Nat Geo Takes The Archive Global. Case Study: ‘Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes’

The archive continues to power primetime signature shows.

But it takes imagination to find the topics, and the undiscovered ‘jewels’ in the archive that can tell stories in a fresh way and at an affordable cost.

This week’s Case Study is Nat Geo’s Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes from Peabody Award winner Tom Jennings Productions.

In a sign of the global value of the archive to both schedules and brands, Nat Geo is ‘simultaneously’ broadcasting their special as an event to 171 countries in 45 languages, and in Spanish on Nat Geo Mundo.

(Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes was later nominated for a Royal Television Society (RTS) Award and a Focal Award.)

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The Story

  • On Jan. 28, 1986, with the eyes of the world watching, the space shuttle abruptly burst into flames during a live television broadcast.
  • On board was Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old mother of two, and a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire.
  • She was on her way to becoming the first American civilian in space, and had been the focus of intense pre-launch publicity.
  • All seven crewmembers died.

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Trailer

 

https://vimeo.com/152733620

 

1. DEVELOPMENT

Concept

  • Tom Jennings developed the original concept for Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes.
  • He had delivered several archive-based history shows for many networks, and understood that programmers like to premiere shows close to important anniversary dates.
  • The anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was coming in January 2016, so it was on his list of half a dozen shows to pitch at MIPTV in Cannes.

Pitch

  • Jennings met with Hamish Mykura and Mark Francis from National Geographic Channel International at MIP.
  • “Hamish wanted to hear my list of anniversary shows that could be done in an all-footage style.  I went down the list. Hamish passed on my ideas for 10-year anniversaries, and then 20-year anniversaries.” And then I said, “Well, next January is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.  Hamish lit up, pointed, and said, “Yes, that one!””

Pre-Production Planning

  • Jennings’ researchers took a quick look to see how much unique footage of the Challenger story was available.
  • His team always looks for images and audio that audiences have not seen, to give what would be a familiar story a feeling of being very new.
  • They uncovered strong, local archive that coupled with other new sources had the makings of a powerful story.

Proposal

  • Two weeks after MIP, Jennings sent a 2-page proposal to Mykura.

Greenlight

  • NGCI and NGC greenlit the show two weeks later.

Deal

  • The project is a co-production between NGCI and NGC.
  • It is fully owned by NGC/NGCI in perpetuity.
  • (Jennings’ Fidel show was a copro between PBS and NGCI, and he regained rights to the international program after 10 years.)

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2. ARCHIVE: CROWN JEWELS

We asked Tom to describe the archives that became the ‘crown jewels’ that made a fresh re-telling of the story possible:

kristaRoadLocal Radio

  • “My researchers found there had been intense coverage of the Challenger story by local radio stations in New Hampshire.
  • “Christa McAuliffe had become a big celebrity in her home state during the long countdown to the launch.
  • “Unlike my MLK Assassination Tapes film for Smithsonian Channel, there was very little preserved local television archive.”

NASA

  • “Vice President George Bush and Senator John Glenn had rushed to Mission Control in Houston for a private meeting with the mission team to express their condolences and raise morale. NASA had the footage.”
  • The NASA Archive contributed around 40% of the film.
  • The Shuttle program shut down in 2011, and NASA’s archivist team has been cut back, and so it was an intense effort for our research team to locate compelling material from the racks and racks of archived video.”

CNN

  • “We discovered incredible unseen archive at CNN in Atlanta. CNN was only 5 years old in 1986, and they had assigned a crew to document their own newsroom operations during the Challenger launch.
  • “The footage reveals the shocked moment when the mission is in trouble, and then it tracks the surge of activity as the newsroom machine accelerates into top gear to cover a major, breaking story.
  • “It’s a two-minute sequence in the film, but communicates intense drama.”

Complete List of Sources

ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE, AP IMAGES, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CORPORATE ARCHIVES, BINNIE MEDIA/WJYY RADIO, GEORGE H. W. BUSH PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, CBS NEWS ARCHIVE, CHALLENGER CENTER, THE CONUS ARCHIVE, CNN IMAGESOURCE, FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES, FRAMEPOOL, GETTY IMAGES, JEFFREY D. AULT,  KEITH MEYERS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX, NASA, NBCUNIVERSAL ARCHIVES, NEW HAMPSHIRE PUBLIC RADIO, INC., ORLANDO SENTINEL, RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL, WAZEE DIGITAL, WCVB-TV, BOSTON, WESH-TV, ORLANDO, WMUR-TV, MANCHESTER, WOLFSON ARCHIVES

3. BUDGET

Total Cost

  • “I can’t share the budget: it was competitive for a one-hour cable doc.”
  • (That’s in the $300-350K range.)

See our DocumentaryTelevision.com Sweet Spots Study that covers benchmarks for production budgets for 30 U.S channels. It’s a very valuable resource for producers, and is based on ou proprietary interview-based research.

Footage Share

  • “For these footage-only shows, nearly half of the budget covers footage costs.”
  • “The footage drives the show, and since there is no shooting involved, every frame of footage has to come from an outside source.”
  • “There is no narration to guide the story, so we need great radio and TV reports from the time to drive the narrative, sources we had to pay for.”
  • NASA footage is free.

Cost Breakdown

  • Travel & Production: 10%
  • Post-production: 20%
  • Footage & Production Elements: 40%
  • Staff / Overhead: 30%

3.TIMELINE: FAST-TRACK

The entire process from first meeting with NGCI at MIPTV 2015 to Delivery was 8 months.

  • Jennings submitted a proposal to NGCI two weeks after the April meeting in Cannes.
  • NGCI greenlit the project two weeks later.
  • Pre-production began in May.
  • The contract was completed in August
  • The rough cut was submitted in early October.
  • Final Delivery: December, 2015.

Music

  • Jennings says that Extreme Music enjoys a service arrangement with NGC where they provide access to their music library plus a handful of original cues for each project.
  • After screening the rough cut, Extreme called up to say that they were so moved that they wanted to score the entire film with original music rather than their library.
  • Then, they later stepped up their commitment by bringing in live musicians into their studio, providing a rich sound that Jennings has never experienced on the budgets available to an archive-based film.

Key Contacts

  • NGCI: “Hamish Mykura, and then Simon Young who was our EP and who guided us through their end of the process. Simon collected notes from inside the channels.”
  • NGC (Los Angeles): Mike Miller

This project ticks all the boxes for a National Geographic audience. Tackling an iconic event in the history of exploration to reveal an unseen side to the story. We wanted audiences today to experience the events as they unfolded. And this film achieves that aim with real sensitivity.

Tom Jennings delivered one of the strongest rough cuts I’ve seen. And the most important note we gave him was to avoid losing the emotion and power of the piece as he began to edit the film down to length. We all grew very attached to certain sections of the film, but Tom and his team did a fantastic job of crafting the final cut. Simon Young, NGCI

4.BROADCAST

Title: Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes

Versions

  • 44’ (U.S.)
  • 48’ (International)

Date

  • Nat Geo Channels U.S. and International broadcast the film ‘simultaneously’ on Monday, January 25.
  • Reaching 171 countries in 45 languages.
  • And in Spanish on Nat Geo Mundo.
  • U.S. repeats: January 28 at 9p and 11p.

5. TAKEAWAYS

From the first meeting we had about this show we were aware of the sensitivity of the material.  My EPs at National Geographic, Simon Young and Mike Miller, recognized that we wanted to give the story the emotional impact it deserves, without feeling exploitive.  It was a fine line, presenting images like the school children watching the Challenger explode.  We had to use those images very carefully and properly.  In the end, we succeeded. Barbara Morgan, the back-up school teacher for Christa McAuliffe on the mission, recently watched the program and said while it’s still painful to watch the images from 30 years ago our program is ‘compelling and respectful.’ To me, that meant a lot.  We did our jobs well. Tom Jennings

More Reading on the Archive

Successful Factual, Documentary & Reality Projects Revealed: 18 Detailed Case Studies, from a $40 Mn Box Office Hit to Passion Docs

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Many thanks to ITN Source, sponsor of our  case studies on the power of the archive.