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Cable Channel Offers Opportunities for Documentarians

By Patricia Troy

From Gail Buckland and Derek Cianfrance’s <em>Shots in the Dark</em>

The verdict is in: Court TV is a hit. In the past two years, the basic cable channel has seen its availability rise from 40 million homes to 60 million and its ratings increase 500 percent. The rise of Court TV’s profile is good news for documentary filmmakers, as the channel’s primetime line-up features a slew of one-hour and half-hour programs, including The System, Mugshots and Forensic Files. New installments of The System include Jonathan Stack’s Big Easy Justice and Gail Buckland and Derek Cianfrance’s Shots in the Dark. Court TV has also expanded its line-up of feature-length documentary specials. The 2001-2002 season includes David Van Taylor and Brad Lichtenstein’s The Ghosts of Attica; Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s Punishment–Cruel and Unusual; Final Appeal: The U.S. Supreme Court; Murder or Tragedy: The Pioneer Hotel Fire; and Secret Service: In the Line of Fire.

For filmmakers, Court TV’s ten-year history of covering trials and the justice system gives them an advantage other outlets may not have when making a documentary— access to victims, their families, defendants and prosecutors. “I think the growing stature and prominence of Court TV as a cable network helps us get into the places we want to get to,” explains Ed Hersh, vice president of documentaries and specials. “We have a lot of credibility because of our daytime trial programming, which is really the gold standard of trail coverage. Within the legal system, Court TV is well-known and highly respected. We walk in not as an entertainment network, but as a network that is committed to covering the criminal justice system.”

That commitment has been strengthened with an increase in production and programming budgets, co-production arrangements with the UK’s Granada Media International and Channel 5 and greater visibility within the creative community. “As we make ourselves visible at places like the IFP, Sundance, and HotDocs,we are on the radar screen of some terrific filmmakers and we reap the benefits of that,” Hersh says. “Before, filmmakers would ask, ‘Where can I pitch this? PBS, HBO, The Discovery Channel, A&E.’ People are now saying, ‘And Court TV.’ And that’s our goal—to attract terrific talent.”

Court TV’s process of attracting and utilizing that terrific talent is a combination of acquisition of finished works and development with independent producers. As Lynne Kirby, vice president of primetime development explains, “We accept outside pitches all the time and most of our outside production is done through producers coming to us with a story that we really like. To a lesser but still significant extent, we also go to producers and ask them to produce ideas that we developed in-house.” Because Court TV covers crime and the justice system, the documentaries aired in primetime focus on and explore those two areas. “Our documentaries tend to be single-story driven,” Kirby continues. “We don’t normally commission survey hours where we take one issue and treat it in its many dimensions. Issues are very near and dear to independent filmmakers. We have managed to do a lot of stories where the issues arise from the story but they aren’t necessarily front and center. You air the issues through the storytelling.”

Hersh shares his own mantra for Court TV documentaries: “Characters, access and storytelling. Great documentaries have all three of those. We strive to have great access to places that people have never seen before; we strive to have great characters because we are telling our stories through people, and we believe in great storytelling. Even if you have great access and great characters, if no one can figure out what the story is about, they’re going to go watch something else.

“I think the other thing that’s very important to know about Court TV is that we have a really seamless development and production process,” he continues. “It’s a hand-in-glove process where the development and production people are talking to each other dozens of times a day about dozens of programs.”

Once a project goes through development and is given the green light, a Court TV in-house executive producer is assigned to the project. “We work with a wide range of producers from independent producers, who operate more as suppliers of large amounts of programming to the cable network, to the individual documentary producer, who is used to having a lot of autonomy,” Kirby says. “But we are a commercial network. If we go to an independent producer, or they come to us, and we really like their idea and want to work with them, they have to understand that, while we are interested in working with them because of their different and original vision of the material and the uniqueness of the subject, at the end of the day we have final cut—which is true of any network. So we try to give producers as much autonomy as makes sense for a particular project, but we do also supervise them fairly closely as they’re producing their show.”

For Hersh, “While we love to have many voices on the network, we’re not the IFC or the Sundance Channel. We are a network that makes its money from doing documentaries. So our programs have to have some consistency to them. They need to be done in six acts, and they need to have commercial breaks. It’s a television show, and it has to be formatted like one.

“That’s where the filmmaker and our executive producers work together,” he adds. “I think very often there’s always good creative tension back and forth, especially with someone who is passionate about a subject. Even when sparks fly I think we’re pretty happy because most of the time people walk away pleased with the process. We walk away feeling as if we made a great television show and the producers walk away feeling that we let them make a film that really resembled the vision they had walking into the process.”

The vision that documentary filmmakers and Court TV executives and producers present to the viewing audience is distinguished by the careful balancing act that keeps a film about a gruesome crime from becoming a voyeuristic cheap thrill. “Every show that we do that involves gruesome or explicit crime scene photographs is looked at on a case-by-case basis to see how far we want to go in showing this material to the public. It is a very fine line,” Kirby explains. “We care quite a bit about how we present that material in the most respectful manner to the victims, but that allows people to understand just how gruesome these crimes were. A lot of what we do is walk that line hand-in-hand with the producers. I think context is key.

“What are people’s expectations when they turn on Court TV,”Kirby asks himself. “They’re going to expect a certain amount of explicitness in the presentation of material regarding a crime, whether it’s in the trial coverage or in our documentaries. We work very hard to provide context and treat the material as carefully as possible. You don’t want to gross viewers out to the point where they don’t want to watch your network. But on the other hand, we’ve found that the audience has a very big appetite for explicit material.”

Hersh concurs with Kirby, adding, “If you look at the networks and the fictional programs that they’re doing, like The Practice, CSI, Law & Order, Family Law, Judging Amy, NYPD Blue--the list goes on and on--they’re all the crime and justice genre. If you look at the percentage and amount of crime and justice programming on A&E, Discovery, TLC and even Lifetime you see that it’s a popular genre.

We’re very lucky, and we feel terrific because this is our niche,” he concludes. “We’re not a science channel that has to make people understand that we also do crime programming. We’re not an arts and entertainment service that feels we need to sneak crime and justice programming in the back door. This is our brand and we feel that, more and more, we’re taking ownership of the genre. It’s a very exciting place to be and it’s a lot of fun for us.”