As our cable TV universe expands, local producers have become national "players"
by Coury Turczyn
It's about 2 o'clock on a fine Memorial Day holiday in the Old City, and you've got to wonder what the hell is running through Enrico Wallenda's head. The paunchy fortysomething is dressed like a Flashdance refugee, with a teal polyester jump suit, an orange nylon vest with holes cut out of it, and a scarf tied to his right knee. Worse, he's standing atop the precipice of the Jackson Ateliers, home of the JFG Coffeehouse, visible to all in his dyslexic clown ensemble. More than 70 feet below, on the warm concrete of Jackson Avenue, around 40 puzzled spectators gaze up at him in wonder, as if collectively asking themselves, "Why is that oddly dressed man interrupting our Monday off with...this?"
The short answer: cable TV. The long answer...well, that'll take some explaining.
For Mr. Wallenda is not your ordinary knee-scarf-wearing, rooftop adventurer. He is a tightrope walker, one of the last of the legendary Flying Wallendas. And he is here, bravely looking down upon the hard streets of the Old City, to do a job. Across the street in a parking lot is an industrial crane; attached to it is one end of a 7/8-inch-thick steel fiber cable. The other end has been looped around a cross-beam inside the Ateliers. In a few short minutes, he will once again risk death by gravity, and carefully tread across that wire in what he terms his "skywalk."
As the audience below nibbles on their Elm Hill brand hot dogs (another strange Old City/Memorial Day tradition), Enrico recites his prayer: "Jesus, your word says that a man skilled in his work will stand before kings. But the only king I want to stand before is you, the king of the universe. But not today, please...Amen."
Likewise, behind him on the roof, the local TV producer who brought him here is repeating his own silent mantra: Let's get this frickin' shot! Because if his crew of seven cameras doesn't manage to record a successful tightrope walk by the famed Wallenda, his two-hour documentary for the Arts & Entertainment Network is going to have at least 20 minutes missing. And that would not be good. That might just sully his reputation with the network.
What could go wrong, he thinks. Let's see...the wire is all bent up and covered with grease...the clevis clamps have about a thousand stress fractures in them...the four guys we hired from Labor World aren't exactly professional tightrope riggers...and he's walking over power lines--so if he falls, he'll probably be electrocuted at 30 feet, then go splat at 70 feet...
But the show must go on. And it does. Gripping his balancing pole, Enrico walks across the wire in about a minute. The spectators give him a smattering of applause and then go back to eating their wieners. The shooters turn off their cameras, and the relieved producer thanks the gods of cable television.
Those gods have certainly been smiling upon Knoxville. That Daredevils documentary, shot last year, is but one of thousands of nationally broadcast cable TV programs made in Knoxville over the last decade. With three independent production companies, as well as Scripps-Howard's Cinetel Productions, Knoxville has spawned a TV industry that no other city its size--and few larger ones--can claim. Whether Los Angeles or New York realize it, Knoxville has quietly become an industry center for cable TV production.
Specializing mostly in "reality programming" such as how-to shows and historical documentaries, local producers are creating (or have created) programs for every major cable network today--Nickelodeon, The Nashville Network, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Learning Channel, A&E, and, of course, our own homegrown network, Home and Garden Television. If L.A. or N.Y.C. are considered the Detroits of TV production, then Knoxville is akin to Korea--a somewhat exotic, far-away place with high-tech production lines that create high quality, low-cost vehicles. By one local producer's estimate, $20-25 million worth of national cable programming is produced right here in town.
But why Knoxville, of all places?
It's a moment worthy of a Wilshire Blvd. office tower: two smartly dressed young women wait outside his door, hoping to get a word in after his phone conversation; they've got a project to pitch. The office suite is plush yet hip: hardwood floors, bare brick, exposed ductwork in the ceiling, pop art leaping from the walls. If you didn't know you were in the Old City, you'd mistake this for West L.A., Santa Monica maybe. But then a dimensional shift occurs, causing a moment's doubt: Stephen Land has walked out of his office. And you think "Maybe this is Hollywood."
"How ya doin'!" Land exclaims, radiating waves of positive energy. He is supremely fit, suntan glowing, casually attired in jeans and a sport coat that fit just so. His sandy hair is...perfect. The visitors falter for a moment, giggling at their inability to reflect his intensity.
"The girls are out, and it's daytime!" he marvels. "So are we still on for later? This woman's got a project!"
Even if their pitch session goes down in flames, these women will probably still have a fun time doing it. Because TV producer Stephen Land clearly enjoys what he's doing.
"I love it," he enthuses. "I can't imagine what I would do if I couldn't do this. It's not even by choice--it's just something you're drawn to. I'm so fortunate that there's a really favorable market that allows me to do what I enjoy. Guilty as charged!"
And it's no wonder--the head of Jupiter Entertainment is on a roll. Since starting his company in May of '96, Land has signed with A&E to create The Grand Tour (a look at the historical playgrounds of the rich and famous), with the History Channel to launch Man and Machine (a historic documentary series that traces America's industrial barons and the plight of the American worker), and with both networks to shoot a four-hour special on the history of the Mississippi River. That's 26 hours of documentary programming for two national networks--quite a bit of work for his full-time staff of six, even with the additional eight or so sub-contractors. In fact, he's decided not to take any new documentary pitches for a while.
Despite his youthful vigor, the 43-year-old Land is no newcomer to TV production. He is, in fact, something of an established player. Twelve years ago he joined Cinetel Productions across town, developing such shows as Hey Dude for Nickelodeon, Easy Does It for Discovery, and the ever-popular America's Castles for A&E. In that time, he became executive producer and general manager, developing strong connections within the industry, particularly at networks. When he decided to strike out on his own last year, he was ready.
Fellow local producer Geoff Proud, head of Black Box Productions, was hired by Land to supervise production of The Grand Tour. He describes Land as a consummate "outside man," the one who forages in those network jungles and returns home with the trophy contracts.
"He's the guy who talks to the network. Three years ago, if I had called A&E and said 'I have this great idea,' I would never have gotten near the person who makes decisions," Proud says. "He's got the contacts--he is well known in the entire cable industry. He's also very good at coming up with ideas. Since he knows the industry so well, he knows which people are in the market for what things."
Contacts alone, however, aren't the only reason for Land's success. All of Knoxville's TV producers are benefiting from an ever-growing need for new shows by an ever-growing cable industry. Right now, there are about 100 different cable networks, and the number is growing as cable ratings get stronger, resulting in more advertising. According to Nielsen Media Research, cable networks' share of the prime time audience has increased from 8 percent in 1986 to 30 percent last year; likewise, the broadcast networks have seen a decline, dropping from 73 percent in '86 to 50 percent in '96.
"Cable television networks need programming desperately," says Proud. "Every day there's this big black hole coming towards them--they gotta fill it before it gets by. So if you've demonstrated to them that you can make big shows and do them on time and on budget, then you're in. Once you're in the game, then it's almost harder to get out, and that's because there's such an incredible demand."
Another factor in opening up the market for Knoxville's TV producers has been the advent of digital "off-line" editing, which has drastically reduced the costs inherent in putting together a show. Instead of physically editing videotape, footage is digitized onto computer hard-drives, allowing editors to slice and dice in whatever order they please without piling up huge rental fees at professional editing facilities. Once an editor has completed his rough draft, the computer (the most popular is the Avid) spits out a list of sequence codes for each videotape. This list is then fed to an "on-line" editing computer, which takes those flagged sequences from the actual tapes and compiles them into a final master copy. Avids--which can cost as little as $20,000 or as much as $150,000--have opened the airwaves to a lot of garage producers.
"I think it's getting highly competitive," says Land. "While the number of distributors has multiplied greatly, creating a seemingly insatiable demand for distinctive original programming, the number of producers has also multiplied. I think the barrier to entry into this business isn't what it was years ago. For a quarter of a million dollars, a guy can get into the business."
Still, heavy market demand and new technology don't account for Knoxville's large slice of national cable TV programming--how did all these producers, editors, writers, and technicians happen to establish themselves here? The answer lies in Land's former boss at Cinetel Productions.
"The godfather of this little cottage industry is Ross Bagwell," explains Land. "He's truly one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. Most people are either business types or creative types. Ross can do both. He's a shrewd businessman, but also a gifted, creative person. He's one of the most unusual people I've ever known. He says what everybody else is thinking."
"That'll look too damn big," mutters Ross Bagwell Sr. "They'll have to move that wall in, otherwise it'll look like, 'Oh my god, nobody has a garage that big.'"
Fortunately, grips are doing just that as the set is prepared for another episode of the how-to car show. Built onto the back end of Bagwell's studio facility off Baum Drive, Thunder Road Productions, the set actually looks like the garage of a suburban ranch house, complete with a driveway, shrubbery, and a dainty front porch. Inside the garage, the show's guest--a chemist from the Slick 50 oil additive company--mentally prepares himself for cable TV fame.
Finally, under the direction of Ross Bagwell Jr., everybody quiets down and the video cameras roll.
"In this test, the piston rings were literally nuked, making them mildly radioactive," the chemist nervously explains to the camera, pointing to a piston. "Then the crankcase oil was monitored every five minutes for radioactivity..."
This is just one of a handful of shows produced by Ross Television, the production company Bagwell started the day after he sold Cinetel to Scripps-Howard in March '94. His other shows include NASCAR Garage for TNN, Great American Train Stations for Discovery, and three other shows in preproduction. Bagwell's Thunder Road studio facilities--still under construction--bristle with high-tech gadgets. Every show is shot digitally, creating crystal clear images. The control room equipment is revolutionary--a compact, shippable system co-developed with Sony. Bagwell owns the only one, and doesn't plan on selling the design.
But these achievements pale in the face of Bagwell's other accomplishment--that of single-handedly making Knoxville a cable TV production center. "Most of the people in the business here today either worked for me or interviewed for a job with me," he says. "Just about every one of them. All the production facilities in this town."
In 1973, at a time when the only Knoxville TV production was for local stations, Bagwell resigned as president of ad firm Lavidge & Associates to form his own company, Bagwell Communications, to shoot industrial films and commercials. In those days, portable cameras were 250 lbs.--videotape machines were 1,200 lbs. and had to be carted around in an RV. Videotape editing was done with a microscope and a razor blade.
Over the years his business became a success--becoming Cinetel Productions in '76--yet he still yearned for a bigger challenge: shooting television shows. This was because Bagwell had started his career at the very epicenter of modern television's creation--at the NBC network at Rockefeller Center in New York City. It was a career he felt destined for, ever since he had discovered what television was.
"I was in the Air Force in 1951, and I pulled into a service station going to New Orleans. I went in to pay the man and sitting in the service station was a 10-inch television set with Milton Berle's Texaco Star Time on," says Bagwell. "And my wife kept blowing the horn, asking me to come on, but I was so mesmerized. This was the first time I had seen television. And from then on I was hooked."
A few years later, Bagwell moved to New York to compete for the much-coveted position of NBC pageboy; there was a two-year waiting list. Bagwell, however, managed to get hired in two weeks--by telling Guest Relations that the personnel department had sent him over for the job. Soon, the Knoxville boy in his mid-20s was working on the set of Howdy-Doody.
"I was assigned to take care of the kids--bring them in, bring them out, hand out Twinkies," he says. "One of the reasons why that was a prime show to have was because Hostess furnished all the Twinkies and I'd always have two or three cases left over. And that's what I'd eat off of for the next week, because you made $45 a week as a pageboy. In New York City, I got to the point where my fingernails bled, my gums bled--I was 163 pounds and starving to death."
Fortune smiled one day when some technical problems delayed the show--and Bagwell had to entertain the Peanut Gallery for an hour-and-a-half. Suitably impressed with his abilities, a producer promoted him to production assistant. And then he was off: The Today Show with Dave Garroway. Kraft Music Hall. Concentration with Hugh Downs. Do Ray Mi with Gene Rayburn. Split Personality with Dick Van Dyke. Arthur Murray's Dance Party. This is Your Life, Joe Louis. He had coffee one morning with Boris Karloff, met Ethel Merman, kicked around town with William DeVane and M. Emmet Walsh.
"It was quite an exciting time. The shows were all coming out of Rockefeller Center, with 3,000 people working at NBC New York. We had something going on every day..."
His mentor became Dan Enright--the very same game show producer immortalized in the film Quiz Show. "It was a pretty accurate movie," admits Bagwell. "But it was very innocent the way they did it..." It, of course, was providing answers to contestants on 21 and The $64,000 Question. After things hit the fan, NBC moved Enright to Canada to create more game shows, with Bagwell as his assistant. "He was one of the smartest producers I ever worked with," says Bagwell.
By 1963, however, fulfilling a promise to his wife, Bagwell returned to Knoxville, getting work at WATE; a year later he went into the ad world with Davis & Newman.
His return to national television didn't come until August of 1980, when David Hall, chief engineer at Opryland Productions, called to tell him about a new cable network they were starting, to be called The Nashville Network. They had started production on an original sit-com called I-40 Paradise, but it wasn't working out. Would Bagwell be interested in taking over production of the show? The contract called for 65 episodes.
"I agreed, totally without thinking about it," he says. "And then I realized that the way they wanted it, and the kind of money they would pay, I had to do one a day--I had to shoot the whole show in a single day."
This meant creating an entire TV production infrastructure from scratch: a multiple camera system with switching capability and a studio large enough to handle the set. About 300 lights had to be put in, sets had to be built; 13 writers were hired, a cast was assembled. It all had to be on the air by January. And they did it.
A year later, realizing he had already outgrown his ersatz warehouse-studio, he decided to build his own in West Knoxville on 11.5 acres of land. He opened the 60,000 sq. ft. facility in 1984 and started a long run of wildly successful productions: Hey Dude for Nickelodeon, Shade Tree Mechanic, Club Dance, and Randy Travis Happy Trails for TNN. In 1993, at Cinetel's peak, he and Stephen Land were doing over 500 episodes a year; Home Bodies for the Learning Channel, Easy Does It for Discovery, Remodeling & Decorating Today for TNN... "We became the largest independent producer of network cable TV," says Bagwell.
And that's when other media corporations came a courtin'--namely, HBO, Multimedia, and Scripps-Howard Broadcasting. Bagwell went with Scripps-Howard in March 1994, selling Cinetel for an estimated $20 million.
"I'm 65 years old. I felt that it had gotten to a point where I wasn't going to have the time to really finish it," Bagwell says. "I'd be strapped to that thing until I was 80 years old. Not many people needed a facility that size, so I felt at that time, I'd probably never have another opportunity to really get out of it. And I didn't think that anybody else could create opportunities for people like Scripps-Howard could. Scripps-Howard has the dollars and the commitment to build a huge cable network."
And that's exactly what it did.
"We do a lot of work. We not only support HGTV, but we support all the new projects for Cinetel Productions," says Fails. "And if those two in-house clients aren't using our facilities, then we're also open to outside client business as well. We actually have an account that recently had been doing its production work out in New York, and now they're here, which we think is great. We have the added benefit of a golf course and a nice little pond next to our building--I mean, just from a atmosphere standpoint, it's a lot more pleasant to work here in Knoxville than it is in some of the major markets."
That may be one of the reasons why Cinetel recently lured in former CBS News president Eric Ober and hired him as its new president and CEO. The company has declared this as being one of the first steps in its plan to expand into the realms of international co-productions and on-line programming. Although New York is still his home, the prospect of running Cinetel's Knoxville base was intriguing for the white-haired Ober, who looks more like the nice guy behind the deli counter than a former big-three network president.
"I spent most of my life in managing the production end, and quite frankly wanted to get more towards producing and less towards managing large organizations," says Ober. "I'm familiar with Scripps--it's one of, I think, a handful of quality, credible, reality-producing organizations. And the opportunity to work for their production company out of Knoxville was to me a wonderful opportunity."
Can producing reality-based documentaries and how-to shows really captivate a fellow who managed the prime time broadcast of 60 Minutes, or the production of West 57th, CBS Reports, and the CBS Morning News? Might not the popularity of this type of programming eventually dry up and blow away? Do these shows really have the legs to support such a large company, one that hopes to expand further?
"They have huge legs," insists Ober. "I mean, for A&E, Discovery, and other significant cable channels, the reality documentary genre is meat and potatoes programming. A&E is largely known as the Biography channel. The biographies are in effect news-style documentaries--they are reality bios of people done in a documentary form. And this is only going to grow. I think there's an enormous future for reality programs."
And again, the reason for such confidence lies in the growing demand for programming from more and more cable networks. Ober predicts that we'll soon be living in a 200-plus channel universe, prodded by direct-broadcast satellite systems. Dividing the TV audience by another 100 channels--and with each new channel sucking at that same advertising base--you'd think Ober and company would be slightly wary. Not so.
"The real issue is, with distribution going in a lot of directions at the same time, unique content ultimately becomes the deciding factor," says Ober. "And whether you're a production company in Knoxville or a network or a cable company producing for yourself, you must create unique content for enough viewers to reach critical mass. Is this good enough and compelling enough and unique enough for a viewer to pick it over X number of other choices?
"I think that will always be the deciding factor, so the fractionalization is not that scary to us. It's like being the publisher of a fine magazine--ultimately, if you're publishing a fine magazine, that magazine will continue to be read. It may get a bit diminished as people nibble at the sides, but ultimately its value will increase as other people get smaller shares. So content is everything."
Patrick Leigh-Bell, Cinetel's vice president, was with the company from the days of Ross Bagwell, watching the evolution of Knoxville's production scene. He believes that the volume of programming here isn't nearly as important as the uniqueness of that programming--"All the various entities in this town are doing good cable production." But when it comes to claiming Knoxville's national dominance, Leigh-Bell loses interest.
"I think there is a little arrogance in saying that we're on the map in New York or Los Angeles," says Leigh-Bell. "I don't think so. I think that they know of us, and they're respectful of the fact that we produce well out here, but I don't think that we've even started to really scratch the surface of those markets. Those are very significant markets, and I think that we would like to [enter them], and I think that we shall. But I don't think that's really the case to date--local people like to feel that way because we feel isolated here. I know all the people in the community, and I know that some of them may jump up and say, 'We're the largest in the whole wide world.' But I think there's a dose of reality when you walk on Madison Avenue or go down to Hollywood."
But Ross Bagwell's reaction to Madison Avenue's dominance is perhaps more typical of most Knoxville producers:
"In the early days I got a lot of resistance [from network executives]. They'd say, 'I want to stick with Madison Avenue.' And so when I built our facility, I named the street 'Madison Avenue.' The address is 9701 Madison Avenue. All my letterhead said Madison Avenue--just my little way of getting back at them."