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Doyennes of Doc-TV: Cable

By Andrea Van Hook

Doyennes of Doc-TV: Alison Palmer Bourke, Nancy Abraham, Pat Mitchell, Paola Freccero, Cara Mertes and Lauren Lazin

More and more women now run major television outlets for documentary film. Here, we profile the female power-brokers at Discovery Channel, Discovery Times, HBO, Independent Film Channel (IFC), MTV and Sundance Channel. Given that these six executives are responsible for buying or commissioning hundreds of hours of programming a year, it can be argued that the documentary industry is, at this moment, a woman's world. 


Nancy Abraham—Vice President, Documentary Programming, HBO

Nancy Abraham has spent almost her entire career at HBO, absent a few years for graduate school and a stint in Budapest with HBO International. Abraham graciously agreed to talk to International Documentary, even though she was on maternity leave, after her colleague, Lisa Heller (also vice president of documentary programming), went into labor. "Luckily, there's just a short overlap of about one month," explains Abraham. "We've been keeping up with each other's projects, so we're able to cover for each other."

Abraham's boss is Sheila Nevins, who built HBO into the documentary powerhouse it is today. Nevins has been a major influence on her career. "I just try to absorb as much as I can from Sheila in every way—the way she approaches things, the great ideas, her experience—and I've maybe acquired a smidgen of it over the years," says Abraham. "She's someone you can continuously look up to."

Abraham believes that the growth of cable opened up opportunities for women. "Cable has created opportunities for women who have grown along with the industry," she notes. Also helpful to women is that in documentaries a "different kind of economics prevails; it's easier to get something off the ground." As to whether she's made different decisions in her career compared to her male colleagues, Abraham believes it all comes down to the individual. "Some of the things I did were not heading towards a direct goal all the time—perhaps that's more of a female trait," she says. "But I don't think women executives make different decisions than males; I think it's more individual people."


Alison Palmer Bourke—Vice President of Original Programming, IFC


Originally starting off in the scheduling department of Bravo, Alison Palmer Bourke had the advantage of sitting directly across the hall from Caroline Kaplan, at that time director of programming for IFC and Bravo. "I used to overhear her conversations, and whatever she was doing sounded 300 times more interesting than what I was doing," Bourke recalls. She started working directly for Kaplan as a part of the team that launched IFC Entertainment and separated the IFC and Bravo programming departments. Now vice president of original programming for IFC, Bourke is responsible for commissioning four to six documentaries a year, as well as original series.

Bourke is uncomfortable with the idea that women are somehow better suited for these types of jobs than men. "I don't want to ghettoize women," she says. "It's obvious that the individuals holding these jobs are the best possible people, and they just happen to be mostly women." She finds that trying to keep a balance between work and life, a common complaint of most working women, is critical, whether you have a family or not. "If you're going to be a creative executive and work with creative people, you have to recharge your batteries, whatever that means to you," she says. "Killing yourself doesn't mean that you're doing a good job; it just means that you are killing yourself." 

Bourke finds that what she loves most about her job is the opportunity to work with talented, unique and creative people. Her upcoming projects include Rosie Perez's directorial debut­­—an examination of Puerto Rican identity as told through the prism of the Puerto Rican Day Parade—and a documentary on road movies—Wanderlust—with Oscar nominees Shari Springer Berman and Robert Puccini. 


Paola Freccero—Senior Vice President, Film Programming, Sundance Channel

Paola Freccero started her career in independent film at the Independent Feature Project in New York. Being enmeshed in the independent film world, she didn't notice whether there were more men or women. "It was just a place where people got very passionate and made less money than anyone else," she remembers.

After several stints as a film publicist and then programming the Palm Springs Film Festival, Freccero ended up at Sundance Channel. "One of the things that immediately struck me was the number of female executives at the vice president level or higher," she says. "It felt like a comfortable and gracious environment to work in, so I stayed."

With the launch of "Doc Day" a year and a half ago, documentaries have become an even more important part of the channel. Freccero has noticed a difference between the documentary world and the narrative film world. "However egalitarian I thought the independent film world was, it's much more so in documentary," she observes.

Part of that, Freccero believes, is that the very nature of documentary filmmaking allows for more diversity and opportunities for women. "The process of making a documentary is a much longer haul," she says. "It's much easier to work around a life."  By contrast, working in narrative films, she finds, is much more difficult. "How many people do you know can just take off for ten weeks at a time and spend 15 hours a day on a set?" she asks. "That's why it's primarily upper-middle-class, young white men making films, the people with the least obligations in the world."

As for women executives in the documentary world, Freccero hopes it's not because documentaries have never been a power part of the film industry. "I'm hoping it's more that documentary feels like a very human side of the film industry, and women identify with that," she says. "Let's face it, a lot of the film industry doesn't feel very human."

Freccero and her team buy approximately 70 to 75 documentaries a year, and about 100 to 150 feature films. This high volume gives Sundance the chance to take programming risks. "We were able to mark the anniversary of Rwanda by showing two films by Anne Aghion," she says. "There isn't a programmer alive who thinks anything having to do with Rwanda will generate ratings, but we felt it was important—and we received an overwhelming amount of press attention. I was very proud of that."


Lauren Lazin—MTV News and Documentaries

Lauren Lazin is an award-winning filmmaker who has directed, written and produced over 40 documentaries for MTV and PBS. Her most recent documentary film was Tupac:  Resurrection, featuring the words and poetry of the late rap artist Tupac Shakur. Lazin also created, directed and produced the long-running MTV documentary series, Sex in the 90's, which established MTV as an outlet for documentary product.

Lazin has always been interested in documentaries as an art form—she attended graduate school at Stanford University for documentary filmmaking. Her first film, The Flapper's Story (1985), debuted at the New York Museum of Modern Art's New Directors/New Films showcase and won a Student Academy Award. Starting off at MTV and building her department, she was inspired by Nevins at HBO and Pat Mitchell at Turner. "I watched them from afar, and thought, ‘I could do that,'" says Lazin.

She feels it's hard to judge if there are more opportunities for women in documentary filmmaking than in other aspects of the business. "Certainly, the traditional thinking was that you'd have more access because budgets are lower, but I don't think those old models hold true any longer," she maintains. She does feel, however, that women bring a lot to documentaries. "You have to form an emotional connection with your subject," she says. "It's a skill to become invisible and put your ego aside to experience someone else's life, and perhaps women are more able to do that."

Having a baby has changed things for Lazin. "I started having kids late—I worked and worked through my 20s and 30s," she says. "Now that I have a child, I understand when people say they need some family time." Lazin doesn't travel as much, and she tries to be as efficient as possible at the office so she doesn't have to take work home. She feels strongly that having a child has only made her more creative. "I have so many friends who were at their most creative when they were pregnant," she says. "That's when they wrote their hit novel or made a film. For me, it was the same thing—the week we got the green light on Tupac was also the week I became pregnant with my son."


Jane Root—Executive Vice President and General Manager, Discovery Channel

Jane Root is a recent transplant to the United States—until last June, she ran BBC2 in England, arguably Britain's biggest buyers of documentaries. At Discovery, she is now responsible for the most widely distributed cable channel in the US, available in nearly 90 million homes. 

Root finds some qualified differences in programming for an American audience versus a British one. "Great documentary-making still has to fight for its place in a crowded media world," Root says. "However, in the US, there is far more diversification of output over many outlets. You have to fight much harder here to get recognition for great work."

According to Root, the number of women running channels is really a sign of the times. "When I first started running BBC2 six years ago, it was on the news, because it was so surprising that they gave the job to a woman," she says. "Now, I don't think anyone would really turn a hair."

At both BBC2 and Discovery, the audience is slightly more male than female. Root doesn't feel that her gender colors her decision-making when it comes to programming. "Do I strive to have a collaborative work environment to get the best from everybody? Absolutely," she says. "But in terms of whether I'm going to go with one proposal over another one, that's me as a professional."

Root is particularly enthused about "Discovery Docs," the Discovery Channel's foray into high-end, high-impact documentaries that are distributed first as theatrical releases. Already accepted into Sundance is Grizzly Man, a film by Werner Herzog about noted environmentalist and grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the big bears while studying them in Alaska. "In terms of the level of ambition we're talking about, it's a really good example," says Root. "It's a fantastic film which will have a huge impact."


Vivian Schiller—Senior Vice President, General Manager, Discovery Times Channel

Vivian Schiller got her first job in television due to her Russian language skills. A Soviet Studies major with a master's degree in Russian, Schiller was living in Russia working as a tour guide when Ted Turner decided to launch the Goodwill Games. She landed a job as a simultaneous translator for Turner executives, who were starting feature and documentary film production units in the Soviet Union. "I got to travel with all of these high-ranking executives because they needed someone who spoke Russian," says Schiller. "From that, I segued into documentary co-production and fell in love with the medium."

What followed was a 14-year career at Turner Broadcasting, most recently as head of documentaries and long-form programming for CNN, where she won five Emmy awards and met her mentor, Pat Mitchell, now president of PBS. "Pat continues to teach me, even though we've both left Turner," she says. "I think it's because of her that I enjoy speaking so much to young women who are coming up the ranks."

Even though Schiller has worked with many women she admires, she doesn't see any differences in managerial style. "The style of every woman I've worked with is as different as the style of every man," she says. "I've heard a lot of people say women are more this, or more that, but I don't see it." On average, Schiller says she works with more male filmmakers than female, but feels that's because Discovery Times specializes in current affairs documentaries. "I think that's more a product of the news business, which is more male, than the documentary business," she says. 

Schiller has struggled with maintaining a balance between her career and her family life—she is married with two children, ages 8 and 10. Both she and her husband, an independent filmmaker, work. "I travel a lot, and I know I'm missing out on things in my kids' lives," she says. "My husband is a wonderful, supportive human being, and that helps."

Asked to cite her proudest documentary accomplishments, Schiller mentions broadcasting Beneath the Veil (2001; Saira Shah, reporter; James Miller, producer, cinematographer; Cassian Harrison, prod./dir.), about Afghani women under the Taliban, on CNN three weeks before September 11, 2001; and an ongoing series of one-hour films on Discovery Times called Off to War (2004; Brent Renaud, Craig Renaud, prods./dirs.; Jon Alpert, prod.), which follows the experience of a group of Arkansas National Guardsmen in Iraq and their families back home. "Every documentary I do, I get to learn about something going on in the world," she says. I feel so fortunate about that."


Editor's Note: As we were going to press, Sundance Channel announced that Paola Freccero would be stepping down from her position at the end of December to start up a consulting business; she has retained Sundance Channel as a client.

Andrea Van Hook is a freelance writer who has worked in the television and film industry for over 15 years, at independent production companies, studios, and cable networks.