NBC News hopes to be among those vying to make the next “Civil War,” “Capturing the Friedmans” or “Blackfish.”
After closing down its long-running Peacock Productions non-fiction unit, NBC News is quickly getting back into the documentary business with NBC News Studios.
The new division, led by Liz Cole, will produce premium documentaries, docu-series, select scripted programming, and content for emerging platforms. The new studio, which Cole will lead as president, has already struck partnerships with Focus Features and Blumhouse Television.
“We will pitch a lot of places, and maybe we will even have a documentary you can see in the theater at some point,” says Cole, who is also executive producer at NBC News’ venerable “Dateline,” in an interview. She plans to be on the ground at the Sundance Film Festival later this week to plant the new unit’s flag and hold talks with filmmakers and others.
NBC News had long been in the business of producing true-crime programs, high-volume non-fiction series and one-off specials for cable networks owned by its parent, NBCUniversal, and other media companies. But in a time when streaming-video platforms are winning subscribers in part with high-quality documentary programming, executives saw a need to pivot – particularly because some of those cable outlets are no longer ordering such series in large enough amounts to sustain a business.
To play in this area in 2020, media companies have to take bigger swings. AT&T’s HBO has won plaudits for documentaries like “The Jinx,” a docu-series about Robert Durst, a New York real-estate heir and accused murderer. CNN has ramped up its licensing and commission of documentary films about subjects such as Linda Ronstadt or Glen Campbell. Documentaries about Jackie Robinson and the origins of country music and jazz from filmmaker Ken Burns have been among the most popular offerings on PBS.
“There is a demand for high-quality content, and the documentary business is certainly more robust than it ever has been,” says Cole. “More and more people are seeking out that content.”
She believes the new NBC News Studios has a lot to offer, whether it comes in the form of access to the company’s vast news archive or even just staff support. She envisions pairing the work being done by NBC News’ investigative unit or newsgathering operatives with filmmakers. “I think we can create things that are really distinctive,” she says. Cole says she is in the process of hiring staff to help manage production.
NBC News Studios already has plans to collaborate with Focus Features, the force behind the recent documentary on Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” The two entities plan to make documentaries about pivotal people and events. Blumhouse Television and NBC News Studios plan to develop and produce original scripted programs based on “Dateline” stories. Blumhouse has produced “The Jinx” as well as the recent scripted Showtime series “The Loudest Voice,” about the life of former Fox News chief Roger AIles.
NBC News Studios also plans to produce a limited-run documentary series for Peacock, the soon-to-launch NBCU streaming-video outlet, centered on an untold story about one of America’s most notorious serial killers. And the new unit will house NBC News’ partnership with Quibi, the short-form video content hub backed by Jeffrey Katzenberg. NBC News is slated to provide original daily news programs to the new service.
The move will give a broader profile to Cole, an NBC News veteran who has been executive producer at “Dateline” since 2011 and started her career at NBCUniversal as a page and a researcher for an NBC News unit led by Maria Shriver. She has worked her way up through the production ranks at “Dateline,” with some interesting sidelines along the way. In 2000, was vice president and senior executive producer of programming for Pseudo.com, an early streaming video website. While there, she supervised ten hours a day of live, interactive programming on topics ranging from technology to pop culture to politics.
Quibi: The Studio will also house NBC News’ partnership with the premium made for mobile platform, Quibi, providing original signature daily news programs