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5 Ways to Tap into Cable's Nonfiction Programming

By Corinne Gaston

It seems lately like nonfiction series are popping up left and right on cable networks. This boom reflects networks’ increased desire for original content. But how can documentary filmmakers navigate new opportunities and get their projects slotted on cable schedules? For our June Doc U on cable and nonfiction series, we brought together a dynamic cast of cable movers and shakers to discuss what they look for in nonfiction offers, to give tips for filmmakers, and to present their side of the pitching table. Anne Thompson, of Indiewire’s ‘Thompson on Hollywood’ blog, moderated the discussion between Cynthia Kane (Al Jazeera America), Lizzie Kerner (CNN), Jennie Morris (Pivot), and Mary Lisio (Scott Free Productions). We distilled the discussion down to 5 key take-aways for filmmakers so that your contact with cable networks will be as fruitful as possible.

We follow it up with a brief guide to what our panelists say Al Jazeera America, CNN and Pivot are looking for.

1. Be Open to Collaboration

Both Cynthia Kane of Al Jazeera America and Lizzie Kerner of CNN stress the importance of collaboration between filmmakers and their networks. Kane likes to hear seeds of ideas that have the potential to open up bigger conversations, as opposed to having too many details already planned out. Kerner says that if someone comes in with a project that is not quite the right fit for CNN, then the likely and obvious answer will be “no”. However, if there’s enough room to make adjustments and collaborate so that the project becomes an agreeable match for CNN, there’s a good chance they will pick it up. The panelists recommend that filmmakers ask what the networks are looking for before diving into a pitch. That way, filmmakers can make changes to their pitches to better suit what the networks want.

2a. Reach Out…

Reaching out to a network can feel daunting. At the very least, you may assume that your pitch will get buried under the pile of other emails, never to see the light of day. However, broadcast networks are always on the lookout for new material, especially since there have been more outlets and networks looking to build their own original content. Kane says that at Al Jazeera America, they are highly responsive to emails. She encourages filmmakers to contact her or one of her colleagues. Meanwhile, Jennie Morris reminds us that Pivot scouts content online for new, young voices.

2b. …But Know the Boundaries

There can be a fine line between reaching out and pestering the person who might be the one to give you a chance. Unfortunately, sometimes networks simply can’t read and respond to every email they receive. If you don’t get a response from a network, the answer is not to stalk a producer by phone or email. That’s a quick way to turn them off. Also, during a pitch session, sometimes you need to know when the pitch is over and that it’s time to leave the room. Kerner adds one more thing to the list: don’t start your pitch by telling the network what they’re doing wrong! She was quite surprised when this happened during a pitch to CNN, saying that it didn’t get things off on the right foot.

3. Listen to Advice

Your big idea won’t always be met with a 'yes.' If a network turns down your pitch, don’t abandon it, and definitely don’t close yourself off to advice. Tune in to what the 'no' is really about. Panelists encourage filmmakers to try and figure out why the network was saying 'no' and then see if they can make changes to their pitch in order to fit what the network is looking for. Sometimes, you have to work at turning your pitch’s 'no' to a 'yes.'

4. Take the Extra Step

Mary Lisio, who develops program ideas and pitches them to different networks for Scott Free Productions, believes that a sizzle reel (or a short promotional video) can be a crucial component to getting a project picked up by a network. It’s an extra step that gives the people to whom you’re pitching the ideas behind the show, the point-of-view, and a clearer idea of what the show might look like. And it shows that you really care about your project. If it’s within your means, a sizzle reel is another component that can help get a ‘yes’ for your pitch.

5. Know the Network

Kane advises that you "do your homework." Make sure that your idea is fresh and hasn’t been recently produced. Know to whom you’re pitching, because something that may work for Pivot might not work for Al Jazeera.

Below is a guide to the three networks and what the panelists say their companies are typically interested in producing:

Al Jazeera America is known for fact-based and investigative news, so they want their nonfiction programming to be current. Kane affirms that while they’re open to one-offs, their primary focus is on heavy-hitter series that will offer a voice to the voiceless and foster deeper discussions on the issues they cover. They keep an eye out for immersive documentaries and series with a global scope for everyday American audiences. Recent programming includes The System with Joe Berlinger, which explores the criminal justice system in the U.S.

CNN looks for nonfiction programming that is both entertaining and topical. Many of their shows have hosts like Inside Man with Morgan Spurlock, and Kerner believes that it works for them, because people generally associate CNN with anchors and hosts. Like Al Jazeera, CNN’s focus is on series, but they are still open to one-offs. In fact, this summer they are airing a weekly documentary from their in-house documentary unit. A few of their well-known series include Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Chicagoland, and Death Row Stories. A new program, Somebody's Gotta Do It, is currently in production.

Pivot skews toward the young and the digital. Their target audience is millennials and Jennie Morris is always on the lookout for content that she thinks will resonate with that demographic. They want their content to be meaningful and inspire social change and also want to find ways to foster online engagement and bring more people to their network. Their nonfiction programming includes Jersey Strong and the forthcoming Human Resources, which will focus on an entrepreneur and his employees at TerraCycle, a company that takes waste and makes commercial goods out of them.