July 1, 2006

A Confluence of Content: DC Cablers Define the Multi-Platform Era

Discovery Communications Inc.'s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland

Forget the simplicity that was the information age. Cable companies have fully moved into the multi-platform era, blending retail products, print media, cable channels, websites, portals, broadband channels and digital media distribution platforms into a globally interconnected enterprise. National Geographic Channel is available in 56 million US homes, while National Geographic Channels International reaches over 230 million households in 162 countries, in 27 languages; Discovery Communications maintains a worldwide operation of over 100 networks of distinctive programming, representing 27 network entertainment brands in 170 countries and territories with nearly 1.4 billion cumulative subscribers.

Discovery terms this multi-platform model its "brand-extension strategy." As for retail, National Geographic handles over 2,500 licensed products and more than 5,000 points of distribution in the US alone, while Discovery oversees more than 100 stores in the US.

For Michael Rosenfeld, executive vice president, program and production at National Geographic Television, "integrated initiatives" has supplanted vertical integration as the means by which collaborative environments work together. As Clark Bunting, president of Discovery Networks US Production, sees it, whole systems "are at the same table. You've got HD and new media there together with television production, magazines, books and websites. And they're creating better projects than each unit alone could contribute."

Within Washington, DC, there's a diverse cultural and ethnic climate that constantly encourages new concepts in program content, while the area's multiple technology corridors keep everyone not only up to date but ahead of the curve with the latest platform developments. Bunting sees Washington as "a very wired town" that combines "access to all that tech with a confluence of content that has dissipated a lot of the advantage once held by a New York or LA base."

According to Donald A. Baer, senior vice president, strategy and development for Discovery Communications, Inc., the company considered New York or LA when it was planning to build its new world headquarters a few years ago; it settled on Silver Spring, Maryland. "We are proud of our role in revitalizing this area," Baer maintains. "Another attraction of Silver Spring was the opportunity to become neighbors with the American Film Institute. It made sense for two organizations with similar values to explore ways to work together"--as they have as co-sponsors of the Silverdocs Documentary Festival, taking place June 13-18 this year. "Taking advantage of the political and social influences of Washington, DC and the power of nonfiction media and documentary films, which are at the core of what Discovery does best, Silverdocs provides a forum for addressing issues that matter to people from all over the world," Baer continues.  

For Bunting, Washington "attracts smart, thoughtful, intellectual" people in general and in the field of documentary filmmaking specifically. John Ford, executive vice president of programming at National Geographic Channel, sees Washington as "a city of ideas, with tremendous public and private resources that help drive content, making the city a nexus for knowledge." Bunting acknowledges that "public television did a lot of the ground work" developing this area as an important center for documentary filmmaking 20-25 years ago. Now with all that is here, he sees the community as "vital and engaged. Partly due to the growth of younger companies and all the new forms of delivery coming on line, the documentary community is getting even larger and more robust." 

 To gain that all-important face time, many larger international companies, such as Natural History New Zealand, Creative Differences out of Canada and Australia's Beyond Productions, have offices here. To Bunting, that "regularly, even monthly frequency of contact makes all the difference. The best projects we've done come from that face-to-face contact." Ford says that "a healthy percentage" of producers who work with National Geographic Channel are DC-based, and Bunting cites DC-based JWM Productions and Story House Productions as companies Discovery is working with.

 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

National Geographic brings to the table an extraordinary brand that's known the world over, with the National Geographic Society a DC mainstay for over 115 years and a television presence for over 40 years.

Just as cable networks began to develop new programming, National Geographic expanded its presence on television with Explorer, which began as a three-hour weekly show on Nickelodeon, then went to two hours on the Turner Broadcasting System. 

In January 2001, National Geographic Ventures and Fox Cable Networks Group launched the National Geographic Channel (NGC). At this point, National Geographic was rapidly expanding both content and reach into multiple platforms, including its Internet channel and its push into theatrical features, most notably as a producing and distributing partner on the Academy Award-winning March of the Penguins.

And within National Geographic, the greater the multi-platform environment becomes, the more vital is that intra-organization synergy, bringing every project beyond what any one division could envision on its own. The multi-platform age calls for greater in-house synergy than ever before, pursuing new initiatives without abandoning the core elements.

Take this spring's Gospel of Judas (James Barrat, dir./prod.; John Bredar, exec. prod.), which received NGC's second-highest ratings ever. First, the groundbreaking authentication, restoration and translation of this work was funded by the National Geographic Society. Then, along with the two-hour special carried simultaneously on NGC US and worldwide, the magazine featured a cover story. Also, several books have come out on the subject, a comprehensive website was created, the story is featured at the Society's on-site museum and, true to its history, a lecture was held at the Society's auditorium.

Perhaps the most innovative program is the National Geographic All Roads Film Project, launched in 2004, which provides a global platform for indigenous and under-represented filmmakers from around the world to showcase their talents and cultures to a broader audience. The project includes a film festival and a seed grant and fellowship program to help filmmakers finance their work. An All Roads Advisory Board of luminaries from the mainstream entertainment world nominates films for the festival, helps identify new talent and teaches master classes to aspiring filmmakers.

 

DISCOVERY NETWORKS

Its current tag is "real-world programming for home viewing," and for the past 21 years, Discovery has expanded audiences for documentaries and increased appreciation for the genre. Discovery has grown from its core property, the Discovery Channel, to the global empire it is today.

Discovery's newest venture enables viewer involvement in documentaries. Launched on April 15, Discovery Channel Beyond and Travel Channel Beyond, Discovery's first broadband channels, allow streaming video to be viewed in one central place. The ad-supported services will offer original short-form programs and user-generated documentaries. Each channel will feature hundreds of exclusive pieces of content, including behind-the-scenes and making-of footage, outtakes and periodic "webisodes."

 "My Docs" is a new feature that allows viewers to create their own short documentary films to be uploaded and displayed on the broadband channel. "Our broadband channels are a feature on our website that allows consumers a deeper experience to compliment the cable channels' programming," says Baer. New Web elements on the way include an ongoing user-generated pilot competition, in which visitors submit a pilot show and the winners produce a Web-based series on Discovery Channel Beyond and Travel Channel Beyond, with support from Discovery producers. Broadband channels for TLC, Animal Planet and Discovery Health Channel will launch in the coming months. 

My Docs is certainly not a replacement of the innovative Discovery Producer's Portal (http://producers.discovery.com/), which offers online access for seasoned producers to everything from idea submission guidelines to actual contact drafts to video and sound clips.

 

BET

Black Entertainment Television (BET) started in 1980 as a two-hour-per-week slot on an existing cable provider, then launched its 24-hour service in 1984. BET's founder, Robert Johnson, who retired last year after 25 years at the helm, settled in DC in the early 1970s with his wife, Sheila, and served as public affairs director at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, director of communication for the Urban League, press secretary to the District of Columbia's congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy and lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association. As Brett Pulley points out in his book, The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television, it was that combination of broadcasting and economic development aimed at the nation's urban African-American populations that helped Johnson create BET. Twenty-five years later, BET Plaza, a $10 million campus, is a landmark in DC's northeastern section, also home to Howard University and the historic U Street corridor.

BET is now a multi-channel network that reaches more than 80 million households in the US, Canada and the Caribbean, with such niche offerings as BET J, started in 1993 as the first 24-hour jazz channel on cable. BET J's mission to chronicle the history of jazz is reflected in the series Masters of American Music. Also on BET J is The Best Shorts: A BET J Showcase, which features shorts of all genres by both experienced and emerging filmmakers.

 

TV ONE

While BET may dominate market share among African-American viewers, the channel faces competition in the neighborhood. Launched in 2004, TV One, based in Silver Spring, grew out of a partnership between Radio One and Comcast. According to its website, TV One offers programming that "speaks to young Black adults from an authentic, unapologetic viewpoint of the Black experience...offering a broad range of lifestyle and entertainment-oriented original programming, classic series, movies, fashion and music." 

Although a spokesperson for TV One noted that the channel is not pursuing documentary development at this time, the network recently aired such documentaries as The John H. Johnson Story (Yolanda Parks, prod./wtr.), about the founder of the Ebony/Jet magazine empire; The Invisible Men of Honor: Buffalo Soldiers (E. Morris Communications, prods.), a one-hour documentary about post-Civil War cavalry units of African-American soldiers; and Reparations (Karen De Witt, prod./wtr.; Tim Reid, exec. prod.), a documentary focusing on the controversial issue of whether African-Americans should be compensated for the injustices of slavery. 

While TV One does not accept unsolicited pitches, guidelines for submitting ideas are available at www.tvoneonline.com.

 

SMITHSONIAN NETWORKS

While announced with little fanfare on March 9, the new partnership between the Smithsonian Institution's for-profit arm, Smithsonian Business Ventures, and Showtime Networks to create Smithsonian Networks and its first project, Smithsonian on Demand, has become a white-hot controversy. The New York Times broke the story on March 31, reporting that "the joint venture has the right of first refusal to commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff." This rocked the world of independent filmmaking, as well as that of historians and those interested in intellectual property concerns. Smithsonian on Demand is slated to launch in December, but in a letter dated April 17 to Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lawrence M. Small, over 225 signatories--including documentary filmmakers Ken Burns, Michael Moore, George Stoney, Jill Godmilow, David Grubin and Gordon Quinn--have requested that the Smithsonian nullify the existing contract and hold public hearings on the issue. In addition, Carl Malumud, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who spearheaded the aforementioned letter, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for copies of documents relating to the agreement. There is some question, however, over whether or not FOIA applies to the Smithsonian Institution, which is a public trust, not a government agency.

While comments by Linda St. Thomas, Smithsonian's director of media relations, and Jeanny Kim, vice president of media services for Smithsonian Business Ventures, have fueled the controversy, little has been heard from David Royle, Smithsonian Networks' executive vice president for programming and promotion. Working out of Washington, Royle has had a strong history in nonfiction filmmaking; in his nine years at National Geographic--most recently as executive vice president of production at National Geographic Television and Film--he earned seven Emmy Awards.

Despite its controversy, all those concerned with the deal remain open, hopeful and positive. During a public briefing held at the Center for American Progress, Burns told the story of his difficulty finding finishing funds of $30,000 for his work on The Brooklyn Bridge, his first film. As reported in The Washington Post, Burns noted that it was Small, then an investment banker at Citibank, who helped to make those funds available. "We hope now he doesn't become an impediment," Burns remarked. "We want him to reconsider the deal."

 

Susan Ivers is an independent media specialist, working most often with public broadcasting. She served as consultant to PBS' former National Program Policy Committee, and as the media arts program coordinator for the Ohio Arts Council.

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