Serious TV Finds a Growing Market

By Prato, Lou | American Journalism Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Serious TV Finds a Growing Market


Prato, Lou, American Journalism Review


Local television stations are rarely known for airing documentaries, but recently some companies have found a small but growing market for them. These entrepreneurs are not churning out pap on celebrities or such hackneyed subjects as teenage prostitution. They believe the public wants in-depth information on issues ranging from the economy to health care.

A. H. Belo Corp., owner of the Dallas Morning News, created a small documentary unit for its five television stations to produce hour-long reports. Two have aired in prime time on its stations under the title, "American Portrait." The first was about the political climate and voter disaffection in 1992; the second focused on competition and pollution problems facing the American auto industry.

The documentaries are divided into five segments with each Belo station responsible for producing one. Belo executives say this segmentation may help them sell the documentaries to stations outside the group. A station in Seattle or Grand Rapids, for example, could replace a component produced by Belo's Norfolk or Tulsa stations to give the documentary its own local slant.

"We're not only doing something for our news image in each of our markets, but we're making money, too," says Marty Haag, vice president of news for Belo's broadcast division. "The first two [documentaries] were produced for about $50,000 and we made a profit on each. But we also think there is an |after market,' through sales to other groups and TV stations and even to cable and video cassette. With 150 to 500 cable channels available soon, there's going to be a need for programs to fill all that air time."

Belo isn't the first company to try to sell its locally produced efforts elsewhere. Boston's WCVB, for one, has been doing it for years. What makes the Belo project unusual is that most stations - and the networks - have been cutting back or eliminating traditional documentaries.

Local newsmagazines are much more popular. These programs are patterned after "60 Minutes," covering three or four different subjects, or "Nightline," where guests are interviewed live about a single news issue. Many stations are also using their limited resources to devote more time to a specific subject during their newscasts.

KING in Seattle and WCCO in Minneapolis have well-earned reputations for their award-winning documentaries, but neither produces the volume it once did. "We now average two docs a year rather than the four we did in the mid-1970s," says WCCO News Director John Lansing. …

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