How to avoid making “exploitative” TV

Attorney Jeffrey Sveen
(for non-Flash version of this interview, please see below)

TO: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
RE: The Old Believers “docu-series”

At an all-hands staff meeting in September 2012, you asked a vital question: When making a National Geographic TV series about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” how do you find the proper “balance” and avoid making “exploitative” TV?

Here’s one simple way: Treat the people in our TV shows with respect. Approach them as partners and collaborators, not as entertainment assets. Be decent. Be transparent. Share. These people are trusting our Society to tell their stories to the world, and for that we owe them far more than just a paycheck.

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Consider, for example, a new National Geographic “docu-series” that’s about to begin shooting in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. The show focuses on a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, many of whom are now being recruited to appear in the series. Are we approaching them as creative partners? Are we offering them firm guarantees that we will produce a show that’s “balanced” and avoids “exploitation”? People in Alaska are wondering….

A few days ago, one resident of Nikolaevsk sent me an unsolicited copy of the “talent services agreement,” a 14-page legal contract that the “artists” must sign if they want to participate — and to get paid. This resident also asked me a question: What does this 14-page document say? What exactly do we get by participating — and what are we signing away?

Jeffrey Sveen

Jeffrey Sveen

I’m not a lawyer, so I sent the contract to Jeffrey Sveen. He’s the attorney who represents the Hutterites in their on-going attempt to persuade our Society to make right what went horribly wrong with National Geographic’s Meet The Hutterites reality series. Mr. Sveen generously agreed to review the contract, and to translate the legalese into plain English.

Listen to Mr. Sveen’s analysis and it’s hard to shake the feeling that even before the producers unpack their cameras, our show is already out of “balance.” In short, the contract seems to say to the people of Nikolaevsk: We agree to give you a paycheck to participate, but beyond that, we promise you nothing at all. 

What do you think, John? If you want to avoid an “exploitative” TV show about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” is this a good way to begin?


“Talent services agreement” for Old Believers TV series

Hit-and-run TV: Who’s driving that Big Yellow Car?

(to hear the same audio with chapter divisions, please see below)

car_at_night_headlightsImagine you witnessed a hit-and-run “accident” one night on the street outside your home. An innocent victim — let’s call him the Hutterite — gets run over by a Big Yellow Car, which then speeds away… but not before you get the license plate number.

The Hutterite struggles to recover, and tries to contact the Big Yellow Car’s owner — let’s call him David Lyle — but Mr. Lyle won’t return the Hutterite’s letters and phone calls. He’s a busy guy. As the CEO of a major TV channel, Mr. Lyle has much to do, and many miles to drive before he sleeps.

Now imagine that six months later you look up — and you see the same Big Yellow Car speeding down the street, heading straight at another innocent pedestrian — let’s call him the Old Believer. We think it’s a safe bet that you’d probably stand up and shout: Hey Old Believer! Look out for that Big Yellow Car!

That’s essentially what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. After the debacle of Meet The Hutterites, David Lyle — CEO of the National Geographic Channel (which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) — has sent a production team to the village of Nikolaevsk, Alaska, to produce a TV “docu-series” about the Old Believers. The premise of the series — religious community devoted to its traditions struggles to confront the challenges of the modern world, etc. — is eerily the same as Meet The Hutterites.

In an attempt to inform the people of Nikolaevsk about what happened to the Hutterites — and to find out the latest news about the pre-production on the Old Believers TV series — I called various people in Nikolaevsk, including Nick & Tina Fefelov, who are being recruited to appear in the show.

When we spoke on the phone, Tina expressed serious reservations about participating in the production. She also mentioned that National Geographic’s production team — Jarrett Lambo, Charlie Marquardt, and Natalia Livingston — would be at her house this Tuesday (February 26, 2013) at 10am to answer questions. Since I have a host of questions about this production — including questions I emailed to Jarrett Lambo on February 16, but which he has ignored — I asked Tina if it would be helpful to her and to the community if I joined that morning meeting at her house via conference call.

Nick & Tina thought that was an excellent idea.

On Tuesday, I called Tina. She put me on speaker phone and introduced me to the group that had gathered in her living room. Almost immediately, Jarrett and Charlie, who are familiar with what we do here at Society Matters, announced that all their comments were off the record. I encouraged them to let us share their answers to our questions — from Tina, Nick, and me — so the entire community of Nikolaevsk might better understand how a National Geographic “docu-series” gets made. After all, bringing light to the facts helps people make wiser decisions. But Jarrett and Charlie insisted they wanted this meeting to be “intimate,” and therefore it had to be off the record.

What to do? If I was guided by the journalistic standards of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — which is infamous for hacking the phone of a dead school girl, and which also owns the National Geographic Channel — I’d probably post the whole interview anyway. But that’s unethical. If Jarrett & his team refuse to publicly answer some rather simple questions, that’s obviously their right.

But the questions I raised during our discussion — well, those are my questions, and they’re hardly new ones.

So here again are my questions, comments, and concerns — this time in audio form — from Tuesday’s Q&A at Nick & Tina’s house. But since Jarrett and Charlie insisted that everything they said was off the record, I’ve removed all comments by Jarrett, Charlie, and Natalia. (Instead of their voices, you’ll just hear an audio whoosh.)

The people of Nikolaevsk won’t find any answers in this audio, but they might find a few questions that are worth asking again… if and when you see Jarrett, Charlie and Natalia around town:

Three victims of NGC’s “factual fiction” speak out

To: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic
Re: The Joke That Isn’t

During your presentation at last week’s all-hands staff meeting at NGS headquarters, you decided to go for a big laugh this way:

Now, meet three members of the Romani community (“gypsy” is an epithet) — Daniele Morgan, Aaron Williams, and Tony Hutson — who are stepping forward to tell you why “factual fiction” like National Geographic’s American Gypsies is not funny. Instead, it’s been a nightmare:


John Fahey rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re requesting one — partly to ask him this question:
What, if anything, would you like to say to Daniele, Aaron & Tony?
You can help us get an answer to this question
by clicking Like, below.

333 more people like Dear John: Let’s Talk but we can’t include their names.
(They’re either not on Facebook, or they’ve asked to remain anonymous.)
If you’re in the same boat, please email me
alan [at] societymatters [dot] org
and I’ll increase the total tally by one.

Jeff Collins: Insults, a threat… and then silence

For several weeks, I’ve been trying to get an interview with Jeff Collins, the executive producer of National Geographic’s TV series Meet The Hutterites. I asked Jeff, via Twitter, for an online Q&A; I called his office to try and set up a time to talk; and I made a formal interview request via the media relations folks at the National Geographic Channel. But no luck.

Best I can tell, Jeff Collins has no interest in describing exactly how he produced his reality TV series — even though shedding some light on what happened behind the scenes at Montana’s King Ranch Colony, where the series was shot, would probably help end the controversy that’s been swirling around the show for months.

Early this week, via Twitter, I once again asked Jeff why he refused to discuss the making of “MTH” (Meet The Hutterites). His response: insults and a threat.

Trying to maintain a positive tone, I replied:

Within 24 hours, Jeff disappeared — and shut down his Twitter account:

For those of us who had been chatting with Jeff on Twitter… well, we were puzzled:

Seeking honest answers to fair questions in a public venue clearly upset Jeff, which tells you most of what you need to know about the making of Meet The Hutterites.

Then again, Jeff may have simply taken a page from National Geographic’s increasingly familiar communications playbook: When confronted with uncomfortable questions, remain silent until the questions go away.

John Fahey National Geographic

Jeff Collins & the burning of the “barn”

Jeff Collins, executive producer of National Geographic’s American Colony: Meet the Hutterites, recently did a publicity interview on a Billings, Montana, radio station. (The series was shot in Montana.)

Unfortunately, Mr. Collins is peddling a rather… well, let’s say a “painfully incomplete” account of what happened during the making of Meet The Hutterites:

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Much more coming soon….

How the sausage of Reality TV gets made (part 1)

 From Making of the Hutterites – POV, by Jeff Collins (with emphasis added):

I’d never heard of a Hutterite before, I was familiar with Amish and Mennonites but not Hutterite. Trever kept telling us how open and friendly they were and how much they like to have a good time, which certainly didn’t hurt given previous experiences, I’d had been visiting Amish families who were all lovely but weren’t nearly as open. Everybody in my office thought I was crazy, but I gambled on this one and gave Trever and his producing partners a sizzle reel budget and sent them off to get the goods with a strict outline of what we needed them to bring back. I knew instinctively the Hutterites wouldn’t necessarily trust me or any other ” Hollywood types “ but Trever grew up with them and as far as they were concerned, he was just going to shoot some footage for a possible TV project. He was the kid the ladies bounced on their lap as a baby and the young man the men had taught how to hunt when he was a teen — he was family and our passport to their world. We drew up a very simple LOI [Letter of Intent] as a show of good faith and trusted we would be able to work out all the details if we found a buyer.

My plan worked. Trever, his dad and his two producing partners spent about a week with the Hutterites and really captured them in their natural state, being themselves, comfortable in their own skin and what we saw when the footage started coming in was pure magic. We cut the tape immediately, took it to market and had multiple offers. I decided to go with Nat Geo because of the brand and because of David Lyle. I’d met him several times before and found him to be a very enchanting, worldly, wickedly smart man. Mainly, I trusted him and I knew he would understand this material and treat it with the respect it deserved. Mind you, he wasn’t interested in me brining back stories about them growing corn, but he did understand that I didn’t want to do anything that the Hutterites might regret later. When we landed and were ready to shoot the atmosphere was very different. …


From an interview with David Lyle in 2007 when he was President of the Fox Reality Channel, which Lyle led before he became CEO of the National Geographic Channel. (The Fox Reality Channel was later rebranded as Nat Geo Wild, which Lyle also oversees):

What is the key element that makes a program right for your network?
Something that is Reality (unscripted) entertainment and is loud. We unashamedly like the fun of reality. This is not an education channel. If you were watching something outrageous on TV and said “What the %#*^ is that?” we would like the answer to be The Fox Reality Channel.

What programs and/or genres are you looking for in the next year?
We are keen to find our Observational Documentary style show…..The loud central character or characters in a fascinating world. … 

What can global programmers learn from the US cable network market and from your network in particular?

The cable diversity here in the US still comes as a surprise to outsiders. With the fragmentation comes the difficulty in getting noticed. Hence shows need something that can make them pop. In smaller, less fragmented TV markets sometimes all new shows get a fair amount of attention.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Bruce Gyngell advised when getting on a plane, “If you don’t turn left turn back”.

Ever given?
“Winners have parties, losers have meetings”. … 

What’s the smartest programming decision you have ever made?

Hiring Bob Boden to make the programming decisions here at Fox Reality Channel or buying into My Bare Lady by the time I had heard the second sentence of the pitch.

{The show My Bare Lady is about a group of U.S. porn stars who travel to London and attempt to establish acting careers on the West End stage. The program premiered on December 7, 2006.}


Here’s David Lyle addressing the concerns raised by leaders of the Hutterite community (“Distorted and damaging and we feel betrayed…”) about the TV show Meet The Hutterites (letter dated June 22, 2012):

In effect, Mr. Lyle is saying to the Hutterites:
I control what’s said about you on my national TV network, 
but I’m willing to meet & discuss your concerns in private, behind closed doors.

For as David Lyle says:
“Winners have parties, losers have meetings.”

And given the TV ratings for Meet The Hutterites, it certainly looks like
producer Jeff Collins & CEO David Lyle will soon be throwing some parties:


Jeff Collins, Confidence Man

Why do so many Hutterites at King Colony feel misled by Jeff Collins, the executive producer of Meet the Hutterites, a new series on the National Geographic Channel?

Because to persuade the Hutterites to participate in his so-called “documentary” — and to win their confidence — Jeff Collins took the good name of the National Geographic Society and performed some sleight-of-hand with The Brand:

{ Listen to the whole interview here. }

Compare Jeff Collins’ head fake (above) — in effect: the National Geographic Channel is like the Magazine on TV — with the following straight talk from John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society.

In this excerpt from an interview with On The Media‘s Bob Garfield, Mr. Fahey explains some critical differences between National Geographic, the iconic yellow-bordered magazine published by the Society — and the National Geographic Channel, which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp:

{ Listen to the whole interview here. }

The Hutterites would have been far better off hearing directly from John Fahey than from Jeff Collins.


P.S.: In his On The Media interview (above), John Fahey says the National Geographic Channel is now under new management. Here’s the Channel’s new Chief Executive Officer:

As the former head of the Fox Reality Channel, Mr. Lyle’s TV credits include: Battle of the Bods; My Bare Lady; Seducing Cindy; and Sex Decoy: Love Stings.

For more about David Lyle, see this, this, this, this, this, and this.


‘Meet the Hutterites’: The Story Continues

Mary-Ann Kirkby, who has been serving as a spokesperson for the Hutterite community, explores some of the troubling issues surrounding American Colony: Meet the Hutterites, a new series on the National Geographic Channel.

Howard has a “gigantic brain”

National Geographic’s ‘Meet the Hutterites’: A Discussion on CBC’s Radio One

Thanks to producer Sean Prpick, host Mike Finnerty, and the whole team
at CBC’s The Current for inviting me to join this morning’s discussion
about the controversy surrounding Meet the Hutterites,
a new series on the National Geographic Channel.

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