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RealScreen Considers Programming Post-9/11

By Patricia Aufderheide

The parties and the hallway conversations were as productive as the sessions at RealScreen Summit, held in Washington, DC this past February. The conference on the “business of factual programming” drew nearly 700 delegates from around the world, but preponderantly from the US and Canada. The group included some 400 producers and distributors, 250 representatives from TV channels and 44 representatives of production services.

“This gets us independent producers out of the splendid isolation that we also need,” said IDA member Robert Frye, who after decades as a broadcaster is producing on his own. Frye, with 25 others, took advantage of a discount on the hefty conference fee, offered through US Independents, an organization that helps independents gain access to international programming markets.

The event has become a major site for networking and pitching among producers who target television. It features an opening day of “master classes” on business skills (pitching, making demo reels, creating budgets), followed by two days of sessions on subjects ranging from Asian business trends to danger in the field to co-production case studies.

The aftermath of September 11 was high on the agenda, and not only for RealScreen’s host company Brunico, which had seen attendance at its other conferences plummet immediately after the tragedies. In the keynote address, Chris Cramer, President of CNN International Networks, called the events “a skylight forced open” on the low ceiling of broadcast news expectations. He said that TV news programmers had “failed to make the important interesting,” and called for programmers to take risks to make quality public affairs and create a “virtuous circle” of expectations.

That this was easier said than done was promptly demonstrated. In an ensuing panel on programming after September 11, Darren Ocampo of Court TV said the channel delivered crime mysteries to its audience, so was in a poor position to deal with Osama bin Laden, since the audience already knew too much about him. New public affairs programming would be out of format and risk losing audience share, a fear borne out by the programs on terrorism it had done--to significantly lower ratings. Focus groups had shown less interest in post-September 11 programming than other options. Hilary Bell of Britain’s Channel 4 found that British programmers were profoundly shaken by the events, but audiences adapted quickly and, if anything, wanted more family programming and less news. The impact of the events was “emotionally great, but in terms of programming, very little.” She also noted a marked impatience in British audiences with American superpatriotic news coverage, and naiveté about terrorism. And from the US,’s Steve Rosenbaum showed a clip from the company’s post-September 11 reports featuring Peter Arnett in Afghanistan, which lack a mainstream outlet.

Other frank and sometimes disillusioning perspectives were showcased in panel discussions. At a panel composed entirely of Discovery Channel programmers, a 95 percent rejection rate for pitches was mentioned. “And what about the lucky five percent distinguished them?” asked an audience member. “They made it through business affairs,” drawled Roger Marmet of TLC. Canadian digital channel programmers discussed the challenge of programming these new, subscription-funded outlets. Subscriptions were coming in, said Christine Pochmursky of the Documentary Channel. “The waters are rising and lifting all channels,” she said. “But it’s still only around our ankles, and we don’t know if it’ll rise high enough in time.” A digital wellness channel, One, discovered a low-cost —and top-rated— programming alternative: attractive nature images and soothing music.

At many sessions, independent producers could garner valuable tips on deal-making. Pitch sessions allowed executives from HBO, National Geographic, Canal+, the BBC, CBC and others to model typical reactions for attentive audiences. Advice included: “show us the passion”; “make us see the film”; “engage us in conversation, don’t memorize your pitch”; and “never, never, never ask, ‘What are you looking for?’” Table talks and half-hour sessions with dealmakers allowed one-to-one business conversations. A session on contracts turned into a hilarious simulation, with indie producer Jeff Tuchman playing an experienced producer working on a rollercoaster movie, Ed Hersh from Court TV playing a vice president from the Art, Science and Sociology (ASS) network, and two law partners playing their lawyers.

A few sessions showcased information on nonprofit and educational venues. In a session on international funding, Diane Weyermann, who is launching the Sundance Documentary Fund, explained its emphasis on social issues and human rights. Sessions on public television and educational production mixed veterans with newcomers. In table talks, Web-based content developers including Dan Sonnett, President of Sonnett Dunstan Media Group, discussed strategies to amplify educational content, connect viewers and work with teachers’ needs.

Producers and programmers alike seized the chance to look beyond the cubicle. National Geographic’s Margaret Burnette enjoyed the chance to meet international colleagues. “We need to get more of a global vision,” she said. IDA member Lyn Goldfarb noted, “It was great for getting a broader understanding of the industry. I hope we can learn from these workshops and offer this kind of information, in localized versions, to our members.”


Pat Aufderheide is Professor and Director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.