Can local TV stations produce compelling documentaries?
Allow me to make the argument against that idea:
- Documentaries require significant topics.
- Documentaries require significant resources.
- Documentaries require significant talent.
- Documentaries require significant vision.
Now, I would never argue that local news stations lack the vision, talent, resources, and topics to do compelling work. But very few have enough of each to commit to producing a hour of worthy television — that is, an hour beyond the numerous hours of newscasts they already produce.
And yet, last week, my station premiered a documentary, “50 Years Of Change”, about the Civil Rights events of 1963; it received praise from both viewers and local leaders. It is a product on which I had the privilege to work, and of which I am very proud. It aired on our station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, last Wednesday, and an abridged version has been made available for schools to show their social studies classes.
How did the stars align to make it a reality? Let’s go bit-by-bit:
The topic. The Civil Rights movement is obviously a massive topic to cover, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington provided a springboard to launch into that topic. Beyond that, our station sits in a unique position in Atlanta, where so many icons from the Civil Rights era still live a half-century later.
The resources. Our station has spent the last few years building up its enterprise content division, to the point where it could afford to commit a few select people to an important project — even during what wound up being a busy August in Atlanta.
The talent. WXIA prides itself on its storytelling talent; we have staked our reputation on it. Our management has placed a premium on hiring great storytellers throughout its newsroom staff, from its anchors and reporters to its photojournalists and editors.
The vision. Well? This is where we meet my guest on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.
Jeff Reid came to WXIA last year as our new manager of enterprise content, following 15 years running the documentary department at CNN. Documentaries are his forte, and he had been itching to produce one since he arrived.
With the blessing of management, specifically our general manager, Reid got the green light for “50 Years Of Change”.
And it turned out great. In fact, it left me optimistic for the possibilities of long-form journalism on the local level. Stations can replicate this model and do compelling journalism in a meaningful way, if they so desire; they just need all four of the above ingredients.
Reid and I touched on this during the podcast, along with a variety of topics:
- The most essential ingredient to a great documentary: “You have to have great individuals — character-driven stories. People who take a story and talk about it. People who can bring those pictures to life.”
- Entering with a reputation: “I think people had read about my work at CNN. But at a certain point, you gotta prove to everyone else, ‘Here’s what I do for a living. Here’s why you’re bringing me here.'”
- His advice for aspiring documentarians: “If you have a great story to tell, tell it on your own time. If you knock on any network’s door today and have a story like what we did, they’re gonna pay for it.”
RELATED POST: PODCAST PREVIEW: Jeff Reid: “This is one of my finest hours”
RELATED POST: JFK, MLK, and crafting a Civil Rights documentary
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.