Sunday, February 14, 2010

Working Through Snow

Getting back to this blog after a four-month absence has been a struggle, almost as much of a struggle as it’s been to continue working through the Blizzard of 2010. We’ve now been cut off for five days after the second snow. The first snow marooned us for only three days, before ploughs dug us out for just 24 hours between storms. For those who know me, you’ll know that Eaton Creative occupies a wing of our 150-year-old farmhouse, half a mile from the nearest road. Since the land belongs to a local university, we rely on them to plough us out but four-foot drifts on a driveway winding up the side of a hill render most snow ploughs ineffective. During the Blizzard of 1996 (when we were cut off for a week), a snow plough sent to dig us out even got stuck. Not that Maryland gets these winter storms more than once in a decade or so, but the Blizzard of ’96 taught us to hunker down, lay in large supplies of sustenance (mainly wine) and “wait for the spring thaw”.

Many colleagues who have stayed in contact by phone, Facebook and email over the past 10 days envy me the work “I must be getting done” with all this uninterrupted solitude. But I find myself intrigued by the law of diminishing returns that sets in after days of such isolation. With a kid’s drama in post-production, a major new series on Immigration starting production in St. Louis, and budgets to prepare for a series on longevity and African history, I’d expected to take advantage of this time to get ahead of the curve. But it doesn’t work that way; everything takes greater effort, and projects that filled my waking thoughts just ten days ago now feel distant and unreal. Even daily conference calls with my colleagues in Missouri on the Immigration series seem unreal, as though I’m looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope.

Partly it is the effort it takes to do simple things. Two days ago I dug a path up to the road where we parked one of the cars. We’d run out of wine so things were getting serious. Three hours later, I’d dug out the car and returned with milk and wine (normally a 20 minute excursion). Yesterday I went out to restock food supplies, expand the path to the road (so my wife could hike out without falling into snow drifts) and converted a laundry basket into a sled on which to carry groceries back to the house. It was a four-hour excursion and I returned exhausted and triumphant but with no energy or inclination to work on budgets or write editing notes. Even a trek to check on our next-door neighbor’s house, just five minutes away (he was gone when the storm hit and hasn’t been able to return), required a forty-minute hike through waist-deep snow.

Today the sun shines, the sky is blue, snow glistens a brilliant white outside my office, and I find I have even less inclination to work than I did yesterday (the law of diminishing returns continues). It’s like being sick; the everyday preoccupations of work and living retreat into the distance and the most ordinary chores (putting wet snow boots in the basement to dry or cleaning up the kitchen) take an energy toll out of all proportion to their difficulty. Colleagues call wanting to know when I will finish a rewrite, or get them a new budget, and I just sit, staring out at the snow with no inclination to work. Resolve leaks away like the icicles dripping from our gutters and my work ethic stutters to a halt. It takes me back to the Greek island where my wife and I lived for three years after we were first married. When the previous rhythms of life were cut, there was a period of listless inertia before new rhythms came into existence. It’s the same inertia I feel now; we live in such a busy world, focused on busy jobs, that we don’t see that it’s only the habit of being constantly busy that keeps us busy. The momentum of American life ‘feeds the machine’ and perpetuates an ongoing cycle of activity. Then along comes the Blizzard of 2010 and the cycle is interrupted.

A week ago I felt guilty about all those “must do” items on my production board that weren’t getting done, in spite of so much uninterrupted ‘free time’. But as time went on, the guilt dribbled away. I find it fascinating how quickly being cut off by several feet of snow creates a sense of disconnection and disregard for work that was of paramount importance just ten days ago. It’s lucky I know it’s temporary. When ploughs dig us out (maybe tomorrow) and, weather permitting, I fly to St. Louis tomorrow night, the Immigration series and my other projects will reassert the importance and urgency they had before snow started falling. Life will return to normal (I may even be inspired to continue this blog on a more regular basis) and the routines of TV production will cough, stutter and eventually run smoothly again. But in a strange way I’ll miss the cabin fever, the growing inertia, the lack of concern about previously important projects, and a realization that for this 'time out of time',life's realities have shrunk to a few feet of snow and a well-stocked wine rack.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Climate Change and the Media

This blog entry is slightly different from others in that it’s about the subject of a documentary I’ve been directing, rather than my industry itself. I’ve just returned from two weeks filming across America with four of the world’s top climate scientists, who have convinced me that the climate crisis is a clear and present danger. In the 12 years since Kyoto, scientific evidence for man-made global warming has become incontrovertible while its effects have become evident world-wide. This December, representatives from 170 countries will attend the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen to try and negotiate a new climate agreement. Success or failure will depend partly on how accurately the Media (print & television) looks at the truth and ignores all the noise and disinformation thrown up by those who oppose any action on climate change, often for short-term political or economic motives.

As a filmmaker, I’ve worked with leading scientists and activists on both sides of the climate debate several times over the years. 20 years ago I made a PBS series titled “After the Warming”; now I’m helping an Australian team make a documentary titled “The Tipping Point”. After listening to all the arguments and researching the science, I’m amazed at how many Americans still refuse to accept evidence that’s staring us all in the face. The science was clear 20 years ago (just not so conclusive) and projections made in “After the Warming” now seem prescient. We predicted increases in global temperatures, melting of permafrost and Arctic sea ice, global sea rise, earlier mountain snow melt, glacial retreat, increased drought and desertification, longer fire seasons, more powerful storms and much more.

Most scientists are conservative by nature, unwilling to support conclusions until fully proven, yet the overwhelming majority studying the climate are now sounding the alarm. The few legitimate scientists who refute global warming often argue from outside their areas of expertise with data that is incomplete, erroneous or out of context. A small 2009 increase in Arctic winter sea ice is used to debunk global warming, no matter that trends over decades prove the opposite, as does every other scientific indicator and climate model. The earth’s atmosphere is a complex system that doesn’t always behave as expected. But any deviation from predicted climate models is hailed by skeptics as evidence that global warming is a dangerous myth.

Limiting climate change means making hard and scary choices. It’s easier to hide our heads in the sand and blame others for a reality that seems beyond our control. For liberals, it’s easy to blame energy companies (especially the coal industry) for obfuscating global warming science since their financial interests are best served by maintaining the status-quo. Conservatives are encouraged to blame the “bi-coastal liberal elites” (as one climate skeptic told me) who use an “artificial climate crisis to impose socialist policies on America.”

The truth is we’re all to blame. America, with 5% of world population, produces almost 25% of world greenhouse emissions. Our comfortable life style came into existence only because of unlimited supplies of coal and oil. It’s not sustainable. But ideological battles over climate change are exacerbated when we (the Media) portray them as ‘Crossfire’ debates between pros and cons, equating the flawed science of a minority of skeptics with the overwhelming evidence gathered by climate scientists around the world. We seize on the controversy because it’s good television and we like to be even handed. But the science isn’t even handed and when we don’t do due diligence in respect to research data, we’re confusing the issue and causing additional harm. No wonder Americans don’t know what to believe, especially when interest groups fighting to prevent emission controls use ‘swift boat’ tactics to discredit the science by personally attacking the scientists.

Vice President Gore calls global warming “a moral rather than a political issue”. While wealthy nations can mitigate its effects, poorer nations can’t. Glacier retreat and changes in mountain snow melt threaten water supplies and put additional stress on food production and populations, especially in third world countries. Global warming is already causing sea rise, drought, crop failures, harsher storms, more refugees and growing political instability. This is only going to get worse over the coming decades. We can’t stop it but perhaps we can limit its effects if we take action now.

Winston Churchill once said “America can be counted on to do the right thing after she has exhausted all other options.” The Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen will show whether America and the world has the courage to think beyond short-term politics and do the right thing. I’m not hopeful; vested interests arrayed against action are still too powerful and global warming doesn't have the immediate repercussions of recession, home foreclosures or job losses. America seems incapable of worrying about problems that aren't right under its nose. I fear it will take a catastrophic climate event (Katrina writ large) before there’s a tipping point in public opinion sufficient to shame politicians into acting. The Media can either help or hurt this process of public information and awareness. We must report the real facts and the real research and not fall into the trap of listening to those who shout the loudest or reflect our own ideological bent. We’ve lost credibility with the public because we’ve forgotten our role is to ferret out 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth'.

History will judge our behavior as harshly as it will judge the behavior of politicians and corporations who oppose actions necessary to safeguard the future of a planet we all share. Humanity will eventually solve the climate crisis but the longer we wait, the more people will suffer and die, and the more painful will be the societal changes needed to solve it. Of course these troubles will provide opportunities for great journalism and documentaries but, as we observe the suffering, we need to remember we share some of the blame. America is not an island and we're all in this together. The facts are clear, the science is undisputable; our job is simply to discover the truth and then shout it from the rooftops until people listen. To quote the inestimable Bill Cosby. "Noah?" "Yes, God." "How long can you tread water?"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Long Shadows

As filmmakers, our actions and our films cast long shadows. I’ve been reminded of this in recent days as I’ve reached out to past and present colleagues during this current dry period. Most have reached back generously; several recalling support and encouragement I’d given them long in the past (which I’d totally forgotten) that they believe made a difference in their careers. But a few responded unexpectedly, revisiting old grievances about things I did long ago (which I’d also forgotten) which they’ve never let go. Our business is tough and competitive with disappointment part of the territory but the shadows we cast are colored as much by how we do things as what we do.

It’s caused me to rethink some of my own attitudes. Regular readers of this blog (and previous WORD FROM LEO journals on my website) know I’ve spoken dismissively of the quality of much factual programming on cablenets often enough in the past. While I consider such criticism justified, I wonder whether there isn’t a tinge of sour grapes in there somewhere. Oscar Wilde in his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” has Lady Bracknell say to her daughter: “Never speak ill of society, dear; only those who can’t get into it do that.” Long ago I got crossways with an influential cable executive which resulted in my being blackballed at a particular channel for many years; another action that cast a long shadow. It altered the direction of my career and pushed me deeper into the embrace of public television; not a bad thing except that it now leaves me vulnerable at a time when public TV is in such a funding crisis. Actions cast long shadows, and if this is true in our personal lives, how much truer is it with what we put on the screen?

An organization about which I made a popular cable series back in the 1990s recently contacted me to suggest something new and exciting, with the intimation of an ‘inside track’ in respect to access. That first series clearly left a good shadow. Anyone whose job is producing documentaries knows the importance of good relationships, not burning bridges and leaving the door open for a ‘return engagement’. Yet how often do we visit a new location or try for special access only to find the well poisoned by the actions of some previous TV crew? How we behave while making films also leaves long shadows. While it’s important to get the story, we also have a responsibility to treat our subjects well and not exploit them. Reality TV is cheapening our professional conscience when it comes to treating subjects with care and respect.

I listened recently to the cynical response of a network executive involved with a popular reality series who talked on NPR about ratcheting up the pressure on his subjects to “increase the drama”, then adding, “but it’s okay; they know what they’re getting into”. Do they really? I still feel guilt at the memory of a tearful and angry father blaming my exposure of his daughter’s behavior to the pitiless scrutiny of an American TV audience for her later assault. But I also recall the thanks of a grieving family for how we handled the tragic death of their son in front of our cameras. People don’t know what they’re getting into; it’s up to us – as those who do know – not to take advantage. The shadows we cast can harm others, without us even knowing about it.

I’ve been fortunate to see the positive impact from some of my shows as well. I recall the young mother of a Downs Syndrome child who came face to face with the Kratt Brothers on the grounds of the North Carolina State Fair just after PBS launched “Zoboomafoo”; she told us how the series helped her daughter communicate with her family for the first time. I also recall a young Coast Guard officer returning from a search & rescue mission where lives had been saved to tell me he was inspired to join the Coast Guard by a series I’d made ten years earlier. These are moments that validate everything we do. As documentary filmmakers, we are invited into so many different worlds and so many different lives; we must guard against abusing that privilege. In life, as in television, we seldom know the effects of our actions. We can hope we do good but let us also be sure we do no harm. As I look into those shadows, I’d prefer they’re not full of ghosts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Knock, Knock, Knocking on Network Doors

I have been reprimanded by several colleagues who remind me that my last entry was two weeks ago, and that a blog is supposed to be updated regularly, unlike the WORD FROM LEO’s on my website which tended to languish on the vine for years before being replaced. I plead guilty, m’lud (British courtroom etiquette) but with extenuating circumstances, since I’ve been looking for work. With corporate sponsors and foundations locking up their wallets and making signs against the evil eye every time a public television producer comes close looking for money, and with PBS itself “running on fumes” (their words, not mine), I’ve been forced to throw my hat into a wider ring (and, yes, some might call that “going over to the dark side”).

I’ve done plenty of cable shows in my time. I invaded Haiti with the US Army; sat in the back seat of an F16 patrolling the no-fly zone over Iraq before the latest war, filmed a college freshman Rodeo Queen getting branded on her left flank (at her instigation) with a red-hot coat-hanger bent into the shape of “daddy’s cattle brand”; even looked two grizzly bears in the eye with the comforting knowledge that, whatever they did, there would always be a cameraman and two hosts between me and the bears. On one notorious occasion, I was even arrested after landing from a helicopter shoot for “harassing manatees” (for a brief moment of glory, I was ‘the most wanted man in Crystal City, Florida’). Apparently ‘harassing manatees in Florida is pretty much a hanging offence! “I plead innocent, m’lud.” Luckily I was released without a stain on my character, but I give these examples to prove that I and the dark side aren’t unacquainted, although I’m better known for my public television work.

And as I go hat in hand to the cablenets – the only ones who still have (some) money – I’ve learned that a good reputation in public television is like carrying ‘the mark of Cain’ on one’s forehead. Cablenet commissioners shudder and make a sign against the evil eye before turning away, just like those corporate sponsors I mentioned earlier. It’s not unlike how salsa dancers might regard the waltz (the words ‘archaic’, ‘expensive’ and ‘glacial’ come to mind). But with the wolf drooling and howling mournfully at the door (otherwise known as a kid in college), I will continue to sing and dance as fast as I can. Remember Richard Gere in Chicago, singing “Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle”?

Today ‘knocking on doors’ is virtual, but I recall when it was for real. When I first entered ‘the business’ back in the UK in the years before Noah’s Flood, there was a tradition known as the Wardour Street Crawl (for cable commissioners who believe age equals old-fashioned filmmaking, I should point out I was only two at the time). Wardour Street in London is where the majority of British film companies used to be based, so the young man-about-town, hoping to break into the film biz, would knock on every door, naively hopeful that one of them would offer him a job. Being a sensitive and shy soul, I found this an intimidating and embarrassing ritual. But luckily Wardour Street had a pub on every corner as well as dozens of film companies; perfect for topping up on Dutch courage between rejections. By the time I reached the bottom end of the street, where it opens into Shaftsbury Avenue, the crawl had become literal, and a kindly production manager let me sleep off my drunk on his office floor (needless to say, the Wardour Street Crawl was not how I got my first job in television).

So now I’m knock, knock, knocking on network doors all over again but hoping the results won’t be quite so embarrassing to my ego. And with a hammock chair under the trees outside my office and a good bottle of Pinot Grigio on ice, I can always sleep off the alcoholic excesses brought on by rejection in comfort and privacy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Going over to the dark side

Yesterday I sent an email to a number of my industry colleagues announcing this new blog, with the heading “Going over to the dark side”. A surprising number of responses expressed relief that I hadn’t taken a job with Discovery Communications, which is what they first assumed on reading the heading. It got me thinking about why the Discovery networks have got this reputation, even known as the Evil Empire among producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Sure they are financially successful; the trade press has been trumpeting how their profits are up this quarter. But how far has Discovery fallen from the dream that John Hendricks once shared with me when he was a guest at a Maryland Public TV executive retreat back in the early 1990s (before he became a gazillionaire and handed over the running of his empire to a succession of predatory bean counters). He said he began Discovery to give audiences the same level of quality documentaries he loved watching on PBS years earlier; series like Cosmos and Ascent of Man. That’s not to say that certain programs across the Discovery networks don’t still represent such quality, but they’ve become scarcer over the years and the best (like Planet Earth), are usually produced by the BBC in Britain.

Of course PBS was Hendricks’ model. It’s easy to forget that public television was the model for most of the factual cable networks; each skimming off a niche programming genre (DIY, cooking, history, arts, nature, travel and many more) inspired by programs previously successful on public television. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; had PBS remained the visionary trend-setter in factual programming it once was, instead of relying on icon series so old they creak, documentary programming wouldn’t be in its present parlous state and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog (but that’s a topic for a later post).

The problem with the cablenets is that once they’d created a business around a single programming genre, they began to “strip-mine the ocean”, producing dozens of variants at different levels of quality until any uniqueness was dissipated. And once a particular genre lost its money-making luster, they began to cannibalize what other cablenets were doing. Hands up everyone who can tell much difference between History, Nat Geo and Discovery these days!. An occasional ‘tip of the iceberg’ quality show will attract critical acclaim and awards, but the majority lurk beneath the surface, an ocean-full of Mac-docs and Mac-reality (yes, there are some quality reality shows too) that fill screens and have as much nutrition as anything else in our Fast-Food Nation.

Some years ago, a top Discovery executive once told me that “the difference between an okay program and a great program is a pain-in-the-ass producer; and since my audience doesn’t know the difference, why should I put up with a pain-in-the-ass producer?” My 21-year-old son tells how he and his college friends like the Discovery & History channels of this world because they’re undemanding. The TV’s on in the background and they dip in and out; learn a few interesting things but can walk out in the middle without feeling they’ve missed something important. Media marketers love this model, breaking down viewing figures into 5-minute bites (it’s why pod casts are so popular). But is this something to be proud of? Few have yet woken up to the fact that this mass-commoditization of mac-media is as bad for quality media as fast food is for our health. But because the industry is run by those whose sole criterion for success is making money, no one cares.

Oh, dear! What does this say about America today? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about media, banks, health-care or anything else; we’re forgetting to do our jobs. No matter what the industry, job #1 is to satisfy the customers, not the shareholders. When customers are satisfied, shareholders make money; that’s supposed to be why they invested in the first place (before the era of predatory capitalism). The job of health care is to keep people healthy; the job of banks is to loan people money; my job as a filmmaker is to create media (in whatever distribution form happens to be in vogue) that entertains, informs or educates (and sometimes all three together). The job of cablenets, and broadcasters, and VOD suppliers, and all of the other gatekeepers in our business, is to give their customers the very best programming they can give them, not siphon off the majority of revenue to satisfy shareholders. We’ve lost track of what it means to invest in companies; because we believe in what they do; no wonder the Recession hit!.

There’s always going to be a surfeit of mediocrity but it can’t be allowed to turn cancerous, eating away at the quality that remains. Mr. Hendricks, I remind you of what you said all those years ago; that you were inspired by quality. You still have the bully pulpit, even though you no longer own the business. What if Discovery Networks became a beacon for factual quality again, somewhere the best media creators aspired to be? Then people wouldn’t have to assume that “going to the dark side” was the same as joining Discovery Networks.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Small Beginning

For several years, I've included a proto-blog on the Eaton Creative website ( called A WORD FROM LEO but I found myself only updating it yearly (if at all). Our industry is changing so fast, and the crisis in factual programming on television is now so immediate, that I decided it was time to utilize a more fluid form of communication. And so is born LEO EATON ON TV. It will be commentary, thoughts, rants, ideas and anything else that strikes me after more than forty-five years in this crazy business we call TV. A few years ago, a new breed of commissioning editor (most of whom were - and still are - incapable of producing their way out of a paper bag), decreed that the era of filmmaking 'as a lifestyle' was over. This is a serious business, they fulminated, and there's no room for people who just "do it because they love it". But in our business, we all work much too hard to take it seriously. If I must work all the hours that God made, and wake up bolt upright night after night in the middle of a production, worrying about the script, or the shoot, or the cut, then I might as well love what I'm doing. A producer friend of mine once said: "I want only three things out of life - to save the world, make a fortune and have fun doing it - and two out of three ain't bad!" Well, after four decades, I confess I've had more success making good films than I have making good money, but who cares; I've loved every moment of it! And perhaps, just once in a while, my films have made a difference.

The media landscape may be in a state of flux but it's still about telling a good story on the screen. It doesn't matter what distribution channel we use, whether broadcast, cable, web, VOD, streaming or even an island in Second Life; that's just distribution. What I've always cared about is the content, telling a good story, opening a window for my audience so they can see a wider world and gain a broader perspective. 'Good enough' is not good enough, yet 'good enough' is where the majority of our cablecasters land right now, or worse, while much of the 'professional' material on the web (separate from viewer-generated content) is just embarrassing. So LEO EATON ON TV aims to raise a small flag for quality and integrity over the coming months and years. And hopefully a few brave souls out there will even join me on the barricades. Our industry may be changing day by day - often for the worse - but that doesn't mean we should turn our faces to the wall and abdicate our responsibility as filmmakers. It's up to us to make sure it remains an industry we're proud, rather than ashamed, to be a part of.