September 5, 2013

Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Summer 2013

Dear Readers,

Television has long held sway as a vital province for nonfiction work. In the very early days of just three national networks, producers like the Wolper Organization ensured that the primetime slots would be filled with documentary programming. Then in the 1960s, public television came on the scene-first, with National Educational Television (NET), whose hard-hitting docs about issues like race, class and poverty drew both high praise and sharp criticism. Then came the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which launched the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). NET, at the urging of the Ford Foundation and CPB, merged with Newark public station WNDT-TV, to form WNET, which over the past couple of weeks has been the center of a controversy that Michael Lumpkin addresses in his Notes from the Reel World column here. At stake is independence-in voice and vision, but most crucially, from a brand of philanthropy that is defined not so much by altruism but by control.

PBS and HBO have long dominated the documentary landscape, consistently providing homes for venturesome, singular work-one-offs, if you like. While other major companies like Discovery Communications, National Geographic and a host of others have proven exemplary players as well, their nonfiction programming has consisted largely of series-reality, actuality, nonfiction, competition, etc.-with not much room, not even in an omnibus context, for the kind of challenging independent work that dominates the festival circuit and awards season.

But there are always harbingers of hope, with Showtime and Epix having ventured into the one-off, indie world this past spring; Al Zazeera acquiring Current TV; CNN and Participant Media both launching new initiatives; and, on the nonprofit side, KCET and Link TV, two West Coast mainstays in public and satellite television, announcing their merger. I spoke with representatives from CNN Films, Pivot (the Participant Media television brand) and KCETLink about what this all bodes for documentarians.

Since the first manifestations of reality TV, through its many permutations and high- and low-culture sensibilities, there has always been a handful of filmmakers who cross over between the two genres. Elizabeth Blozan talks to Sasha Alpert of Bunim/Murray's BMP Films, Erik Nelson of Creative Differences, and Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey of World of Wonder about their insights about staying active in both worlds.

The digital space, in all its second screen/multiplatform/transmedia glory, has presented opportunities for content providers in terms of creativity and reach, as well as significant concerns for the network and cable industry in terms of tapping into its crucial "millennials" demographic, a hefty portion of which comprise cord-cutters and cord-nevers, due largely to robust alternatives in streaming and VOD content. The aforementioned executives address those concerns in these pages, while representatives from the two television academies that administer the Emmy Awards speak to Valentina Valentini about the newer categories in online programming to complement its longstanding categories in the News & Documentary and Primetime Awards.

Sometimes embracing the future also means repurposing the past, and after nearly seven decades, television has covered, and preserved, the most monumental and epochal events in modern history. ABC and NBC have amassed a trove of archival footage and images, as has CBS, which licenses its CBS News Archive through T3 Media. HBO houses, through HBO Archives, not only selections from its exemplary programming, but also, further back in the 20th century, the March of Time newsreels and the Time-Life Films collection. Ron Deutsch talks to representatives from all of these archives about their holdings.

Yours in actuality,

Thomas White
Editor

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