There is a wide variety of cable documentaries. Nonfiction programs can be found on cable news networks such as CNN and Fox News, regional networks and C-SPAN, and can come in the form of bios, profiles, specials and one-offs, much of which is produced in-house. Some of cable’s most popular documentary programming—the kind that makes headlines and gets the attention of potential subscribers—is acquired from independent producers or is a result of collaborations between networks and top-flight documentary filmmakers. Cable networks that depend on outside talent for fresh ideas tend to come in four flavors: Premium Crew: Multiplexed pay services such as HBO, Showtime and Starz (and spin-off channels such as Cinemax and Encore) seek documentary features of the kind that win awards and make noise at festivals. HBO Documentary president Sheila Nevins is revered in independent film circles, and many doc makers aim to pitch their films to her first because of her reputation and impeccable taste. HBO dedicated a precious Sunday night prime-time slot to its first documentary series, Family Bonds, made for the network by Stick Figure Productions and directed by Steven Cantor. But luckily for filmmakers, HBO is not the only premium berth. Showtime’s entertainment president Robert Greenblatt and his lieutenants—EVP programming Ann Foley and EVP of program acquisitions Matthew Duda—finance up to eight indie pics for Showtime Independent Films and have beefed up their commitment to cutting-edge docs under the Sho Exposure banner. Sho Exposure documentaries scheduled for this year include Same Sex America, which follows gay and lesbian couples as they deal with the political and social conflict over gay marriage, and Rikers High, a look at teenagers incarcerated at Rikers Island Prison in New York. Starz favors original docs about cinema; this summer’s Midnight Movies, highlighting 1970s cult films, will be screened at this month’s Television Critics Association confab. Docs That Pop: As full-time nonfiction programmers, Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel range from big budget/big idea projects (complete with state-of-the-art graphics) to docudramas and more factual explorations as they compete against each other—and the broadcast nets—to draw an audience. National Geographic Channel’s EVP of programming John Ford is a nonfiction programming legend, while Discovery Channel (Ford’s former roost) was founded by nonfiction producer John Hendricks. The Discovery family of networks continues to prize documentaries, a commitment that includes SilverDocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel documentary festival in the company’s hometown of Silver Spring, Md. (June 14-19). Discovery’s digital networks—including Discovery Times, Discovery Health and the Science Channel—have more modest budgets, but that doesn’t dampen their ambitions. More Basic Instincts: Edgy, daring, provocative docs are synonymous with cable. Many find a home on Sundance Channel (on digital or premium cable), IFC (which lands docs such as Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel, thanks to the company’s successful theatrical division), AMC (which is refocusing The AMC Project to showcase one doc per quarter) and the arts-centric Bravo and Trio, which shows pop culture documentaries, including many from overseas. A&E and The History Channel have long-standing commitments to the documentary form; offshoot Military History Channel, launching this year, will also be partisan to the documentary cause. MTV Networks thrive on docs as news, specials (often relating to Viacom’s extensive public affairs commitments) or to remind viewers of core brand values. That can range from VH1’s series documenting 25 years of hip-hop music and Spike TV’s upcoming BBC-produced doc on amateur bodybuilders, Testosterone Boys (Jan. 28), to Nickelodeon’s award-winning series of Nick News docs produced by journalist/producer Linda Ellerbee’s Lucky Duck Productions. Startup.doc: Newly launched or emerging digital networks such as doc-centric Chronicle DTV and gay/lesbian service here! may not get deep pockets until they’re better established and more widely distributed, but they’re hungry for content. And with Trio’s fate hanging in the balance, look for arts programmer Ovation to raise its profile; 60% of its schedule is comprised of excellent arts and performance documentaries, such as Goya: Crazy Like a Genius, making its debut Jan. 20 and featuring art critic Robert Hughes.

The Daily


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