September 1, 2002

The Documentary Credits Saga—a recap

Following a months-long controversy over end-roll artistic credits on newly commissioned productions, Discovery Networks and the Documentary Credits Coalition (DCC) reached an agreement in late June, to the satisfaction of all parties.

It all began last winter, when Discovery representatives notified producers of its plans to eliminate end-roll credits, leaving a five-second card for the production company logo. Discovery had commissioned a study that showed that many viewers would change channels during the end-roll credits; so to retain viewership, and, purportedly, retain the revenue flow to re-invest in production, Discovery concluded that minimizing artistic credits would be the best policy.

Not so, said the documentary community, and in an unprecedented show of unity , force and cohesion, the Documentary Credits Coalition, a bi-coastal legion of unions, guilds, nonprofit media art organizations and independent filmmakers, banded together. The first meeting, reported in these pages (June 2002 ID), vetted the repercussions of this policy—that other channels were planning to do the same thing; that the website was not an acceptable alternative, given that it assumes universal access; that in an era of shrinking production budgets, credits are the calling card to better opportunities. The coalition encouraged the community to voice its concerns—and Discovery listened, tentatively.

Just prior to the second meeting of the DCC in early May, Discovery announced a revised position on its policy, one that would provide a choice of keeping the closing credits as they existed or opting for a new policy—a complicated formula of front-end credits, a five-second production company logo, and a five-second “special thanks” card, with the complete credits appearing on the Discovery website for six months. The second DCC meeting was spirited; some attendees even declared the fact that Discovery had softened its policy somewhat a “victory.” Others were more skeptical—would the first option—leaving the credits as is—include Discovery personnel in the 30-second roll? Or would these Discovery credits be part of the front-end credit roll, per the second option? Would Discovery only go with large production companies that agree to the plan? Does the new plan signify an eventual wholesale migration of all credits to the Web? The coalition agreed to appoint a steering committee, which in turn would draft a letter to John Ford, President of Content at Discovery, to invite him for a private meeting with representatives with the DCC.

Coalition members doubted that such a meeting would take place, and certainly not in the DCC’s home turf. But after several phone conversations involving the DCC’s acting chairs, Mel Stuart and Michael Donaldson, and John Ford, Ford agreed to do just that. In early June, Stuart, Donaldson, Ford and Terri Koenig, a board member with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences met for a sometimes heated, four-hour discussion over dinner. The DCC suggested a 30-second formula consisting of 20 seconds for creative credits at the beginning of the program, a five-second special thanks card to run before the final act of the program, a five-second card for both the production company logo and the Discovery identification—and no consigning of credits to the Web. Ford agreed to get back to the DCC with a plan by June 18.

After discussions and meetings among the DCC Steering Committee members and negotiations over specific points of Discovery’s revised proposal, the two parties hammered out an agreement: 1) the producer could retain the closing credits as they currently exist; or 2) the producer would have 30 seconds of airtime for credits. The formula for the second option would be very close to that which the DCC proposed: 20 seconds of credits at the beginning of the program, during which the credits would be superimposed over the content flush left within the lower third of the screen; a five-second “special thanks” card to appear prior to the last segment of the program; and a five-second end card for the production company logo, the name of the Discovery network, the copyright and any other appropriate information.

“We voiced our grievance, and they listened,” says Mel Stuart, “The credit system Discovery has now adopted addresses the most urgent concerns of our member groups, while it allows the company to achieve some of the flexibility it was seeking when it made its announcement in April.”

That Discovery was willing to reconsider its credits policy not only signals the strength in mobilization and cooperation on behalf of the coalition, but perhaps it ushers in a renewed spirit of cooperation between Discovery and its content providers. But there are other challenges looming in the cable landscape, as several channels have spoken to various producers about elimination of credits. So the resolution with Discovery is only a major first step for the Documentary Credits Coalition. “The threat is always there,” Stuart maintains. “The fight for credits is a continuous thing. We will keep in business to challenge this, and the DCC will be available to handle other issues of concern to filmmakers as time goes by. But the credit issue is a constant bugaboo.”

 

Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.

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