Busy Towers Proves Power of Nonfiction

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Chicago-based Towers Productions, producer of such cable series as “American Justice,” “Inside 911” and “Storm Stories,” is kicking off its 20th year in business with a number of new assignments from Discovery Communications.
With the economy in recession, Towers this year may not be able to top the record year it had in 2008, but there are signs that the economic downturn has yet to hit the nonfiction production industry.
Nevertheless, Towers has restructured to generate additional revenue from its Chicago-based facilities. The restructuring also leaves company founder and chairman Jonathan Towers free to mastermind production while CEO William Fisher takes care of the business side of the company.
Towers’ new assignments include “Secret America,” “The Science of Interrogation” and “Most Wanted” for the Discovery Channel. It also is making 13 hours of “Undercover: Double Life” for Investigation Discovery and “Animal Witness” for Discovery’s Animal Planet.
“They are great storytellers and they’re terrific on the research side,” said Discovery Channel President and General Manager John Ford. “It means that you can count on them to have gotten the facts right, and you count on them to have covered all of them and count on them to tell a good story.”
Despite the economic downturn, Mr. Ford said, Discovery is still in the market for original programming, and plans to deliver 120 original hours per quarter.
While networks may be looking to save money in other areas, “Content is going to be the last thing we touch,” he said.
Executives at many programming networks have said they will be trying to maintain their spending on programming. That’s kept production companies busy so far.
“No producer’s come to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, work’s drying up.’ We haven’t seen that yet,” Mr. Ford said.
While being tough on costs, “We can’t let quality suffer for the savings,” he added. “If quality goes down, appeal goes down, and that’s not good. We’ve got to stick to our guns there.”
That’s good for production companies such as Towers, which provides programs for a range of networks including A&E, Biography, MSNBC, NBC, National Geographic Channel, PBS and the Weather Channel.
It’s best known for its work on series such as “American Justice,” “Biography” and “Storm Stories.” It produced the highest-rated shows for National Geographic, “Inside 911,” and Animal Planet, with the first episode of “Animal Witness,” which featured former quarterback Michael Vick’s dogs.
Mr. Fisher acknowledged the company faces “economic headwinds,” but said he hasn’t seen business dry up.
“Down is the new up,” he said. “Any downturn in revenues we expect we will pick up through these new business areas we are entering.”
As part of its restructuring, Tower Holdings Inc. was created, with three subsidiaries: Towers Productions; Towers Post, a post-production and media services company; and Towers Rentals, an equipment rental company.
Since forming the company 20 years ago with $10,000, Mr. Towers, a former CBS News writer, said he has been investing in equipment and now has a full end-to-end high-definition production facility.
Mr. Fisher and Mr. Towers attended Yale together. Mr. Fisher joined Mr. Towers in Chicago after stints at Star TV, HBO International and Playboy International.
“The new arrangement focuses me on the needs of my clients,” said Mr. Towers, chief creative officer of Towers Productions. “That’s great for me and great for my team creatively.”
Towers will be marketing its equipment and services to television producers on the coasts as well as in the Chicago market.
While crime and law enforcement remain the production company’s “core competency,” Mr. Towers said he’d like to branch out into new genres, including travel shows, like its “Perilous Journey” for NatGeo.
The company also sees Web video and branded entertainment as “potentially a big source of business for us,” Mr. Fisher said.
Its new shows for Discovery are in various states of production.
“Secret America” takes a look at the hidden symbols embedded in iconic structures in the U.S., such as the White House, Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument.
“The Science of Interrogation” looks at the science and psychology used to unlock people’s brains.
“Methods of interrogation are very much in the news,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s a lot less about physical intimidation and a lot more about the mind and endurance. It tells you a lot about human nature.”
“Most Wanted” commemorates the 60th anniversary of FBI’s famous list of top criminals.
Mr. Ford said any of these specials could become series in the future.
“You never know until you air it and see what the audience reaction is,” he said.
Discovery ID’s “Undercover: Double Life” looks at the perilous lives of undercover agents. The network has ordered 13 one-hour episodes that are scheduled to start airing late in the first quarter.


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