BNN and CNN: Together... For the First Time
The appearance over the next two months of two new programs by the independent Broadcast News Networks (BNN) on Cable News Network's (CNN) new Perspectives series suggests that opportunities for the documentary on television may indeed be changing.
It was not that long ago when documentarians had few places to show their work: there was PBS, also the non-theatrical educational market and the film festivals. The networks weren't interested: they rolled their own. It was not the most encouraging scene.
And then, not much more than a decade or so ago, things exploded: cable companies seemed to come out of the woodwork, many of these devoted to information programming, all of them clamoring for product to fill 168 hours of weekly screen time; even network news began producing pieces for cable. And there was talk about limited opportunities for independent docs on ABC, NBC and CBS. There have even been some very healthy-if limited-runs in theatres for feature documentaries. At first glance, the future looked great.
Or did it? There were independent companies, successful at getting three and four shows a month onto A&E and other cable networks, who managed only by offering material at so low a price that they barely kept their heads above water. Others peddled their wares to the cable outlets and lost all lights for future earnings, especially from sale to the burgeoning foreign broadcast opportunities (see the article on MIPDOC). To get funding from traditional sources has required not only front money but often also signing over ancillary rights. Faust would understand well the situation.
On television particularly, the relationship between news and documentary has remained a fuzzy one. As Henry Breitrose pointed out recently in these magazine, network television initially shied away from independent documentarians, partly due to obvious legal complications, but more so because of the mistrust of outsiders and the need to give their own news people something to do. And for the general public, the differences between news and documentary became merely a distinction in verb tense: news is about what's happening, while docs treat things that already occurred. The networks have successfully groomed the public to accept the authoritarian voice of both news and documentary, again similar to the verb distinction between active and passive: "We do the investigation and the reporting, folks... you just sit back and believe."
We reported here last fall the news of Turner Original Productions' affiliation with CNN, an an·angement of some interest considering CNN's partnership with Time magazine and with Warner Communications. We also reported last fall about the success being enjoyed by independent Broadcast News Networks with CBS's Eye on People, the net's cable outlet that features BNN's I Witness series, and other programming for Class of 2000 and 48 Hours.
So, news that BNN has found a niche in CNN programming may mean another look at how documentarians can succeed on cable. With a long established record as a maverick in news delivery, CNN has never been averse to innovation. An equal maverick in its approaches, BNN has shifted the vested authority for the documentarian to the perspective of the subject: send video journalists (VJs) out into the world, with inexpensive camcorders, for a good six weeks or so, and even invite subjects to do some of the shooting.
Variety's Jennifer Nix in February spotlighted BNN's founder and president, Steven Rosenbaum, newest member of IDA's Board of Trustees. Nix commented on the BNN/CNN deal: "An observer close to the co-production deal, which gives [BNN] all foreign rights (a first for CNN), says, 'Steve is representative of a new kind of news supplier and new deals being made out there. CNN's interested in trying new ways of doing things, and they're willing to be creative in order to get the best possible product on the air.' Creative, in this case, means taking the ego out of ownership. More and more, news production is moving in the direction of shared lights and shared production costs up front—doing 'whatever it takes' to make a deal come together."
Rosenbaum to Nix: "The old days of producers making their $800,000-per-hour projects and selling them to PBS are over. Today you make your project fit networks' budgets, their programming needs. You work together with them—it's a partnership."
With successes on MTV (MTV News: Unfiltered) and A&E's Investigative Reports, BNN undercuts other providers by as much as 50%. Nix's estimate: "BNN can produce an hour of television for between $90,000 and $125,000—for shows [its] com petitors say would normally cost $200,000." Skeptics are quick to mention the low salaries for the twenty-something VJs who staff BNN, and Rosenbaum admits personnel issues are a major headache. Beyond the economics of tight profit margins when dealing with the networks—perhaps making back some of the difference in the sale of foreign rights—BNN's approach to news draws from significant moments in the history of documentary, not only direct cinema but the cinéma vérité of Jean Rouch and the Challenge for Change programs that George Stoney did for the National Film Board of Canada. These hallmarks freed the form from its omniscient narrator and Griersonian presumptions to reveal the vested interests of subjects, either by observing them unobtrusively or frankly asking them to join in. Two of BNN's programs set for CNN's Perspectives demonstrate the approach. Teens and Dark Religion (airing Sunday, June 28) looks at teenagers across the nation searching for religious faith and finding it in witchcraft, Satanism and vampirism. With willing cooperation from the young people, the program dramatically reveals how their psychological and spiritual exploration. Border Battles (airing Sunday, July 5) is an in-depth look at the current issues along the U.S./Mexican border, as seen through the eyes of the people who live there: the INS border patrol, property owners and ranchers, people who face the problems of illegal immigration, drug smuggling and the changing strategies of the United States government. Rather than investigations that probe for some truths and report the results, these programs are searches-in progress which invite subjects and audience alike to take an active part in the findings.
For an independent operation such as BNN to wrangle its way into the corporate intricacies of a media conglomerate is news indeed. CNN Productions, as the non-fiction development and production unit of the CNN News Group, produces documentaries and original programming series for CNN/U.S. and CNN International (CNNI). Under the auspices of Turner Original Productions, the division also creates original nonfiction programming for TBS Superstation, other Turner Entertainment Group networks and Warner Bros. businesses, responsible for more than 100 prime time hours of documentaries, magazine programs and specials each year. Patricia Mitchell, President of Time. Inc-CNN Productions, and a Trustee of IDA, offered these words about the relationship between her company and Broadcast News Networks: "I'm very excited about working with BNN. Their innovative and unique approach, combined with quality journalism, complements well the objectives of CNN's Perspectives."
The initial promos for Perspectives hinted at the challenge to be undertaken: "CNN Perspectives . . . An important and provocative new series of documentaries... Documentaries that will surprise you, documentaries that you will want to see." In these few words, the series took to task some of the prevailing assumptions about documentaries, mainly that the topics to be covered are far from earth-shattering, that the approaches are predictable, and that watching documentaries is like eating food that is (supposedly) good for you. Instead, CNN Perspectives promised to pursue topics of significance and to shun the mundane, with approaches that would provoke rather than merely inform. There is also the promise to surprise, even delight. BNN's new alliance with CNN will undoubtedly be watched closely by the documentary community, a tentative but grand experiment in the role independents can play in the documentary on television.
TIMOTHY J. LYONS serves as the Editor of lnternational Documentary, a position he has held since October 1996.