Senior Vice President of Narrative Television at Participant Media
Television has an incredible power to inspire social awareness, understanding, and behavior change around key issues.
The best thing for any project is when it joins the public zeitgeist. If press coverage of a show moves past the entertainment section into op-ed and other arenas, it’s a sign that it’s made it into the larger cultural discussion which is helpful not only for the economics, but also in getting the messaging out. However, this is not something that’s easy to engineer. You could try to develop a social impact project based on the big headlines in today’s news, but by the time it makes it to air, you’ll often find the world has moved on. This means you have to try to look into the future to identify the themes that will dominate public discourse a few years from now. As SVP of Television at Participant, I’m responsible for trying to address these considerations when building Participant’s narrative television slate.
Central Park Five
Ava DuVernay is working with Participant Media, Harpo Films, and Tribeca Productions to bring the notorious story of the Central Park Five jogger case to Netflix, for premiere in 2019.
Based on a true story that gripped the nation, Central Park Five will chronicle the case of five teenagers of color who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four-episode limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. The series will span from the spring of 1989, when each were first questioned about the incident, to 2014 – when they were exonerated and a settlement was reached with the City of New York.
Petski, Denise. “Ava DuVernay Teaming With Netflix On Central Park Five Limited Drama Series.” Deadline, 6 July 2017.
Every year, Participant produces a wealth of content across a range of formats: narrative film, documentary, digital short form, and episodic television. The process for projects starts with a search for stories that excite and inspire us. We then option the intellectual property in a variety of forms: completed scripts, treatments, novels, existing films, life rights, podcasts, and so on. Participant’s approach means that when we option a piece of intellectual property, we’re not always sure of the form it will ultimately take. This allows projects to migrate from one internal team to another during the development process. If it ends up being narrative television, the project goes on my slate, and I oversee securing the high-level talent to create the pilot.
As an example, Central Park Five was originally meant to be a two-hour film, but swiftly became a limited TV series when filmmaker Ava DuVernay realized she had more than two hours’ worth of material. This kind of flexibility is a wonderful thing. It means that the content can determine the format and ultimately its impact, rather than vice versa.
Central Park Five really showcases some of the strengths of scripted television as a format. The true story behind the series — the scandal of five young men of color wrongfully convicted of rape — had already been the subject of an incredible documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns, which used some amazing archival footage. However, a scripted television version is able to dramatize real events that may not have been captured on film at the time the event actually happened.
Television also allows you to follow more characters and explore more plotlines than a feature film might, making it a perfect fit for a story like this with five lead characters. The dramatic structure of TV also helps, because every TV episode has five acts to its narrative, unlike a feature, which has just three. The ending of a film usually has a resolution, but the final act of a TV episode introduces new questions that make the viewer want to watch more.
We usually begin assessing the potential social impact of a project as soon as it comes to us. Our social impact team helps us identify the partner organizations whose work can be highlighted during a resulting social impact campaign. Broadly speaking, an impact campaign for a television show could have a longer lifespan than one for a feature film, which has a single launch window.
Central Park Five is (unfortunately and sadly) a perfect case study for social impact because systemic issues within the police system, the legal system, the penal system, and the post-incarceration system contributed to a marginalization of the boys at every step along the way. When you pair this limited series with Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, you get a pretty good sense of some deep-rooted problems that need to be assessed.
It’s clear that the right type of social impact project can resonate powerfully with audiences. However, we have yet to see how the evolution of today’s various streaming platforms might inform this relationship between viewer and content. What is clear is the impact the rise of this over-the-top (OTT) entertainment is having on viewing habits. A recent study showed that 2.6 million US consumers cut their cable TV subscriptions in the first nine months of 2017, which is a steep increase from the overall figure for the previous year, when 1.7 million consumers did the same. Meanwhile, the audience base for Netflix rose from 130 million to 137 million subscribers worldwide in the third quarter of 2018.
TV subscription rates
US consumers cut their cable TV subscriptions in the first nine months of 2017.
1.7M cut their cable TV subscriptions in 2016.
The audience base for Netflix rose from 130 million to 137 million subscribers worldwide in the third quarter of 2018.
Tran, Kevin. “Online TV Services Offset Cord Cutting Losses in Q3.” Business Insider, 21 Nov. 2017.
Streaming platforms like Netflix have clear advantages for content creators and consumers alike. Audiences can consume shows whenever they want, and in a full run if they wish. Meanwhile, the show’s creators are no longer tied to a five-act structure that must accommodate ad breaks. The only minor downside is that this flexibility has sacrificed something of the communal nature of television watching. When all of the episodes of a season of TV are released at the same time, people will watch at their own pace rather than on a set schedule, so there may still be value in staggering the release of episodes. This is more likely to create those “water cooler moments” that an audience will watch and discuss simultaneously, and which can ignite broader discussions of themes and key issues.
In the film industry, a “four-quadrant movie” is one which appeals to all four major demographic “quadrants” of the moviegoing audience: both male and female, over and under 25 years old.
Tomasi, Rollo. “Film Term of the Week: Four-Quadrant Movie.” FilmBook, 30 Apr. 2012.
The changes the industry is experiencing make it an exciting time to be working in development. Television is embracing voices that are new, distinct and authentic. Networks are realizing that previously underserved audiences have real financial power and are galvanizing themselves to use it. Once, the leading strategy was to try to create content that appealed to all four quadrants — female, male, over 25, under 25. Now, networks can aim to hit one audience with a given show, and to hit it really well. This revised approach to finding audiences has resulted in an increasingly diverse array of content.
While our commitment to social impact entertainment has remained constant, its place within and importance to society and culture has been growing and changing. The world needs TV shows that are created for these underserved demographics, that engage with the biggest issues of our time, and that inspire people to take action. We have never been more committed to making them.