The presidential election has, as Donald Trump likes to point out, been ratings gold. Throughout the primaries, debates drew record viewership for cable news networks and late-night shows engaged in booking wars to put candidates on their couches. Appearances by Trump, Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went viral at “Saturday Night Live,” as did John Oliver’s nearly 22-minute rant about the presumptive Republican nominee’s name on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Even ABC’s “Scandal” threw a Trump-inspired figure into its alternate-universe presidential election. Everywhere you look on the TV landscape, you find political footprints.
That goes, too, for documentary programming. As the election cycle transitions from primary season to a head-to-head Trump-Clinton matchup, networks whose audiences are used to tuning in for a healthy dose of nonfiction have been programming to those viewers with more than just news and comedy. The tricky part is standing out from all the other political chatter.
At CNN, Amy Entelis, who heads non-news programming, assembled her staff more than a year before the election to talk about what could be done documentary-wise — a tricky task, given that CNN is basically all politics all the time during a presidential election.
“We had been pitched many different projects about the election,” Entelis says. “ ‘Let’s follow the press secretaries.’ ‘Let’s go inside the campaigns.’ We were pitched every kind of thing you could imagine.” But two things made those pitches fail. “One, many of them were things that CNN already does. They would be duplicative of the coverage that CNN provides every day. And two, we worried that it would be kind of overkill if CNN was aggressively covering politics as it always has and then on top of that we did documentaries and films around the same ideas.”
The antidote was “Race to the White House,” from Kevin Spacey and his producing partner Dana Brunetti. The series looks at presidential campaigns in the past, rather than focusing on current candidates.
|“We try to look at … ways that we can add to the conversation that are a little different than the talking heads.”|
“We went back to 1828,” Entelis says. “I’m not sure that anyone else’s documentary programming touched on Jackson-Adams for a full hour.”
But CNN is not the only network mining political history for contemporary programming. PBS’ “16 for ’16 series” looks at 16 failed presidential campaigns.
That series sprang from conversations the pubcaster had been having with producer and former MSNBC anchor Carlos Watson, whose new late-night series, “Point Taken,” launched on PBS in March.
“We try to look at where we have assets and talent and ways that we can add to the conversation that are a little different than the talking heads,” says PBS CEO Paula Kerger. “I think that’s why people look forward to documentary, because it weaves the stories together in a different format than you would get from just watching the ongoing day-to-day coverage.”
Longtime political consultant Mark McKinnon had been looking to produce something outside the day-to-day news cycle, but focused on a current election. His Showtime series “The Circus,” a collaboration with Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, does just that. A weekly documentary series happening in real time, the show airs on Sunday nights and covers events from the week prior. On more than one occasion the crew has shot footage late Saturday night that went into an episode fewer than 24 hours later.
“I pitched this idea for a while,” McKinnon says. “People love the idea. It’s the production schedule that scared the hell out of network executives, because they’re used to seeing stuff done months if not weeks ahead of time.”
The real-time aspect that makes the show so labor-intensive is also its differentiating factor, something all programmers are looking for during the election.
“Ratings are up, everybody’s covering it, everybody’s hiring a lot of reporters,” McKinnon says.
And if that energy carries past November, programmers will look to capitalize on it still.
“The election cycle itself has engaged so many people in the political process that I do believe this kind of programming could be done successfully on an ongoing basis,” Entelis says. “Whether we have the first female president or whether we have Donald Trump as president, I think that the political scene is going to be very rich and full of interesting opportunities for this type of storytelling.”