard Pryor. Epix just completed a slate of seven original docs this spring, called Epix Docs. Finally, ESPN will complement its heralded 30 for 30 program with Nine for IX, a summer-long series of documentaries by and about women, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX.  

So, might this be a harbinger of good times, as these wintertime announcements are slated to become realities this summer? Or will we see echoes of OWN, which, through Oprah's Doc Club, made us giddy with excitement, only to see it shutter its indie doc commitment after 14 months? Back in March, IDA hosted a Doc U panel of executives from three of the aforementioned networks for a discussion of their upcoming programming. Given that the panelists were somewhat guarded about addressing their respective launches at length because the time wasn't right then, we went back to each of them—Belisa Balaban, senior vice president, unscripted programming at Pivot/Participant Media; Lizzie Kerner, director of development and acquisitions at CNN Films; and Gary Dauphin, vice president, digital at KCETLink—for follow-up conversations.


Pivot/Participant Media—Belisa Balaban, Senior Vice President, Unscripted Programming

Pivot, Participant's new television venture, is scheduled to launch August 1, available both on cable and on broadband via an app. The programmers are targeting the millennial demographic with an intriguing mix of documentaries, nonfiction series, talk shows and variety shows, as well as complementary programming on Participant's website, which serves to continue the conversation about the inherent issues in each Pivot program.


Talk about how Pivot will continue the Participant Media brand, and how it might be different.

Belisa Balaban: The brand is not different. The mission of the company is consistent across all the films and the TV network. We're a company that exists to inspire and compel positive social change, so that's not going to change. The big difference is that each film has its audience that it's trying to appeal to, and on the TV side we have one target demographic: the millennial generation of 18-to-34 year-olds.


How will Pivot work with the Documentary Films Division at Participant Media, and how it will be distinctive? Will there be some docs that will come out of [executive vice president] Diane Weyermann's team that will air on Pivot, or will they go to other destinations?

A Place at the Table [Dirs.: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush] and State 194 [Dir.: Dan Setton] will have their TV premieres on Pivot, which is something we're so proud of, and we're acquiring several tent-pole docs: 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film [Dirs.: Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Reed, Nine Krstic], which we picked up out of Sundance, and We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists [Dir.: Brian Knappenberger]. I work very closely with Diane and Courtney [Sexton] to make sure that what we're programming on the TV side is consistent with what they're doing over on the theatrical side.


Your particular area is nonfiction series, so Jersey Strong is one of your projects. Was that an acquisition? Did producers Mark Levin and Marc Benjamin come to you with this proposal or did you reach out to them?

[Pivot President] Evan Shapiro worked with them very closely on Brick City when he was at the Sundance Channel. The subjects that we're focusing on in Jersey Strong were subjects in Brick City; we're taking a very different storytelling approach than they took in Brick City, but the spirit, aesthetic and documentary sensibility of the show are very much the same. In terms of who approached whom, I think it came about very organically.


I wanted to go back to your target demographic, millennials, a large segment of which are cord-cutters and cord-nevers. Talk about how Pivot is going to be reaching cord-cutters across the platforms, through both broadband and cable.

It's such an exciting new business model. We know that this generation is watching more television than ever; they're just watching it in a range of ways, and we want to reach them in all of those ways. So while the channel is available on cable, if you don't have cable, but you do have broadband, you can get our channel through an app. So to cord-cutters and cord-nevers, we don't see them in a negative way; we call them "broadband believers," because they are consuming media.


With a theatrical release, Participant Media develops a concurrent outreach campaign through its website What's the multiplatform strategy with respect to Pivot and a broadcast?

Each show will have its own dedicated social action campaign, just like the theatrical films. What exactly that looks like in a multiplatform experience is still in development. I can tell you that each show, as well as the network overall, will be supported by the social action group, and on every platform.


For those who would like to approach you, what is your process with respect to pitching one-offs or series?

I'm not commissioning one-offs or specials at this time; we're just looking for completed films to pick up as acquisitions. For series pitches, they all have to come in through an agency.


Should filmmakers come to the table with a multiplatform, transmedia strategy, or is it that something you would develop in house? How closely do you work in concert with the filmmaker in developing these other platforms?

I wouldn't expect a series pitch to come in with a firm multiplatform proposal. If it organically emerges from the creative, and you want to bring that, I would never say no. But it's really all about the story and central characters for me. I feel like it's our job to figure out how to support the creative on the shows through social action campaigns and marketing and the whole multiplatform digital experience.


As far as in-house development of your programs, how far on the horizon are your other series? You have a live talk show scheduled, TakePart Live. Tell me about that.

It's going to be five nights a week. We're going to engage the audience to help us select what the topics are going to be. It's not going to be a traditional talk show; you will see famous faces on there and you will see them with other people like scientists and NGO partners. It's going to have a serious tone to it in the sense that it's going to be social issues and news, but it'll be presented in a roundtable format, where you get a lot of different opinions and perspectives from a lot of different people.


Will it be in concert with your series and documentary programming?

Absolutely, that's another huge element we're excited about. You can really speak directly to your audience about your programming. It's a great way to help promote our own shows and continue the conversation. The end goal is what our viewers and audiences do after they've seen our work and have been inspired by it. TakePart Live is a great way to help bring that action into the real world


CNN Films—Lizzie Kerner, Director of Development and Acquisitions

When we last checked in with CNN Films—in the Spring 2013 issue, in the context of a piece about Richard E. Robbins' Girl Rising—the new venture was in its nascent stages en route to its official launch this summer. Since then, CNN Films has made a number of acquisitions: Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, which examines the dire consequences of marine mammal parks, through the perilous journey of one killer whale; Our Nixon, Penny Lane and Brian Frye's exploration of President Richard Nixon through Super-8 home movie footage taken by his aides; and Pandora's Promise, Robert Stone's reassessment of nuclear power as a viable energy source. All three films will premiere in theaters this summer prior to their airing on CNN. In addition, CNN Films is working with Steve James, Gordon Quinn and Justine Nagan of Kartemquin Films on a film about the late film critic Roger Ebert. Martin Scorsese and Steve Zaillian are executive producers.


As we near the official launch of CNN Films this summer, talk about how this new programming slate is distinctive from what's currently on CNN, and how it's part and parcel with the CNN brand.

The CNN Films banner is part of our new division of original content that's done exclusively with outside production companies. Whereas CNN Presents documentaries are oftentimes one-hour productions that are mostly produced in-house, with CNN Films we're engaging filmmakers who have never had the opportunity to work with CNN before. [The productions] will all be feature-length docs, for the most part; many of them will have a festival and theatrical life, whereas CNN Presents films don't. The CNN Films docs are on subject matters that are a bit unexpected and exciting for the network; for instance, we have the Roger Ebert film, Life Itself. When that film was first pitched to us, we thought, "What a great opportunity to have it on CNN." We figured this is a really great way to break into doing a bio film on someone other than a politician or on some subjects other than war or politics, which is what CNN as a news network has focused on in the past. We initially started out doing four to six documentaries a year, and now we're probably up to eight. With [CEO] Jeff Zucker coming on in January, he's really excited about CNN Films' banner; he thinks it's another way to expand our programming plate.


When you first announced CNN Films, you had a number of heavy hitters on board—Andrew Rossi, Alex Gibney, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein among them. How did these partnerships come about?

For the most part it was, "Who were some of the top docmakers out there? Who would we love to work with?" Basically we just gave them a call and said, "What are you working on? Is there something you're really interested in?" If it appeals to us, we'll talk about how we can move forward with it. Our types of deals run the gamut, whether it's an acquisition or we fully fund and produce a film. It's really about the subject matter and the quality of the filmmaker.


You're also going to festivals and discovering and acquiring new work by emerging filmmakers as well. Blackfish, which you acquired at Sundance, is part of your programmatic mix.

I think we're really particular about the films we're funding and producing ourselves, but we're always going to leave some spots open and have a little more leniency with the acquisitions.


You mention that you're open to theatrical releases of films prior to their airing on CNN. Is there a partnership with entities like Magnolia, which is distributing Blackfish, that allows that theatrical release its own space?

This is our first foray into doing that. We are proponents of theatrical releases for these films, and with Blackfish in particular, Magnolia approached us and said they were really interested in doing theatrical and we went in on the deal together. I think we're always open to talking with those entities.


What about filmmakers approaching you, whether in pitching forums or independently?

We don't accept unsolicited pitches. If they have representation, they can e-mail me and hopefully we'll get back to them in a timely manner. Right now, it's just me and Vinnie [Malhotra, senior vice president of development and acquisitions], but we do look at every pitch that comes in and figure out if it's a fit for CNN Films. I feel that because we're a small team and we're doing such a limited number of them, it's a really hard market to put your foot in. But if it's a really wonderful film, there's always a chance that it can be the one to break it. I'm hoping that in a few years time, we can start engaging in the digital space and doing short-form docs on, but right now we're really focused on established filmmakers.


What about transmedia and multiplatform projects?

It's all a work in progress. As a whole, the company is really excited about everything that we're doing. With Girl Rising, we're going to be seeing how it plays out and what tactics we're going to be using to promote it.


Regarding demographics and your audience, cord-cutters and cord-nevers, seem to be a major concern in the cable industry. How is CNN handling that particular issue and reaching that younger demographic?

CNN does have a pretty expansive viewership. People often flip through CNN, especially if there's breaking news, and we're hoping that we can start holding onto our audiences with this original programming. For instance, with the Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown series, the numbers have been doing really well for us in the past two weeks. It's clearly destination viewing, and we're getting a younger demographic as well because he appeals to more than our typical demographic. So we're hoping that people seek out CNN for the types and quality of programming that we're producing.

We know that CNN is a brand that people recognize and know where to find it. That really works in our favor. Down the line, I'm sure we're going to have to do more digital content to keep engaging our viewers, but for right now we're just focusing on the domestic network.


Obviously CNN International is a major player, but if competitors like BBC or ARTE are interested in a given doc under the CNN Films banner, would you be open to collaboration?

It's all subject matter-dependent for us. If there's a film that we feel would really appeal to the international audience, and it's something that we're developing and fully funding, we'll definitely engage with CNN International and hopefully be able to air it that way. But if there's a film that we don't think that CNN International is going to be interested in, but if for some reason BBC or another international partner is, we're certainly open to conversation. We're talking about engaging international co-producers for a series right now that we think could lend itself internationally, but not necessarily on CNN International.


We in the documentary community get our hopes up when a new player comes on-it's another home, which, all too soon, goes into foreclosure. What are the barometers for success for CNN Films?

Ultimately, the bottom line is ratings. But I also think it's a generation of discussion and what we can do with the CNN machine; all of the films that we choose are relevant enough that we can promote them on the air with our correspondents. If it sparks a national discussion, we know that we're engaging people who are interested and will hopefully stay tuned to watch the entire documentary. So we're really committed to [CNN Films]. I can only see it growing. I think CNN makes perfect sense for a documentary platform; we have films that are commissioned throughout 2015, so we know that we're going to be in the game for that long.


KCETLink-Gary Dauphin, Vice President, Digital

When Los Angeles-based KCET opted to go independent in early 2011, after several decades serving Southern California as a member station of the PBS family, it wasn't clear where this brazen move might lead. Over the two years, KCET quietly continued along with its local programming, while building up its presence in the digital space. Then, at the end of 2012, KCET announced a merger with San Francisco-based Link TV, a nonprofit satellite channel with a respectable reputation for programming documentaries and global news. KCETLink is starting to get the kinks out as a new incarnation, with intriguing plans for multiple screens and platforms—along with layoffs and the loss of SoCal Connected, a longtime local program.

What is happening with regard to the merger?

Gary Dauphin: Obviously, a merger like this clearly involves a realignment of priorities, looking at peoples' jobs in terms of where there are overlaps, where there are inefficiencies. Unfortunately, that resulted in layoffs; we lost a lot of good people who did great work. The outcome of that is that the organization is very much aligning itself toward a digital footing—thinking about this organization as one that creates and distributes content across multiple platforms on the Web, on broadcasts, on mobile apps.


What were the challenges with respect to retaining your autonomy and finding the synergies that facilitated this merger?

Autonomy is not really so much the issue. The great opportunity I that these are two organizations that have very similar DNA. They're both nonprofits, and public media organizations that are focused on serving specific audiences—the Southern California audiences in KCET, and the very global-minded world news and world music-focused audiences at Link TV. Those missions don't change with the merger. When you look at the audiences, they're very much interested in the world around them, very civic-minded, and have a great interest in world news. These are all opportunities.


Have the audiences themselves merged? Is there a way to monitor a cross-pollination of the existing audience for Link TV gaining interest in what's happening in Southern California, and vice versa?

We launched a new multicast channel called KCETLink, which is available in Southern California. Depending on who your cable provider is, that channel is a little bit of an overlap with KCET programming and Link programming. It's an opportunity to try out themes and programming and see where we get the overlaps. We commissioned a study, which found that the KCET and Link audiences—those who have access to both channels—actually feel quite positively about the other channel. So the overlap is actually already built in. We've got a show called City Walk [Exec. Prods.: Thomas Rigler, Juan Devis; Dir.: Thomas Rigler; Sup. Prod.: Steven Reich], which is about public space and walking. Our shows on Link like Democracy Now and Shadows of Liberty [Dir./Prod.: Jean-Philippe Tremblay]—these all have great resonance with both the KCET audience and the Link audience. That's the sweet spot that we're looking for.


In developing your content, how much of the mix of acquisitions and development and pitching makes up the KCETLink menu?

With the caveat that I manage the digital piece—I'm not in the acquisitions arena per se—we obviously air a lot of acquisitions, both on Link and KCET, but we are actively in negotiations with folks and we're taking pitches. For example, City Walk is an acquisition, but we've repackaged and extended it. It came in unfinished, and we worked on it with the filmmaker. We actually are eager to develop new programs and new brands with folks out there, but for the moment, the bulk of it is acquisitions.


Your digital strategy is fairly robust in terms of multiplatforms. How important is it for the filmmaker coming to you with a project to have a multiplatform strategy as well?

It's pretty important in that we want to create experiences for people that go beyond just watching stuff on air. We want to give people opportunities to extend experience, whether it's a form of additional Web content, or a form of engagement action. The follow-up to Shadows of Liberty  is a documentary called The Power of Two [Dir./Prod.: Marc Smolowitz], which is about organ donation. We've created a multiplatform engagement space where we're asking people to participate and think about an organ donor registry. For us, the digital piece is critical because we want to be able to not just say that X number saw something, but we were able to move people into some sort of action and engagement that extends beyond the broadcast. That said, we're a TV station. We have a Dish service; we have a local service here in Southern California, so we're obviously committed to serving those audiences in a way that we've always served them. But the future for us is around multiplatform experiences that extend beyond just watching something.


Once they get on board with you, how much are filmmakers involved with developing the multi-platform program?

They're very involved. We create experiences, but we're also partners for the filmmakers in order to take their amazing work and extend it onto the digital platform. In the case of The Power of Two, Marc Smolowitz, the filmmaker and executive producer, has been intimately involved in helping shape the Web experiences. Marc has created a really rich asset library—he's got the film, blog posts, fact sheets. We already have a rich feature that we're able to bake into the website. So we're very eager to partner with the filmmaker. Our mandate is not to grab your film and run away with it onto the website. We want to be your partner and think it through: What does it really mean? What kind of engagement options are available? What additional Web content can we build? People have different goals around the digital experience, so we're really there as problem-solvers and as advisors. We're open to all kinds of relationships.


I wanted to circle back to audiences—and particularly cord-cutters. Link TV is a subscription mechanism for Dish, you're a public TV station, and you both have a significant presence. What is your strategy in keeping the viewers, moving them from one platform to the other? Is that a worry for you?

No, I think the big worry is acquiring the rights that allow us to work across platforms. Not everything is available for lots of self-evident reasons, whether existing relationships or costs. But the goal is to make as much available as possible first on the website; Link also has a mobile app, which is very heavily focused on news and topical documentary. So the first thing is just making it available, making sure that when things come in, we're able to work out streaming windows and rights windows for the websites, and the apps on top of that are there. But there are other things we can do, whether straightforward additional Web content or more engagement experiences. That's a challenge that everyone's facing, and I think we're in a great position, given the work that we've already done in both and to face it.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.