A clear disconnect exists between the types of documentaries cable operators want to provide, the types of documentaries cable networks say they are providing and the types of documentaries producers believe they are being commissioned to make. Most of the independent documentary makers and production companies contacted as part of this story told tales of woe. They are offered paltry sums, with the promise that a channel’s prestige and exposure will open other doors later. They are given no marketing support and erratic deadlines. And they complain that cable networks generally favor video-clip-filled "specials" that are billed as documentaries when they are, in fact, cheap and easy to make one-offs or limited series. The situation looks much different from the eyes of cable network executives. Most of the ones contacted for this story insisted that they want more independent points of view and talent on their schedules. Some networks are following through on that, allocating more money and airtime to documentaries. Then there are the cable operators, who say they want more intelligent documentary programming on their systems. One of these programming gatekeepers, Italia Commisso Weinand, Mediacom SVP, programming and human resources, says she puts added value on networks that provide high-quality documentaries. "It’s some of the most fascinating programming because it teaches us something," she says. "Since this generation does not seem to have the love of history that it should, I hope television/film will help somehow fill the gap." Following the recent theatrical success of documentaries such as Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Some Kind of Monster and Fahrenheit 9/11, some independent cable networks are establishing unique partnerships to bring high-quality docs to their schedules. Sundance Channel and Court TV formed one such partnership that commits resources and airtime to serious documentary filmmaking. The Cable Solution The earliest fruit of the Court TV/Sundance Channel partnership was The First Amendment Project, a limited series the networks co-produced and then co-broadcast last month. Comprised of four half-hour documentaries made by indie filmmakers, it was a natural for doc-loving Sundance, whose mission is to bring independent filmmakers’ work to wider audiences. Sundance is a venture between Robert Redford, Showtime Networks and NBC Universal. "This is the first time we’ve done a co-production with another broadcaster," says Adam Pincus, SVP of original programming for Sundance Channel. "As a look at the First Amendment through the eyes of four different independent filmmakers, it’s also on target with what we’re trying to do with original programming." The partnership was born of Sundance Channel president and CEO Larry Aidem’s long-standing relationships with Court TV executives. Over the course of several meetings, the executives decided which topic they should pursue (they agreed the First Amendment fit both programmers’ schedules). And they worked through the touchy subject of who would have editorial control over the project. "[Court TV] looked to us to shape it creatively and do a lot of outreach to filmmakers," Pincus says of the channel’s ability to attract directors Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob, Mario van Peebles, John Walter and Bob Balaban to the project. The benefits for Sundance are obvious: Court TV’s bigger distribution (it’s in 83 million homes, compared to Sundance’s 22 million) will help broaden the network’s audience beyond "what we affectionately call the independent film fanatic," Aidem says. The bigger question is why Court TV would collaborate with Aidem’s channel. To hear Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff tell it, Sundance is able to provide access to independent directors and producers who can tell stories about topics that interest Court TV viewers in entertaining and marketable ways. The partnership also lends Sundance’s street credibility, hip attitude and younger demos to Court TV’s prime-time schedule. "We love the idea of working with other networks," Schleiff says. "The premiere of The First Amendment Project on our network, because of the road-blocking nature, allows it to get a little more attention [than it would on Sundance Channel alone]. So viewers will find it and check it out just because it is something different. If our distribution helps support the awareness of such important issues, then that’s great." The key for Schleiff is that documentaries such as The First Amendment Project fit with his network’s investigation genre and further define it as more than just trials. "We can have our shows like Forensic Files, and expand that investigation in some respects toward a younger demographic with things like Hip Hop Justice, our partnership with Russell Simmons, or The Exonerated, our next movie, or The Innocence Project or The First Amendment Project," he says. "These are examples of alternative programming that is aimed at a younger audience, and all centered around the fact that we have a very vibrant brand that lends itself to expansion in all sorts of directions." A Producer’s Perspective Not only is Court TV turning to Sundance Channel to bring high-quality documentaries to its schedule, it also set up a partnership with rap music impresario Russell Simmons, who has been reaching out to and nurturing urban talent under his Def Filmmakers banner. This type of partnership gives emerging talent a chance to work on nonfiction and scripted projects. By using Simmons’ name and connections, projects stand a better chance of finding their way to cable outlets including HBO, MTV and Court TV, which ran the Russell Simmons Presents: Hip Hop Justice doc in October. The docs help diverse voices reach mainstream television, says Will Griffin, who heads TV and film ventures for Simmons and his partner Stan Lathan as president and COO of Simmons Lathan Media Group. One filmmaker benefiting from Def Filmmakers is Kwame Amoaku, who is working on three projects: F.E.D.S., Hip Hop Justice and a feature-length documentary, The Industry, that will be coming out next month on DVD. "Our goal is to push hip-hop culture and, in turn, mainstream America forward and open up media markets to more talent," Griffin says. "The one cultural area where we want to make more of an impact is filmed entertainment—both film and television. We want to use our influence, relationships, resources and the resources of our investors to create opportunities for filmmakers, because we think that’s vital to the culture." Simmons Lathan Media Group won’t stop with cable network partnerships. It plans to bring emerging filmmakers directly to cable operators this year by launching Def On Demand, the first hip-hop video-on-demand service. "We’re on a mission," Griffin says. "Just like in the season of Def Poetry, when HBO only ordered four shows and people wondered whether there was a place for poetry on television. We’re now doing our fifth season of Def Poetry, it won a Peabody Award and the Broadway show won a Tony Award and we’re in our second touring season. So we just stay committed, and that persistence pays off, as it will with Def Filmmakers." Griffin’s passion echoes that of the non-filmmaker who ventured into an online forum for filmmakers called The D-Word and revealed the kind of heartfelt, non-focus-group appreciation that makes independent filmmakers toil against the odds and suits alike to tell their stories, and then bring them to viewers. "These films have brought me into worlds and experiences that in some cases I would never have had," she posted by way of introduction. "They can illuminate history beyond the power of a textbook, comment on current events without the sensationalistic tenor of news media, show us the humanity behind art, and the heroism of simple existence." Calling herself a public television "devotee, mainly because of the documentaries," she concluded: "If I ever get cable TV, the access to more documentaries would be a factor in my decision. So good luck with your projects, everyone! Maybe one of these evenings, I’ll have the opportunity to settle into the couch and let you take me somewhere. You have my admiration." Touched by History Italia Commisso Weinand loves documentaries on the networks she works with in her role as SVP of programming and human resources at Mediacom Communications. She doesn’t need a focus group to tell her about the power of docs—she has witnessed the impact of great documentary storytelling much closer to home. "My son John is 11 years old and profoundly deaf, and he is very much a visual learner, as so many of us are," she says. "Every November we are all reminded of the Kennedy assassination. Well, John knows about how President Lincoln died but they have not yet studied Kennedy [at his school]. The History Channel did a wonderful documentary [JFK: A Presidency Revealed] on the Kennedy assassination and my son regaled the entire family over the Thanksgiving holiday with very precise details of the event over and over again." Dan Davids, general manager of The History Channel, was gratified to learn about John’s experience. "Our mission at The History Channel is to make history come alive, so viewers can experience history in a real and meaningful way," he says. "We are delighted that John was able to connect so powerfully with our programming. We have always believed strongly that our television programming can be an important component of education both at home and in the classroom." —Shirley Brady

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