Kurtis betting on crystal-clear future

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Bill Kurtis, the one-time broadcast-network journalist who bet early on the possibilities of long-form cable documentaries-and thereby became one of the most visible faces of cable docs’ current golden age-is placing a new wager.
This time he’s betting on the future of HDTV.
His Kurtis Productions, based in Chicago, creates documentaries for the A&E Network, particularly for the “Investigative Reports” series, which Mr. Kurtis narrates and produces.
Mr. Kurtis’ company creates about 30 hours of programming a year for A&E; and he narrates and “fronts” a total of around 100 shows a year (including “American Justice” and “Cold Case Files,” an “Investigative Reports” spinoff, as well as various other specials) for the cable network, where he is under exclusive contract. And whether his company produces the shows or Mr. Kurtis merely appears as host, all of the programs are owned outright by the network.
One purpose of his new company, Kurtis HD, is to change that. Kurtis HD is in the early stages of creating a library of high-definition documentary programs, which Mr. Kurtis and his investors will own. The programs include “Ice Island,” an already-completed show that is about a recent expedition to a giant Antarctic iceberg; and a documentary that will follow a July expedition to Mongolia in search of the tomb of Genghis Khan.
He is also in talks with museums around the country about creating big-screen HD venues, and he’s taking a road-show, environment-themed HDTV concert/lecture presentation called “HD Planet” to this fall’s COMDEX convention in Las Vegas and other sites.
Mr. Kurtis readily concedes that his HD work thus far is “on spec,” because “there is no HD market out there.”
But he is convinced that the market is coming in one to two years. And when it does arrive, he will be ready with product. “As we enjoy within the cable industry the golden age of documentaries, the networks hold the cards because they have the money,” he said. “They make the money, they make the library, they call the shots. That’s smart on their part.”
His investors, who will own a portion of the negatives Mr. Kurtis creates, have to be “willing to sit on their investment for a couple of years, based on the high-risk expectation that once HD opens up there will be a high demand.”
But as anyone who has been to a National Association of Broadcasters convention knows, HDTV is a dazzling technical marvel that has been promised repeatedly for more than a decade. Why will this time be any different?
Mr. Kurtis answers by recalling a recent visit to WGN-TV, the Chicago station owned by the Tribune Co., where he saw “cartons of high-definition monitors sitting in the hall. They have already purchased high-def studio cameras,” he said, noting that “Some 200 stations around the country are already broadcasting in HD.”
Moreover, said Mr. Kurtis, there’s a “distinct possibility” that HD will become a big-screen theatrical reality in the near future as well. George Lucas for one is filming the next “Star Wars” episode on high-definition video, and James Cameron (“Titanic”) is developing a lightweight, shoulder-carried camera capable of shooting 3-D HD, according to Mr. Kurtis. The biggest misconceptions about HD, he said, are that it is expensive and unwieldy.
This fall will mark the 10th anniversary of “Investigative Reports,” and the network has a two-hour premiere special on the death penalty scheduled for October. There are also documentaries coming on “Teen Wilderness Camps” (June 19), “Nightmare Journeys: Justice Abroad” (June 26), “AIDS in America” (July 16), “Cop Counselors” (July 17), a Burmese drug lord (set for fall), the possibility of biowar (no airdate yet) and the battle between Ecuadorian indigenous peoples and Big Oil (no airdate).
In April, Mr. Kurtis’ contract with the A&E Network comes up for renewal. Does he think he constitutes a significant portion of the network’s brand? “Well, I certainly think so,” he chuckled. “That’s certainly the argument that we’ll be making.”