I’ve learned a lot about the “entertainment” industry in the process of creating our documentary Opening Our Eyes. But I was a bit surprised to learn how one show derives its content. I won’t mention specifics, because I don’t believe that this particular way of doing business is unique to this one show.
A couple of days ago, I received an email from one of the subjects in our film asking for my counsel about a high profile program that is syndicated on various cable channels. The show essentially does short segments on organizations and/or companies that have stories of educational value.
I looked through the electronic info kit that they had sent and it sounded great, because they guaranteed placement for the 5-6 minute piece within the program, which would run on a couple of large cable networks. They also guaranteed a 1- minute spot on CNN and Fox News. Plus the production company would deliver a file ready for web so that an organization could upload it to their site and/or deliver DVD’s to potential funders or clients.
I continued to read the attached PDF’s which listed the production requirements and workflow that would take place if “they” were selected to be profiled. But what stood out and surprised me was the line that stated that a payment of almost $30,000 would be required, if they were chosen to participate. Quite honestly, I was a bit shocked. Here was a production company that was creating a syndicated program and expecting the subjects to finance it.
I’m almost certain that this company also makes a hefty sum from the cable networks who in turn get money from their advertisers. That doesn’t surprise me a bit. But I didn’t know that it had become part of the game to make revenue off the subjects of the stories!
Perhaps that might not sound all that bad because it’s just business in a free economy, but quite honestly it has really changed my thinking about networks that run stories about people, organizations or institutions that have educational value. Now when I watch a show like this, I will question the credibility of the causes and organizations that are being profiled, because I know that this “door to distribution” is only open for those who can pay. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories they run are about the most deserving subjects or even the most compelling stories. It simply means that the people behind these stories had the funds to “pay to play”.
I think back on all the extraordinary people that we met last summer while making our documentary. Most of them would be hard put to find this kind of money and if they did they would probably put it right back into their causes and the people they are trying to help – not a production company that is making money off both ends. I went in the “red” doing this documentary with the hopes that it will cause a shift in the way we think and that it will move people to action to make a difference in the world. I figured that’s the least I could do – use my skills as a storyteller to create a film that would raise awareness and help all our subjects and their programs.
Would I like to make money on this film? I’d be happy if I broke even. I’d be even happier if this film was seen by hundreds of thousands of people. But I wouldn’t dream of charging my subjects money.
Ronni Kahn of Oz Harvest told me “Just go out and do something – not for the money not for the recognition but for the sake of doing”. I suppose that’s exactly what Erin and I did. And that in itself has been the biggest reward of all.