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How Embracing Premium Content Early Led to Decade of Docs for Part2 Pictures

As indie production outlet Part2 Pictures celebrates its first 10 years, the company’s approach to documentary storytelling — premium content with high production values — has moved more into the mainstream.

“We have been doing what people now call ‘premium’ from the beginning,” says Amy Bucher, Part2 senior vice president of programming and content. “It’s as natural to us as air and water. We just think that’s the way you should tell stories.”

Lisa Ling has worked with Part2 for the better part of a decade, first with five seasons of “Our America With Lisa Ling” that aired on OWN, and now with “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” for CNN. She believes the audience for such premium content in which Part2 specializes has always been there, but the current real estate between traditional networks and streamers have helped provide a larger platform.

“Netflix and its documentary vertical has opened up the market for more substantive storytelling, and when CNN departed from what it did and explored this whole series route and the success it had has helped to open the market, too,” she says.

Over the past decade, Part2 has been responsible for OWN’s “Belief With Oprah Winfrey,” PBS’ “Nova” production of “Engineering Ground Zero,” National Geographic Channel’s “Hard Time,” Showtime’s “Dark Net” and Discovery’s “Dixie Mafia” as well as co-producers on the feature films “An Honest Liar,” “Bronx Obama” and the narrative feature “I’ll See You in my Dreams.”

Current Part2 programs include MSNBC’s “Breaking Hate” and “Story of Cool”; Investigation Discovery’s “Scene of the Crime With Tony Harris”; the aforementioned “This Is Life With Lisa Ling,” which is about to premiere season five but in production on the sixth season; and the upcoming “Chasing Life” with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. There are also plans to expand into the podcast space.

Part2 president David Shadrack Smith founded the full-service production company in his native Brooklyn following a globetrotting career that included seven years as a journalist in China and a stint as a director-producer at National Geographic Channel during its startup phase. What he learned in his years conducting interviews, Smith brought to the ethos of Part2.

“As much as you can, let people be the voice behind their own story,” he says, noting the Internet has made the world smaller but his approach to bringing the world to viewers remains constant. “The core thing I was drawn to was exploring our curiosity for one another. … From being out in the field, I knew it was about, ‘How can we explore the human experience in all its richness and diversity and universality?’ Bringing that into Part2 was the animating force behind all the stories we choose to tell and became our tagline, ‘stories through a human lens.’”

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Part2 working with Ling, which began on the five-season OWN series “Our America” before segueing to the current CNN show “This Is Life,” returning for its fifth season Sept. 23 (season six has already been ordered). Episodes this season are devoted to MS-13, the scourge of methamphetamines and what it’s like for fathers to lose custody battles.

Part2 Pictures has produced Americana documentary series “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” for CNN since 2014.
Courtesy of CNN

Ling first got to know Smith in 2002 when he was at Nat Geo and was assigned to help accustom her to the company after her stint on “The View.” They bonded over an order of Chinese food and Ling’s fortune cookie with an apt fortune that read, “Now is the time to explore.”

“I’ve worked in this industry for more than 25 years and I’ve worked with some great producers but it’s always about the sell: ‘How are we going to sell this project?’ ” Ling says. “But with David, it’s always, what’s the story we want to tell? What is the meaning behind this? What does this mean for us? What does this mean for the audience? It goes beyond just the idea of the sale.”
Bucher, who is also an executive producer on “This Is Life,” says Part2 brings a similar sensibility to all of the company’s projects — put people front and center.

“Whether it’s a show about prison or a mystery about a reform school in the South or a crime series, we are really helping people be vulnerable and open and share their story maybe in a deeper way than they might have before providing the platform for them that is a safe place to share their experiences, their emotions, their points of view,” she says.

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