Ready, Willing and Cable: New York is the Nerve Center for Most Major Networks
By Simone Pero
As Los Angeles is synonymous in our minds with the film industry, New York, although with less fanfare, is the predominant center of cable--and, arguably the hub for documentary programming. With the exception of such major networks as Discovery Channel, National Geographic and CNN, most cable networks that produce or acquire documentaries are headquartered in or around New York City. Think about it: There's HBO, one of the first cable networks and the leader in documentary programming, Bravo, The History Channel, A&E Network, IFC, Sundance Channel, CourtTV, MTV Networks, Trio and the list goes on. Of course, when you add in brand extension networks, video-on-demand and high-definition channels coming out of the major media companies, the list continues to expand.
While history and media consolidation are arguably the main reasons for this concentration of networks in New York, International Documentary decided to explore what else makes New York a conducive place to thrive in the media industry. Below, eight representatives of the most prominent nonfiction cable companies today speak about that something else that keeps them thriving. In an industry where viewing eyeballs, subscriber numbers, ratings, ad dollars and industry acronyms rule, these cable programmers reinforced their commitment to compelling stories and an appreciation for independent thinking that is undeniably New York. While everyone acknowledged the role of Hollywood, it was evident that these cablers take pride in their New York roots and attitude.
Television has deep roots in New York; it's where both the network and cable television industries originated. How does this history influence cable television and documentary programming?
Ed Hersh, Executive Vice President, Current Programming and Services, CourtTV: Most of the cable networks were established in New York for business reasons. For example, CourtTV originally came out of American Lawyer magazine. New York was also the headquarters of broadcast network news divisions and history programming like ABC News Closeup. As a result, many people were schooled in news and, today, New York has a huge and important documentary film community. Also, New York has a rich tradition for political passion, and the best documentaries have passion.
Lauren Lazin, Executive Producer for Documentaries, MTV Networks: The gap is narrowing in the TV business between LA and NewYork because of technology and communications. The cities are closer than ever before, much more than five years ago. Producers, editors and filmmakers can live anywhere. So, it's pretty much just a lifestyle choice for people.
Evan Shapiro, Executive Vice President and General Manager, The Independent Film Channel (IFC): Ninety percent of advertisements come out of New York. We are closer to Wall Street. Summer Redstone lives in New York. Time Warner is based in New York. Cablevision, IFC's parent, owns the Rangers and Knicks; you don't get more New York than that. Today, it doesn't make sense for these media companies to move.
Laura Michalchyshyn, Executive Vice President, Programming and Marketing, Sundance Channel: We do spend a lot of time in LA for access. However, if I were based in LA, the reverse would also be true; I would be sending my team to New York. Since we are documentary-focused, we don't need to sit in on casting and scripting meetings. We can work with LA agents via phone and e-mail. New York is also a great place for our international filmmakers and sales agents to make a stop.
Lisa Heller, Vice President, Documentary and Family Programming, HBO: It's apples and oranges to me. For HBO, our relationship is symbiotic with the independent film community, whose needs aren't the same as the Hollywood television industry.
Does being based in New York influence your programming line-ups?
LH: HBO goes where the stories are. Stories come from everywhere. There are hundreds of stories sitting on the New York City subway, for example. A large percentage of HBO's repertoire comes from the New York filmmaking community. In 2005, six out of the 12 America Undercover vérité films are New York-based, either in content or by content-creator. Out of those six, five are New York-produced.
LL: In the age of reality TV, which is largely based out of LA, colleagues at different networks are being charged with raising the bar in terms of storylines. New York is great for vibrant, interesting characters and has a diversity of lifestyle within a 100-mile radius, which adds to the richness of locations and characters. It's an energizing, stimulating place to make films about the world.
EH: CourtTV stories take place across the country. Being in New York, we have a wealth of resources to help tell those stories. Editorially, we have John Jay College, with the nation's top forensic scientists; we have some of the best legal minds at Columbia and NYU; and we have the head of homicide at the NYPD. New York is a place of expertise.
If technology has morphed filmmaking and the programming business into a less regional mindset, what is the draw to New York?
Mark Fichandler, Vice President, Documentary Development and International Co-Productions, CourtTV: We are engaging in the feature documentary space that CourtTV hasn't been in before, releasing four docs per year. New York is "the place to be" to launch this programming because of the filmmakers here, their intelligence and smarts; they go deep into the subjects. The documentary tradition is also an East Coast mentality. New York has the realness factor that keeps us on our toes. I wouldn't want to do this documentary initiative anywhere else.
Nancy Dubuc, Senior Vice President, Non-Fiction & Alternative Programming, A&E Network: We are a melting pot of cultures. We all know how difficult it is to live here, yet we have a passion to live here. You are exposed to so much on an hourly basis. You can't not be affected by the stimulus as a media company.
ES: For IFC, there is not a better, more apt place to call home. There's an "F-U" sensibility in the approach we take. You watch our channel and you feel New York on the channel; the subway underneath shakes. Our audience has a little New York in it. There is a vibrancy you can only get in New York. Call it a birth defect, a gene. We celebrate attitude.
Paola Freccero, President, Fast Forward: The heavy-duty concentration of cable TV in New York allows you to keep a close eye on your competitors, as well as allowing collaborations to be born. You also see trends coming that might take time to emerge in other parts of the country. New York is the vanguard; you are in the thick of it.
EH: You really see a passion from New York filmmakers, almost against the odds, the cost and competition. New York, with all its good and bad...you have to want to be here. It's intangible, the intensity of New Yorkers.
ND: New York brings to the industry people who are entrepreneurial, visionary and have spirit. Cable TV benefits from that creativity. The business is as good as its people.
Simone Pero Audi is a producer/director and former cable television communications executive. She is currently co-producing Alice Elliott's Diana & Kathy: Beyond Words and co-directing the feature documentary The Place Between in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee.
Made in New York
In addition to the aforementioned cable executives, Katherine Oliver, commissioner of The City of New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, updated International Documentary on its aggressive efforts in working with both the cable industry and the independent film community to build up New York's film and television production business: "Clearly, the tax credit has made the biggest difference. It gives 15 percent refundable tax credit for qualifying productions. Since the credit launch in January, we have seen $450 million in new business and 6,000 new jobs. And, one third of the applications are for independent films. The weaker dollar is also helping, compared to Canada.
We worked with HBO this year to bring back Taxi Cab Confessions, which was an Emmy Award-winning show in 1995. The previous administration wasn't keen to bring it back. When Sheila Nevins at HBO reached out to me and said, ‘This is a new administration, I want to start from scratch, this is a TV show that really should be made in New York,' we worked to bring it back. The show went on last winter. That is the spirit with which we want to work with the independent film community and the 78 cable companies based here."