Legions of new domestic and foreign buyers of documentaries are turning the 1990s into the decade of non-fiction television.

Public appetite for factual programming has given birth to whole new networks such as Discovery, Learning Channel and A& E, and producers of documentaries have rushed in to fill the demand. While technology has made it cheaper to film or tape most documentaries, a burgeoning aftermarket in worldwide homevideo and foreign TV has made documentary production more lucrative than ever.

Jungle fever

But all documentaries are not created equal. Buyers all over the world can’t seem to get enough of predatory animals mixing it up in exotic jungle locations, stentorian-voiced narrators discoursing eloquently on the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler as grainy newsreel footage of the dictator’s image chills the viewer’s blood, and special-effects experts – hunched over their editing machines – explaining how they created realistic-looking movie monsters out of pulses on a computer screen.

Less sought-after are documentaries that deal with social and cultural issues, says Marty Koughan, a veteran independent docu producer. “They’re being overlooked because the perception is that they have no foreign-sales potential.”

Although issue-oriented docus are not in vogue, the category as a whole is thriving. Two cable networks that didn’t exist 10 years ago – Discovery and A& E – now buy hundreds of hours of docu product every year. Public TV is still a major player in scheduling docus, and even a network such as TBS, which fills its lineup with movies, sitcoms and sports, still manages to produce up to 200 hours of docu product a year.

The biggest buyers have become automated teller machines for dozens of docu producers:

* Discovery and its Learning Channel sibling are given over almost completely to docus in primetime and latenight. Discovery will spend more than $100 million in 1995-96 for 905 hours of original non-fiction programming, and Learning will lay out $60 million for 722 original hours during the same period.

* The Public Broadcasting System, although it will suffer some cutbacks in government funding over the next two years, will dispense close to $100 million for docu series like “Nova,” “Nature” and “Frontline,” according to various sources. That figure covers money not only from taxpayers, but from corporate underwriters and foundations.

* A& E fills more than half of its primetime schedule with docus, led by five hours a week of “Biography” and the weekly series “American Justice,” “Investigative Reports” and “20th Century.” Sources say these programs represent an investment of more than $40 million a year.

Top-shelf fare

And broad-based entertainment networks such as TBS have set up high-octane divisions to produce docus that will add some variety to their schedules. TBS’ commitment includes everything from the six-hour specials “Century of Women” and “The Native Americans” to the weekly two-hour series “National Geographic Explorer.”

Various sources say a contemporary, issue-oriented hour for A& E’s “Investigative Reports” or “CNN Presents” can cost as little as $50,000. And if the producers can get their hands on material from a reasonably priced film archive, a historical docu that relies on library footage can come in for a low-six-figure amount.

But producers still pay through both nostrils for certain types of docus. “A natural-history documentary that requires 35-millimeter film and months of location shooting in an exotic area like the African jungle” will be almost impossible to keep within a frugal budget, says Mike Quattrone, VP of primetime programming for Discovery.

And TBS Prods, will spend three years creating the most elaborate docu it has ever commissioned, “The Cold War: A TV History.” Expected to run 20 hours and take three years to film, it likely will end up as the most expensive docu ever produced, although TBS declined to talk specifics.

On backend revenues, Ron Devillier, president and CEO of Devillier-Doneg a n Enterprises, says: “The foreign market has opened up tremendously in the last five years because so many new cable and satellite services came online. And documentaries have benefited particularly from this opening because they tend to travel better than lots of entertainment programming, such as sitcoms.”

Or, as Quattrone puts it, “there’s no lip flap when you’re covering over the English narration of a natural-history program with another language.”

“The appetite for documentaries is greater in Europe than it is in the U.S.,” says Sheila Nevins, senior VP of documentaries for HBO. “Europeans are political animals.”

Issues a tough sell

But, still, “there’s less documentary production that focuses on public issues,” says Pam Hill, VP and executive producer of investigative reports for CNN. She says that when the broadcast networks were producing regular hourlong docus like “CBS Reports” and “NBC White Paper” in the 1960s and early ‘ 70s, there was no expectation that they’d make money for the network. “They weren’t ratings-driven,” she says, unlike today’s primetime magazines such as “60 Minutes,” “20/20″ and “Dateline,” which would go off the air if they ceased to be competitive in the Nielsens.

And the government has to pick up the full $10.5-million-a-year production budget for PBS’ hard-edged “Frontline” weekly hour, says Cathy Quattrone, VP of programming for PBS, because corporate underwriters steer clear of it. (A docu social note: A& E’s Quattrone and PBS’ Quattrone are husband and wife.)

Issues of the day won’t find a home at Discovery, for example, which makes no bones about its lack of interest in doing topical investigative journalism, boasting that its docus focus on four areas: natural history, science and technology, adventure and exploration and history-biography.

But “Frontline,” A& E’s “Investigative Reports” and “CNN Reports” are regular weekly outlets for topical subject matter. And Rory O’Connor, president of Globalvision Inc., a docu producer – distributor, says he’s scored sales in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany and Italy for investigative docus on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the BCCI global-banking scandal and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, among others.

In all, there are more documentaries in production than at any other time in television history. And the saturation point doesn’t appear to be in sight.

The public is still clamoring for more docus, says HBO’s Nevins, because “reality programming has caught on. The documentary may not be a traditionally popular form of entertainment, but when it’s well produced, a reality show is just as interesting – and entertaining – as fiction.”

Not to mention more cost-effective.

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