U.K.'s ITN Productions Finds Success With Donald Trump TV Docs

ITN Productions editorial director Chris Shaw - P 2017
Courtesy of ITN Productions

"There are very few people who are this sort of box-office or gold dust for TV documentary producers," says editorial director Chris Shaw.

ITN Productions, the commercial production arm of British TV news powerhouse ITN, has had much success with fast-turnaround Donald Trump TV documentaries for the U.K. and some international markets over the past year and a half.

ITN, owned by ITV (40 percent), Daily Mail and General Trust (20 percent), Thomson Reuters (20 percent) and UBM (20 percent), is known for its current-affairs, factual, sports and other programs. After earlier this year earning its first-ever Oscar nomination for documentary short Watani: My Homeland, which documents the refugee journey of a Syrian family to Germany, the company earlier this week won a Realscreen Award in the nonfiction crime and investigation category for Interview With a Murderer.

But Trump has increasingly come into focus for the company over the past 18 months.

Last year, ITN Productions delivered four primetime documentaries covering Trump’s presidential-election campaign and win, all commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 and fronted by Channel 4 News Europe editor and presenter Matt Frei, and then also sold them to international markets. Two more have so far followed this year, and a seventh one is in the works.

In addition to the straight docs, ITN Productions has also produced three political-discussion programs for Channel 4 around live coverage of the presidential debates, in which Trump and his comments were also a key draw.

That has made Trump the subject ITN Productions has done the most documentaries on, according to the company. And the docs have drawn strong ratings in the U.K. On a combined basis, they have attracted a consolidated audience of over 9 million viewers, according to Channel 4.

"We don’t often follow international elections and make programs about them, even American ones, but Trump is such an exceptional personality, as well as a politician," ITN Productions editorial director Chris Shaw tells THR about why Trump docs have become a business for the company. "Channel 4 was initially fascinated by the Trump phenomenon. And when they discovered it was not just fascinating, but something that was very high-rating, they wanted more."

The first ITN doc on Trump for Channel 4, The Mad World of Donald Trump, drew 1.6 million viewers in the U.K. overnight in January 2016, followed by an overnight audience of 1.8 million for the second one, President Trump: Can He Really Win?

"We found out quite quickly that viewers want to see him," says Shaw. "He is a magnetic personality you can’t take your eyes off. That doesn’t just work for him politically, it also works for him as a TV subject. There are very few people who are this sort of box-office or gold dust for TV documentary producers."

Daniel Pearl, deputy head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, agrees that Trump's rise has been a topic of interest and debate beyond the U.S. "The momentous political events of the past 18 months have dominated not just American news, but were seismic across the globe," he says. "The coverage and analysis on Channel 4 has covered the full breadth of the Trump campaign, election" and beyond.

London-based ITN Productions group managing director Mark Browning tells THR that ITN benefits from what he says is its unique position and reputation for covering the news and what lies behind the headlines. "There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s journey to become U.S. president has fascinated people around the world," he says. "The large number of Trump commissions we have had reflects not only the huge interest in this topic, but also trust in our storytelling and current-affairs expertise."

And Trump docs have become a key part of the company's fast turnaround business. "ITN Productions has made no less than 10 fast turnarounds this year on a variety of topical subjects, and this is a key cornerstone of our production business," says Browning.

Speed has also been key to the success. "What differentiates ITN Productions from many other production companies is that we can consistently turn around high-end, revelatory documentaries in as little as a week to two months," George Waldrum, the executive producer on all these docs, tells THR. "This is something we’ve done during the fast-moving events of Trump’s campaign through to his time as president."

He adds: "Throughout, we have tried to focus on the bigger themes emerging from the day-to-day coverage of Trump and, together with broadcasters, attempt to answer the big questions that we all now face. Central to this is our ability to put in the journalistic legwork it takes to provide fresh insight and revelation in all our documentaries."

The first Trump doc from ITN Productions was the hourlong The Mad World of Donald Trump, which sold to such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

ITN Productions followed that up with two hourlong programs with the title President Trump: Can He Really Win? in March and August last year and the 30-minute-long November doc The World According to President Trump.

This April saw the on-air debut of the 30-minute President Trump: How Scared Should we Be?, followed by the May release of the hourlong Ivanka Trump: America’s Real First Lady?

The material has also drawn U.S. media coverage. Among ITN Productions' claims to fame in that context was securing one of the first interviews with Kellyanne Conway last August. In it, she said there was a significant “undercover Trump” voter base, a comment that hit the U.S. news cycle and was widely quoted.

Asked about reactions from Trump's team to the early ITN docs, Shaw says: "We made a very determined effort not to be sarcastic or predictably liberal in our appreciation of him. I genuinely wanted to approach it in an open-minded way. But they still didn’t like it."

Is there room for more docs about Trump? "The fascination with President Trump has been remarkable, and the interest in his presidency and his wider family shows no sign of abating, and Channel 4 will continue to explore the wider impact of his presidency from all angles," says Pearl.

"The man is a gift to television documentary makers. He is the kind of gift that keeps giving," Shaw tells THR. “I would like to do loads more.”