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Serious TV finds a growing market.

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. "But we now assign seven people exclusively to produce a three- to seven-minute special segment daily for our 10 o'clock news."

"I can't point to a station that has a regularly scheduled series of documentaries like the old |CBS Reports,'" says Frank Graham of McHugh & Hoffman, a television industry consulting firm. "Some stations do special programming from time to time, but that is tied into events or a specific issue. It's too bad there aren't more documentaries because I think there's an opportunity there for a station to distinguish itself and beat the competition."

Undoubtedly, there's a lack of commitment by many television station owners. Some are simply too concerned with their bottom line to spend money on documentaries. Others fear that documentaries invite lawsuits and scare advertisers.

For stations that want to air documentaries but don't think they're affordable, Steve Rosenbaum may have the answer. Rosenbaum, 31, is the founder and president of Broadcast News Networks, a Saratoga Springs, New York-based company that produces a weekly investigative program for 23 stations. Rosenbaum's program has a newsmagazine format tailored to regional interests. One version accommodates the needs of 13 stations in New York state, including New York City, and another is designed for 10 New England stations, including one in Boston. Subject matter has varied from crime to state budget cutbacks.

Rosenbaum believes the program could expand into other regions of the country, but he is even more convinced that his company, which now has a staff of 22, can produce documentaries for local stations.

"Our experience has shown us that the audience wants longer form material," he says. "The lead story of our show is much longer than [those on] the average newsmagazine and continues to lengthen as we monitor audience response."

Last year, Broadcast News Networks produced a documentary about cocaine smuggling from the Dominican Republic to New York City for WNBC in New York. "My company shot it, scripted it and edited it," says Rosenbaum. "Part of our agreement with WNBC was to use one of their people to anchor it. To their viewers, it looked no different than if WNBC had produced it in-house, but we did it all."

Rosenbaum says he's planning more documentaries, and while most news operations are trimming staff, he's hiring.

"To think you can actually make money on serious documentaries," he quips. "It's scary, isn't it?"
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Author:Prato, Lou
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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