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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew 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 In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at

Television in the shadows of 9/11
By Mat Tombers

For the last few years there has been an annual event in Washington,
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 a
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, in some
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 dinners.

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 attempting to
put my finger on the change in feel. I took the Acela up from DC to
Penn Station and then transferred directly onto the Empire Service and
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 day. It
was nearly 60 degrees as we unloaded a new stack of wood with the sun
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 what was
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 was the
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, had been
so surprised by the attack if our own news networks had done a better
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 by my
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 generally
have about world view was tempered at the conference by some
extraordinary work, work that came both before and after the Trade
Towers. Specifically, people referred again and again to the CNN
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 and
economic fallout.

The difference between last year and this year rests on a
divide that is in the economics. The hallway chat was all about getting
work last year; the hallway chat this year was about there not being
work to get. The producers' lament was the dearth of opportunity
compared with other years; stories of producers who had worked steadily
and unbrokenly for two decades suddenly finding themselves without

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 event became
the stunning red exclamation point in the financials of almost every
commissioning editor in America.

The playing field of network economics has been changing on
the broadcast level for several years, moving slowly toward change. The
slow change has been accelerated by the advertising catastrophe of last
year and the irrational exuberance that shaped 2001 budget projections.
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 in
revenue according to one departed executive, who announced his
resignation right before the pink slips hit over 450 of his colleagues.

Other networks were hit as badly and so programming commissions have
been slowed down, or in some cases, halted. One weary executive said to
me as we sipped our drinks just before the conference began that she
wasn't sure how she was going to do it but she was being asked to do
more with less money. She would do it because she had to and she didn't
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 that didn't
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 effects make
for great opportunities for responsible story telling but those
responsible stories won't be told if there is no gold to fund the
filmmakers - and that was the fear in the voices of every producer I
met. The coffers were emptier than they had been for a long time.
From 9/11 we are all living a new civic reality and
filmmakers are struggling to grapple with that as well as the reality
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 than it
has been for several years.