Special Report: CYNOPSIS MEDIA PRESENTS: Documentary and Nonfiction: Potential Nominees for the Emmy Awards


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CYNOPSIS MEDIA PRESENTS:  Documentary and Nonfiction: Potential Nominees for the Emmy Awards

By Michele Shapiro

This year, the documentary space is more crowded than ever, thanks to cable networks and Internet outlets. “It been an amazing year for documentaries,” says Susan Margolin, President of Docurama Digital Channel, a newly launched, ad-supported service owned by Cinedigm. “Players like MSNBC, Pivot and Al Jazeera America have come into the space and they’re all offering great documentaries, which help increase interest in the genre.”

Emmy voters will have their work cut out for them when it comes to narrowing down the potential nominees this year in the three doc-related categories: Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking; Outstanding Documentary of Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. This year, the nominations will be announced on Thursday, July 10th, and the awards will be handed out at the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony on Saturday, August 16th, nine days before the Primetime Emmys ceremony on Monday, August 25th on NBC.

In years past, PBS and HBO walked away with the lion’s share of awards. But several cable networks have amped up their efforts to produce and/or acquire documentary programming, and streaming outlets including Netflix and Amazon have also started broadcasting original documentaries, providing some competition to documentary granddaddy PBS. “From Frontline to Nova and POV, documentaries are in our DNA,” says Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager for General Audience Programming at PBS. “In a lot of ways, PBS has owned the doc space since our inception, but we haven’t been good at telling that story. Now ratings-wise we’re up three percent over last year, which was seven percent over the year before.”

Still, the increasingly crowded field has forced PBS to rethink its acquisition strategies. “It’s a real game changer,” admits Hoppe. “We need to be aware of projects sooner, and if they’re appropriate for PBS, we need to bid early. We have to be more on our game.”

Programming execs across the board share Hoppe’s sentiment. “It’s a competitive marketplace,” acknowledges Amy Entelis, senior VP of Talent and Development for CNN Worldwide. “We look upon it as a healthy situation. There’s lots of good material out there, and there’s an audience for these types of programming.”

One major benefit of the competition: It breeds innovation. “With the marketplace as crowded as it is, we’re constantly exploring ways to surprise viewers,” says Dirk Hoogstra, Executive Vice president and GM of History and H2. Those risks paid off last year when the network’s The Men Who Built America was nominated for five Emmys, including Outstanding Nonfiction Series and won two awards, for Sound Editing and Costumes.

Stephen David, whose three-part miniseries The World Wars, which aired on History in late May, is a good contender for several nominations this year. David agrees with Hoogstra that when it comes to racking up nominations, inventive storytelling is key. “We’re seeing a lot of new iterations of the non-fiction genre and how it can be stretched,” he says.

For instance, with The World Wars, David relied on a combination of a character-driven storyline-the story is told from the perspective of leaders including Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler-and special effects. “Every gunshot, every explosion, it was all visual effects. The technology has gotten so good, and it’s much cheaper and safer than actually blowing things up.”

When it comes to the documentary genre, originality is also critical. “The first question I always ask is, How fresh is the subject?” says Eric Deggans, TV Critic for NPR and a Board Member for this year’s Peabody Awards. “Is it something new, different or shocking? Does it break news, and is it journalistically sound?”

Some of the documentaries Deggins believes met that set of criteria during the 2013-14 broadcast season include PBS’s How to Survive a Plague (Independent Lens), which documented the early days of the AIDS crisis and infighting among gay advocacy groups; PBS’ The House I Live In (Independent Lens) about the war on drugs and HBO’s Life According to Sam, about a child with a disease that causes him to age prematurely. HBO has submitted the documentary for five nominations, including the Outstanding Merit in Documentary Filmmaking honor, a special jury prize, which last year went to HBO’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.  In terms of documentary series, Deggins points to PBS’s The African Americans as one to beat. Filmmaker “Lewis Gates has made docs for a long time, and his expertise and experience came together with this project,” he comments.

Two more series Deggins would like to see garner some nominations: ESPN’s Real Sports and Outside the Lines. “ESPN holds those series up to the same level of accuracy as PBS does. They don’t reenact-they turn on the cameras and film, and then edit the footage to tell stories.”

“One of the biggest changes this year is the news and entertainment networks that have added documentary programming to their lineups,” says Dan Schindel, film critic for the website NonFics. “They’ve come out with strong stuff.” He cites Blackfish, the documentary that CNN acquired about Sea World and catching Orcas, as a production that scored both in terms of ratings and the effect it has had since it was broadcast. “It’s impacting lawmaking in California,” he says. (In early March, assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-California) introduced legislation that would ban amusement parks from using orcas in performances for theme shows and also would illegalize captive breeding and prohibit the import and export of the so-called killer whales. At press time, the legislation was still pending.)

Even though Blackfish isn’t eligible for an Emmy because it had a theatrical release, it’s an excellent example of using social media to gain momentum. “It’s a really interesting trend that’s transforming the documentary space,” observes Docurama’s Margolin. “With Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools, filmmakers can reach a really broad audience and rally those viewers to help create awareness about a particular cause or injustice.”

In the case of Blackfish, the doc spawned a Twitter campaign that took place during its broadcast. More people tweeted about Blackfish the night it aired in October 2013 than any other non-sports program on TV except for Scandal, according to SocialGuide. There were 67,673 Tweets seen by 7.3 million people about the broadcast, thanks to millennials. “They’re a fast-growing demo when it comes to doc-hungry audiences,” says Margolin, and social media campaigns are an ideal way to reach them.

CNN is hedging its bets by submitting two series in the Outstanding Informational Series category, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (which won last year) and Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man. The network also submitted the first episode of the CNN original series The 60’s called “The Assassination of JFK,” which aired just before the cut-off date for Emmy consideration.

CNN’s increased emphasis on documentary programming originated from of the network’s desire to be known for more than just breaking news. “In the past, people came to us to learn about stories as they unfolded,” explains Entelis. “We wanted to increase the reasons for people to tune in.” The process has been a whirlwind. “We went from 0 to between 70 and 80 hours of documentary programming per year in a year and a half,” says Entelis.

NPR’s Deggins applauds CNN for the move. “With some channels, there’s a sense that documentaries are just filler programming for when they have nothing else to air,” he says. “But in addition to acquiring documentaries, CNN has started commissioning series. They just hired Soledad O’Brien’s company, Starfish Media Group, to produce some programming. This means they’ll pay attention to the projects and make sure the quality is high.”

That concern is not as great for premium cable channel Showtime, since its SHO Closeup documentary arm produces nearly half of its programming and plans to increase that percentage in the coming year, says Gary Levine, Executive VP of original programming for Showtime Networks. SHO Closeup came out of gate fast and furious last year, with 32 Emmy nominations and seven wins.

What sets SHO Closeup apart from other is its emphasis on personalities. “We don’t do the typical biopic,” explains Levine. “We dig deeper and explore the subject from a new perspective to provide audiences with a never-before-seen view of that person.”

This year, Showtime has submitted a handful of docs for consideration: Made in America and Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi (Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special); Years of Living Dangerously and Time of Death (Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series).

Levine hesitates to call out one or two projects as likely contenders for this year’s prizes. But he does pinpoint Time of Death as one that was embraced by critics and made many end of year “top-10” lists after its November premiere. “That series was like nothing we’d done before. It was an examination of people in the last days and weeks of their lives and how they and their families make the transition from life to death. It wasn’t an easy show to watch,” he admits. “But it really struck a chord with our subscribers.”

Another major undertaking: The nine-episode climate change-themed series Years of Living Dangerously, which came about when two 60 Minutes producers approached Levine and told him Jerry Weintraub and James Cameron were interested in executive producing. The series succeeded both in helping viewers understand climate change and solidifying the premium network as one to be reckoned with when it comes to produces high-quality documentary programming. Docurama’s Margolin goes so far as to call it deserving of the Exceptional Merit Prize, which, according to Emmy rules, is a special honor awarded to a documentary that makes a profound social impact, offers significant innovation of form or remarkable mastery of filmmaking technique. “It’s an outstanding series. Very impactful,” she says.

“There’s a big evolution coming with distribution. You see more documentaries airing on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon,” says NonFic’s Schindel. “It would be interesting to see one of them get an Emmy nomination.” Schindel cites The Square, about protestors in the Egyptian revolution, and Mitt about Mitt Romney as two projects worthy of nominations.

“Both Short History of the High Rise and Hollow won 2014 Peabody Awards, and both are highly interactive [websites]. That kind of reach goes well beyond the number of eyeballs that Nielsen is counting,” says Margolin.

The Emmys’ governing body is already on board. “Internet programming is eligible in all categories as is programming for broadcast, Cable and satellite platforms,” says Dr. John Leverence, Senior Vice President of the Awards. Tune in on July 10th to see what garners nominations this year.

Predictions for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series
Fault Lines (Al Jazeera America)
Real Sports (ESPN)
Outside the Lines (ESPN)
The World Wars (History)
American Masters (PBS)
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS)
Latino Americans (PBS)
The Years of Living Dangerously (Showtime)
Time of Death (Showtime)

Predictions for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special
Paycheck to Paycheck (HBO)
Seduced and Abandoned (HBO)
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley (HBO)
Mitt (Netflix)
Made in America (Showtime)
Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi (Showtime)

Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking
The Amish Shunned (American Experience, PBS)
Tales From the Poisoner’s Handbook (PBS)
American Promise (POV, PBS)
Life According to Sam (HBO)
The Years of Living Dangerously (Showtime)

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