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Entertainment companies like Disney find themselves in a challenging situation. They need to invest in new and growing platforms like Disney+ and Hulu, while continuing to keep the linear lineups of networks like National Geographic and ABC filled.
To help fill that gap, they have increasingly turned to new, in-house documentary studios, meant to help keep lineups fresh, and to funnel original docs to streaming services.
ABC News launched its effort, ABC News Studios, last year. That initial slate included 4 films and 15 docuseries, including a spinoff of Nightline and projects from Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulos, among others.
A source close to the division tells The Hollywood Reporter that it is already profitable, feeding a pipeline of feature films and docuseries to ABC, Disney+, Hulu, Nat Geo, and other platforms.
“I am so proud of the extraordinary progress and impact we’ve made in the streaming space in such a short amount of time,” ABC News president Kim Godwin says. “When I joined ABC News, one of my top priorities was to strengthen ABC News Studios’ content and revenue pipeline and build the leadership team. With Reena and Mike at the helm, ABC News Studios has taken off. We’ve created more than 100 hours of compelling content for linear and streaming that is clearly connecting with audiences and critics.”
Led by Reena Mehta, senior VP of streaming at ABC News, and Mike Kelley, VP of ABC News Studios, the division has already had a significant 2023, with Colin Kaepernick’s project Killing County debuting on Hulu Feb. 2, the Brooke Shields doc Pretty Baby representing Disney’s only project at Sundance, and the doc The Lady Bird Diaries set to premiere at SXSW next month.
“There was a waitlist, which was incredible, and also the press reaction, and the reaction to Brooke and [director] Lana [Wilson] and [producers] George [Stephanopoulos] and Ali [Wentworth] was huge,” Mehta says of Pretty Baby‘s Sundance premiere. “I would say it was it was extraordinarily positive, which is rare I think for a doc.”
As an internal studio, ABC News Studios can function more collaboratively with the platforms it sells to, while other producers may have to finance a project before securing a buyer, or nix a project that no one bites on.
“We’re an internal studio for the Disney companies first and foremost,” Kelley says. “Our economic relationship with each of the distribution platforms is slightly different. But by and large, you know, for the network, and for Hulu, we work really collaboratively with them to figure out the kinds of content that will work and then we have the greenlight financial control to be able to put programs into production knowing that they will wind up on Hulu or the network. And then with Disney+ or Nat Geo it’s similar, but it’s a little bit more collaborative in terms of what we want to do together.”
Among the projects are Explorer, the long-running Nat Geo docuseries, and a spinoff of Nightline, a doc about Cinderella (the 1997 TV special), and Power Trip, which sees Stephanopoulos mentoring ABC News embeds on the campaign trail.
But developing projects based on known IP like Nightline, or built around established talent like Stephanopoulos brings its own challenges.
“We want to set them up for success no matter where they are,” Mehta says, adding that they are focused on “making sure that it’s organic to who they are, and whether it’s the talent or the show are pretty in line with what they want to pitch and what they believe the show is, but then we try to help shape it.”
“We sort of say like, ‘this is what the audience is looking for, what are you comfortable with?’ And then how do we get the idea of that so you feel like it’s authentic to you,” Mehta adds. “So it’s a balancing act. I mean, it’s like with any relationships with talent, right? You’re like, ‘let’s just stay open about what’s working and what’s not.’ We try to be as transparent as we can as well with how things are performing and what the audience is looking for, or what we believe they’re looking for.”
And ABC News Studios also has the benefit of working with both outside filmmakers (like Wilson, or Stanley Nelson, or Kaepernick), but also the journalists within the news organization, who bring their own ideas and sources.
That has also led to an increase in the number of “quick doc” features, which take a breaking news event and turn around a documentary weeks or days later.
“It’s great to be able to you know, go far beyond the segments and headlines and create narrative stories over the course of an hour and that team is really good at that,” Kelley says. “And they’re also flexing their muscles to create longer cycle programming as well that we do internally. And then our ability to work with the best companies in the world. I think, you know, having those two things together create quite a bit of opportunity for us into lots of different kinds of programming.”
It’s a business set to boom, not only at Disney ad ABC, but at NBC, whose has NBC News Studios, and at CBS’ See It Now Studios, led by Susan Zirinsky. And other new-driven outlets are seeking a piece of the pie as well, from Time Studios to Conde Nast Entertainment to The New York Times, all are producing feature-length documentaries and journalism-driven series, and selling them to streaming services and networks.
With a need to fill networks and streaming libraries, docs and true crime won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
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