NBC News is an enterprise built on 30-minute and 60-minute increments of TV journalism. Executives are starting to think about longer blocks of time.
As the Toronto International Film Festival continues into this weekend, Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, and Liz Cole, president of the still-young NBC News Studios, will be there. “Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11,” a documentary co-presented by the Studios unit that features dozens of recollections by people of that fateful day, will get a special screening on the tragedy’s 20th anniversary.
“We are really honored by the TIFF screening,” says Cole. “We’d like to have more like it in the future.”
NBC News’ presence at TIFF signals its growing ambitions in the documentary space after forming the Studios in early 2020. The co-production, “The Way I See It,” about White House photographer Pete Souza, “was the most watched non-news program on MSNBC in history,” says Oppenheim, and Studios has found success in “Devil In Disguise,” a documentary series that streamed on Peacock about serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “The Thing About Pam,” a limited-run scripted series starring Renee Zellweger, is based on a story from NBC News’ “Dateline” and is expected to air in primetime on NBC. And the executives expect to become a more regular presence at other film festivals.
“We are going in the months ahead to be taking more projects out to the worldwide community and selling more externally, but it’s really about becoming a provider of premium non-fiction content to both our internal platforms and to external partners,” says Oppenheim. “We are on our way to that.”
There are other reasons to chart this course. CNN, perhaps the most direct rival to NBCUniversal’s news operations, is already there. Its CNN Films division has gained notice for documentary projects ranging from “Blackfish,” which tells the story of a Sea World trainer killed by an orca there in 2010, to “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me,” a look at the crooner’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease while trying to complete a tour. CNN Films commissions some work and in other cases secures rights to run documentaries on CNN and give them a broader public window.
In a media sector increasingly dependent on streaming, documentaries have new pull. They stand up to repeated viewing and can be discovered by new viewers over time, which means they can serve as a stalwart of any video hub’s content library. NBC News opened Studios as part of a pivot to serve a growing interest in on-demand viewing. Its predecessor unit, Peacock Productions, was largely focused on creating limited-run docuseries for other cable networks — a business that has begun to dwindle as media companies put more resources into building new streaming stores.
NBC News Studios is working with a group of top directors, including Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris, known for such work as “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War.” Julie Cohen, who produced and directed the celebrated documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “RBG,” is at work on a project are Nicole Newnham, known for the film “Crip Camp,” and Dawn Porter, who was behind “Good Trouble” and “The Way I See It.”
Executives think their operation brings some things to the production process that others cannot, says Cole, including NBC News’ vast archives and teams of journalists who have covered many of the issues and stories ripe for treatment. The company also wants to be choosey, says Cole. “We are going to be really selective. There are two key questions we ask ourselves: Do we love this story? And what can we bring to it that’s unique?”