Tombers is the President of Intermat,
Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection
of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced
the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for
the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the
Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat
recently sold METEORS TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael
ORourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television
movie. Visit his
web site at http://www.intermat.tv
Television in the shadows of 9/11
By Mat Tombers
For the last few years there has been an annual event in
D.C. for non-fiction filmmakers. It's called Real Screen and
I went last
year for the first time and returned again this year. It was
gathering of about six hundred filmmakers and network executives,
mostly from the cable networks. It is an east coast centric
affair, which also gathers in folks from the UK and a few
from other European countries.
Like any professional gathering, it is a bit like a class
reunion, seeing folks for the first time since last year and,
cases, the first time in years. Old friends introduce you
to folks you
hope will be new friends; there are at least a couple of memorable
Real Screen this year was all of that.
There was a marked difference between last year and this
year and all day yesterday coming back on the train I was
put my finger on the change in feel. I took the Acela up from
Penn Station and then transferred directly onto the Empire
headed up to the country. I still haven't put my finger on
it as I sit
here tapping away at my computer keys.
I'm surrounded by all the swift little joys of a weekend in
the country, coupled with the pleasure of an incredibly warm
was nearly 60 degrees as we unloaded a new stack of wood with
pouring generously down on the lot of us.
As everyone went off shopping I curled up on the couch,
wrapped in a blanket and drifted off to sleep still wondering
different between last year's Real Screen and this year's.
Much of it had to do with the fact that there was an
elephant in the room and no one could avoid it. The elephant
World Trade Center Tragedy and no one could ignore it.
No one wanted to. There were good questions asked. Would
we, one European television network executive asked on a panel,
so surprised by the attack if our own news networks had done
job of explaining why it was that there are people who hate
us so much?
Around the room, more than a few people nodded their heads
in acknowledgement. Certainly I did. I will always be haunted
godmother's question, in a voice strained with pain and disbelief,
asking the day after the towers fell: why would anyone hate
us so much?
They have reasons. We may not agree with them but we should
know about them. However, the general despair that Europeans
have about world view was tempered at the conference by some
extraordinary work, work that came both before and after the
Towers. Specifically, people referred again and again to the
documentary, Behind the Veil.
But what was different this year cannot be just assigned to
the fallout of a grand act of terrorism and its psychological
The difference between last year and this year rests on a
divide that is in the economics. The hallway chat was all
work last year; the hallway chat this year was about there
work to get. The producers' lament was the dearth of opportunity
compared with other years; stories of producers who had worked
and unbrokenly for two decades suddenly finding themselves
Or the numbers of verbal commitments made by networks that
have been pushed back, again and again, or are now lost in
a huge stony
silence from network executives who have not had budgets released.
The difference between last year and this was about two
things, the shape of content since 9/11 and about how that
the stunning red exclamation point in the financials of almost
commissioning editor in America.
The playing field of network economics has been changing on
the broadcast level for several years, moving slowly toward
slow change has been accelerated by the advertising catastrophe
year and the irrational exuberance that shaped 2001 budget
A year ago, the cable networks who were doing most of the
work now in the non-news non fiction area, were in healthy
shape - or
felt like they were. But they too were swept up in the advertising
downturn. MTV Networks was down by nearly 200 million dollars
revenue according to one departed executive, who announced
resignation right before the pink slips hit over 450 of his
Other networks were hit as badly and so programming commissions
been slowed down, or in some cases, halted. One weary executive
me as we sipped our drinks just before the conference began
wasn't sure how she was going to do it but she was being asked
more with less money. She would do it because she had to and
want to fail but, at that moment, she hadn't a clue how she
was going to
Other network executives sounded similar complaints while
those that didn't were, I suspect, spouting a company line
quite chive with the reality of their pocketbooks.
The difference between last year and this was in the dollars
that are around. Yes, 9/11 was terrible and its causes and
for great opportunities for responsible story telling but
responsible stories won't be told if there is no gold to fund
filmmakers - and that was the fear in the voices of every
met. The coffers were emptier than they had been for a long
From 9/11 we are all living a new civic reality and
filmmakers are struggling to grapple with that as well as
that it will be harder to find the funds to support their
work and that
the love they pour into their craft will be more sorely tested
has been for several years.