ABC News Launches Studio to Expand Documentary Efforts

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ABC News is doubling down on documentaries and docuseries, launching a new non-fiction division called ABC News Studios.

The studio already has 15 series in various stages of production, as well as 3 feature-length documentaries, which will live under the ABC News Films banner.

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“It really felt like there was a much bigger opportunity for ABC News to really scale the narrative non-fiction storytelling that we were doing,” ABC News Studios head Mike Kelley tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that the studio will significantly expand ABC News’ presence in streaming. “In particular, to lean into the narrative non-fiction space that is rooted in journalism, but entertaining at its heart. Those are the stories that we want to tell.”

Kelley says the studio wants to play in the long-form documentary film space; the limited series space; the formatted anthology space; and will produce one-off specials. “From a genre perspective, we are focused on true crime, on investigations, on pop culture, on docuseries with interesting characters and words to explore, and topics that are broadly news-adjacent, all of it underpinned by the journalism that ABC News is known for,” he says.

Among the filmmakers working with ABC on the initial slate are Dawn Porter, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Stanley Nelson, Irene Taylor, and Lana Wilson.

“We are making sure that we are looking at diverse stories, diverse storytellers, diverse characters, and making sure that we are putting our money where our mouth is in the organization, and telling unique, untold stories in a way that haven’t been told before,” adds ABC News senior vp of streaming and digital content Reena Mehta.

“We really want to be open to the best and biggest and most diverse ideas from around the world, and to work with the best producers who can bring that content to us,” Kelley adds. “We are thrilled to be able to partner with those production companies, to work with them but also to provide our expertise as well, around the journalism, the archive, the legal expertise. It is really a case by case basis, but we want to create the best possible IP, wherever it comes from.”

The studio is also developing series that are closely tied to other programs and talent at ABC News. That includes a weekly newsmagazine for Hulu based on Nightline featuring investigations, deep-dives, interviews and profiles. “The show never takes place in a studio, it’s instead always out in the world,” the logline says, with Mehta adding that it is “a very different take” on the late night news franchise.

“For Nightline in particular we have really done a lot of research on the Hulu side, on our side, on news in general, and we believe what consumers want to experience these stories and see them told in a different way,” Mehta says, noting that one of the show’s leads previously worked on Vice News’ HBO program.

And it also includes an concept featuring Good Morning America co-anchor George Stephanopoulos, also for Hulu. The show is a weekly political docuseries that tied to the upcoming midterms, which will feature the veteran ABC anchor, who will also produce through his own banner. Mehta says the news division wanted to figure out “how do we leverage his intelligence, his skill, his obvious strong expertise in the political space, but for a younger audience?”

For broadcast news divisions, documentary and non-fiction storytelling has become a strategic imperative, particularly as their parent companies invest in their own streaming platforms. In 2020 NBC News launched a division called NBC News Studios, with a strategic imperative to create content for “emerging platforms” like NBC’s own Peacock. And last year CBS launched See It Now Studios, led by former CBS News president Susan Zirinsky, which is creating documentary and nonfiction programming for CBS, Paramount+ and other platforms.

ABC News Studios is no different when it comes to parent company Disney’s priorities. The studio will create programming for ABC, Disney+, Hulu and National Geographic and other platforms within the company.

There is a lot of inspiring content that we think fits really well with what those brands are trying to do, so it is a great partnership for us, it is a very collaborative environment,” Mehta says, adding that they are working closely with creative leaders at those brands to figure out what content would work best where.

We are trying to be really intentional about the kinds of content that work well on linear vs streaming,” Kelley adds.

And ABC News Studios is also developing fare tightly connected to its corporate parent. Among the projects are Cinderella, a news special “dedicated to the legacy” of the 1997 ABC TV movie, which starred Whitney Houston and Brandy; Iwaju, a special for Disney+ looking at the making of the animated series of the same name ABC News Studios is also producing new episodes of National Geographic’s Explorer.

You can see the studio’s initial slate, below.

Documentaries

Untitled Iwájú Documentary (Disney+): From the team behind the hit Disney+ series “Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2” comes a documentary about the first-of-its-kind collaboration between Pan-African comic book company Kugali and the century-old Walt Disney Animation Studios as they create the upcoming animated series “Iwájú.”

“The Lady Bird Diaries” (working title) (Hulu): From award-winning filmmaker Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films, and Industrial Media comes a groundbreaking documentary film that uses Lady Bird’s own White House tapes to tell the story of one of the most influential and least understood first ladies in history. The film is based, in part, on the ABC News podcast “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson,” hosted by author and historian Julia Sweig.

Sound of the Police” (Hulu): Directed by Oscar-nominated Stanley Nelson, “Sound of the Police” digs deep into America’s long and painful history of police brutality and misconduct in Black communities.

Docuseries

“The Age of Influence” (Hulu): “The Age of Influence” is a six-part documentary series that breaks open the facade and reveals the truth behind influencer culture through intimate, first-person accounts of some the biggest social media stories of our time.

“Cinderella” (ABC): 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of ABC airing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” (1997), a revolutionary TV musical that embraced racial diversity in casting and has impacted generations over the years, starring an all-star cast led by Brandy Norwood as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. ABC News is producing a news special dedicated to the legacy of this film, reflecting how the idea of a princess has evolved and what makes the film still relevant today.

The Con” (season 2) (ABC): “The Con” explores the troubling tales of people deceived by false claims, broken promises and greed. Each episode reveals how the victims were fooled and the cost of that trust — emotional and financial. Award-winning moderator of “The View” Whoopi Goldberg returns to narrate with commentary from podcaster Laci Mosely (“Scam Goddess”). This series of tales that continue to stun will premiere in July 2022.

“Death in the Dorms” (Hulu): These are the stories of the kind of danger that no college student is ever prepared for: a life cut short just when it was getting started, not by accident but by foul play. Each procedural episode of “Death in the Dorms” will examine a different murder of a college student in the U.S.

“Demons and Saviors” (Hulu): A three-part limited true-crime series details the fascination with Christina Boyer. Boyer became a household name for her telekinesis as a teenager and the alleged murder of her own infant daughter in Boyer’s early 20s, a crime she maintains she did not commit. The series details the unlikely band of amateur sleuths obsessed with setting her free.

“Explorer” (National Geographic): National Geographic’s long-running, iconic “Explorer” franchise searches for answers to some of the world’s greatest mysteries of history, science and adventure. Pushing beyond the frontier of the known, “Explorer” will cover timely topics, often accompanied by a feature story in National Geographic magazine, further deepening viewers’ understanding of the world through provocative storytelling.

Grails” (Hulu): “Grails” goes behind the scenes of the $60 billion sneaker industry with up-and-coming entrepreneurs Earl Cooper and Olajuwon Ajanaku, two Morehouse College golf champ grads who created the lifestyle brand Eastside Golf to promote diversity and authenticity on the golf course. After landing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they’re now making history by becoming the first to ever collaborate with the iconic Jordan Brand in designing a series of golf sneakers and streetwear apparel for the golf industry.

“IMPACT x Nightline” (Hulu): A weekly news magazine offering hard-hitting investigative reports, deep dives on stories in the news cycle, profiles of newsmakers, and celebrity interviews. It’s the stories you’re talking about and the ones you soon will be. The show never takes place in a studio; it’s instead always out in the world.

“Murder U” (working title) (Hulu): Investigative psychologist and ex-FBI profiler Bryanna Fox and her class of next-gen criminal mind hunters examine cases of convicted serial murders that have troubling unanswered questions. Why did this killer do what he did? How did he select his victims? Are there other victims he killed who have never been identified?

The Murders Before the Marathon” (Hulu): Journalist Susan Zalkind investigates the triple murder that took her friend’s life, the national tragedy that shook her city, and the haunting question that connects the two events: if the murders had been solved, could the Boston Marathon bombing could have been prevented? “The Murders Before The Marathon” is a three-part documentary series directed by Jesse Sweet and executive produced by Story Syndicate, the production house founded by Oscar® and Emmy® Award-winning filmmakers Dan Cogan and Liz Garbus, Anonymous Content, and Matt Cook.

“Superstar” (ABC): From the producers of ABC News’ No. 1-rated “20/20” and “Truth and Lies,” “Superstar” features rare footage and intimate details about the mavericks who shaped American culture. The series travels deep inside the lives of icons and features interviews with friends and family who reveal the meteoric highs and the devastating costs of fame.

Untitled George Stephanopoulos Project (Hulu): This political docu-series will chronicle the upcoming midterm election.  It will look at the important races, pivotal issues and evolving landscape of this consequential election. 

Untitled Scott Johnson Project (Hulu): In 1988, the body of Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old gay American doctoral student, was found sprawled below a cliff on a rugged beach in Sydney, Australia. This new multipart series delves into what really happened to Scott and explores the dark history of homophobia in Sydney.

Web of Death” (Hulu): Relentless and ingenious web sleuths crack America’s most uncrackable murder cases using the internet and social media. These are tales of colossal viral man hunts, decades-long obsessions and unparalleled global collaboration.

Wild Crime” (season 2) (Hulu): The second season premiering this fall will follow one of the ISB’s most notable and complex investigations that unfolded over 40 years across two generations of investigators after human remains were found in 1983 in Summit Meadow at Yosemite National Park. The victim’s identity and the serial killer responsible will only now both be revealed.

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