Going On- and Off-Script To Bring History to Life
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Stephen David is considered a jack-of-all-trades in the production community. He has developed several successful unscripted reality hits, including History’s Men Who Built America. This past Sunday (Jan. 25), David launched the History scripted series Sons of Liberty. Last year, he also produced a scripted/unscripted hybrid series in History’s three-part The World Wars, which told the historical saga of the two biggest wars in the 20th century through the scripted eyes of characters involved in the conflict, including Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur and Benito Mussolini.
David, who recently sold his Stephen David Entertainment to production outfit Banijay Group, spoke with Multichannel News programming and multimedia editor R. Thomas Umstead about his unique skill set, as well as upcoming projects including AMC’s unscripted series The Making of the Mob: New York, chronicling five New York Mafia families, and National Geographic Channel’s American Genius, about the rivalries behind the world’s greatest inventions. An edited transcript follows.
As a producer, is right now the best time to develop an unscripted project, given the success you and others have had?
I think there are certainly a lot of channels right now, so a lot of content is needed. So I think it is a great time to be producing content. People like me love watching TV, and so it’s awesome to be able to have this many shows to watch.
With the new developments on the digital side, given the success of Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and a number of other companies looking to get into the television production space, is that a new area for you to explore?
Yes. I’m already in business in that world. Besides sports, I watch almost everything on my phone, so I don’t notice the difference between a Netflix and CBS and History channel. I’ll just watch the show.
How did you get started in production?
It was a long time ago, in 1993. After college, I was supposed to get my MBA, but I took off a year, went to Los Angeles, printed up a résumé on neon green paper and got my first job on a small movie as a location manager. I actually started another small company where I made a few small films. In 1995, I sold my first script to New Line [Pictures] and I was a screenwriter for seven years. I wrote 10 studio scripts in seven years, but none of them got made. But I was working and all that.
From there, I actually was part of the original creative team on The Apprentice, which got me into the other side of the world. I started doing reality and unscripted shows. So, I feel that what I’m doing in unscripted—which are these hybrid docudramas—is the combination of the two careers I’ve had, which is unscripted and scripted as a screenwriter.
How did the hybrid genre develop and why do you think it’s become so popular among viewers?
I was hired by History to do a documentary series on the industrial revolution. I looked at my budget, which wasn’t that big, and I looked around at the other things that were being done, and I just said, ‘OK, I’m going to just try and do something different.’ Luckily, History was cool enough to let me experiment.
The reason I went in that direction was I felt like when I watch a documentary where a lot of facts are thrown at me, I start to just get numb from all the facts and information. My thought was, having been a screenwriter, why don’t we do a documentary that we treat like a scripted show, but through character? If something that we’re trying to tell doesn’t move the character’s story forward, we won’t tell it.
At the same time, as a viewer, the facts will hit you harder because they have to do with the character’s journey and their stakes. So if the number of miles of railroad track someone had to travel was just a fact, I don’t know how much that’s going to hit you. But if you know that this person is trying to beat another person down those same railroad tracks, then it starts to become relevant information.
When you look at a project, what are you looking for? What was it about The World Wars or The Men Who Built America that clicked for you?
It’s usually the people, if they’re interesting people, [that] you do a show about. I’m much more interested in character than actual history. The characters are so interesting because truth is stranger than fiction, right? And when we research these and we really dig down, everything becomes much more human, much more relatable.
You’ve now turned your unscripted writing into scripted content with History’s Sons of Liberty. How did you cross over into that genre?
Actually, what happened was—this is kind of a strange story—I was listening to Pandora and I heard the song Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones. While I was listening to that I was thinking, “I wonder if there’s anything like in the 1760s? It was a rebellious time.” So I called up the people in my office, and they actually called me back three hours later and found Sons of Liberty. And then we started looking into it and we said, “I can’t believe you don’t learn this in school and we don’t know this history about the beginning of this country.”
It’s all these names you know, and they’re in their 20s and 30s, starting a gang. The whole story is, it didn’t start in a reverent way. It started in a much more human, survival, down-and-dirty smuggling sort of way, which kind of feels right. It’s not like it’s not patriotic—it is patriotic, it’s all about freedom. But it went from this very small, human thing to a cause, to a country.
Now that you have your hand in both scripted and unscripted, do you have a preference?
I would love to do both. I think that I’m getting to make shows that I really like. They don’t necessarily have to be history, but they have to be interesting character stories. And I like both genres a lot. I watch a lot of scripted. This hybrid thing, I think, is just fun because you get to experiment, but you get to experiment in both of them.
Switching subjects, you recently sold Stephen David Entertainment. Can you talk to me a little bit about that and what that does for the company?
A company called Banijay Group bought a majority stake in my company. I’ve known these people for a while and I really like them. We have the same values and they care about the quality of the show first and foremost. So they just want me to try and keep making good shows.
There is really no negative. I think the positive here is that they are a well-funded company. It’s a big company, so if there are opportunities, I can now get into these opportunities financially.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
By Kent Gibbons