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Non-fiction TV Production

Non-fiction TV Production
A Creative COW "Meet The Cows" Feature Article

Non Fiction TV Production

Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson
Boston, Massachusetts, US
© All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
We often know each other in the Cow from the problems and solutions we share with each other, and very rarely the WORK that we actually do. Allow us to introduce then, a handful of Cows involved in various aspects of non-fiction television production. This covers everything from food and fishing to creating tasteful head wounds. With over 550,000 people passing through the Cow, this is only a brief introduction, but we have to start somewhere, don't we?


There's no way that I should be listed as the author of this article. In fact, this paragraph is pretty much the only thing I'm writing for this. This is a teeny, tiny sample from among over 550,000 people in the Cow, showing some of the variety of work that they're doing in the field of non-fiction TV.

Of course, even a casual perusal of the Cow will show you hundreds of people in this field who didn't get around to sending in their profiles. Knowing a few of them, I'd say that almost all of them are hardworking people who probably haven't seen my invitation yet.

A few more are just plain lazy. You know who you are.

(Only kidding about that part.)

With that, here a few of the many, many real life stories from the real world of non-fiction TV production at the Cow -- from Al Jazeera to the BBC, from the jungle to a sports-themed dating show, and beyond.


Jerry Clark

I've worked for New Dominion Pictures for almost 10 years. During that time I've received over 400 credits for The New Detectives (CSI spuffed off us into a drama series), The FBI Files, Indy Car Racer, MOW's From Hell, and other reality and docu-drama shows.

My current project is Fighter Factory. I consulted and created the production and post production workflow and equipment used all the way through post on this I did all the other 400 plus shows..but this one was the most challenging thus far.

We shot for approximately 3 weeks in Papua New Guinea. The crew had to be small, and even so, we hired locals from nearby villages to carry packs and equipment. 

I put a workflow together based on the Panasonic AJ-HDX900 HDX900 cameras, which worked flawlessly under wicked conditions. We shot DVCPRO tape, because there was no way of having enough battery to supply a laptop and hard drive for the length of this shoot. Creating a "Digital Village" with assistants downloading and erasing cards was impossible as the cameras were running constantly.

The posting is currently at the tail end here in Virginia and the pilot is expected to air soon on The History Channel. Although that's the story of the shoot, I can't divulge much of the premise of the actual show...but I can say that this is one mission of several that take place all around the globe and in extreme conditions. Think Indiana Jones meets American Chopper or Monster Garage.


Jim Watt

We've been producing programs for non fiction television since 1988.  Early on in SD we hosted and produced a series for ESPN, "Fly Fishing video Magazine".  My wife Kelly and I hosted the show and did all the shooting.  It was on the air for about 6 years on ESPN and a couple of years on OLN.

Since 2000 we've only been shooting and releasing HD programs...about 70 hours of HD to date. 

Most recently we released a 51 hour HD series, "Discoveries...America", which is an hour program on each state plus Washington D.C..  The original outlet for this series was Comcast's INHD-2, and they're now on various PBS stations around the country.  We were on the road for 5 years producing that series.

Previous to beginning the "Discoveries...America" series we produced a 7 hour "Discoveries...Spain" HD series that is on HDNET, a 4 hour "Discoveries...Argentina" series also on HDNET and a 3 hour HD series, "Discoveries...Ireland" that has run on HDNET, PBS, and INHD-2. We just returned from 3 weeks filming in India for another "Discoveries..." series and are off to China on the 15th of January for another 3 weeks of shooting. 

We also produced a 7 hour HD cooking series,"The Sweet Addiction," that ran on INHD-2 along with a half hour bunch of programs called "You Are Here" also for INHD-2. 

But wait!!! There's more HD...We also have a 10 episode series, "Discoveries...America Special Edition" which is a collection of unusual topics from Mark Twain to the will Rogers Wild West Expo. I've attached a shot of Kelly and I filming in South Carolina with our Panasonic Varicam "H" model. (In 2000 we bought the very first HD camera Panasonic sold in the world, an AJ HDC-20A, 1080i camera.  Takes spectacular pictures, even now.)

Creative Cows Jim and Kelly Watt



Biagio Messina

My wife and I have built our reality television from the ground up, using After Effects, Final Cut Pro, and a DVX-100.  We're currently the Co-Executive Producers on Beauty and the Geek.  We also recently sold a pilot to Bravo, and VH1 has been giving our company shows to produce directly. 

Though I am an executive producer or co-ep on every show we do, I still find myself pitching in and doing graphics from time to time, and, embarrsingly, the temp gfx I did for a "not for air" pilot that ended up airing.  Needless to say, they weren't "up to snuff" in my book, but what are you gonna do?  

Some other projects: we've translated nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dave Ramsey’s best-selling book and financial program, The Total Money Makeover, into a primetime TV series for CBS called "Life or Debt." We're now running a pilot for NBC hosted by Mark Consuelos, one of three reality/game formats they’ve recently developed with 3 Ball Productions.  We're also about to hit the town with Fox TV Studios, taking the major networks a half-hour reality comedy project.  


Tom Meegan

I'm a mobile sports television freelancer. Though I've done most of the technical and several of the production jobs on live remotes over the years (my first sports remote was in 1990), my focus since 1999 has been VTR/DDR playback, instant replay, and editing.

Before sports, I was a jack-of-all trades at New Hampshire Public Television, followed by a year of producing and Avid editing at what was then Continental Cablevision in Portsmouth, NH. My first two years as a Tape Op I worked mostly on 1" machines and beta SP. Not long after that came digital betacam and the EVS LSM, followed by D5 and HDCam.

My background as a producer and editor combined with the flexibility of the EVS gave me an opportunity to leverage the non-linear skills I'd learned using Avid with the linear skills I had from live and edited tape work. In 2005 I started to use Final Cut Pro for my sports work, and have had the opportunity to edit during the live broadcasts of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, the World Series for FOX, and for World Cup Bobsleigh and Skeleton coverage.

Other events I've worked include the last two Olympics for NBC, Wimbledon and the French Open for ESPN, the Stanley Cup finals for ESPN, the NBA Finals for ABC.


Herb Sevush

Herb Sevush
I started in cooking shows production managing a series for KQED (San Francisco) called “New York’s Master Chefs.” That was around 1982 or so. It was one of the first productions in NY shot on BetaCam – Beta was so new we were still unwrapping the gear on the first day of shooting.

About 10 years later the same producer, Geoffrey Drummond, formed A La Carte Communications and started producing a new round of Julia Child cooking shows.

I was the editor on the first round, and then occasionally directed some of the later shows when Bruce Franchini, the lead director, couldn’t be there. Julia was a treat --  just what you would imagine, only smarter, funnier, kinder and taller.

After that, one kitchen led to another till that’s all I do these days. I’m still working with A La Carte and Geoff Drummond, but now I get in at the development stage and stay on till the shows have been Aired, DVD’d and now Streamed.

Currently I’m finishing post production on the eighth season of “America’s Test Kitchen” which is the highest rated cooking show on Public TV.



Graham Quince
I used to work for the BBC.  I worked for the affiliate translation service, TTL.  They provided the translated audio for the BBC Japanese Unit.  I worked there as a Broadcast Assistant, dealing with the output from BBC World's news gallery. 

This basically involved getting copies of new packages as soon as they were available, assigning a translator to work on them and then directing those translators to live dub their copy during transmission.  I did this for a couple of years.
Then I moved to BBC News Online's new AV department, and captured new output and turning it around to upload onto the servers.  The department had a small studio for webcasts and I got a chance to run the gallery a couple of times while there.  The hours were awful though and I got out as soon as I could.  I moved to BBC Newsround, which is the children's news programme and the oldest and longest running show of its type.
I helped set up their website and pushed in a lot more video than they thought possible.  It was a fun workplace and I built my own niche, but eventually I got tired of the lack of creative opportunities at the BBC and got tired of London, so my wife and I moved north where I work as a web designer in a high school.

Thom Obarski
Medstar Television is the production company responsible for"Forensic Files" on CourtTV, as well as a lot of those short medical pieces that you see looped while waiting in your doctors waiting room. Thom Obarski

I was an intern in the graphics department doing short animations in AE from Photoshop comps. The majority of those however were usually handled by the senior graphics artist, so my job consisted mostly of scanning in newspaper articles & photographs to be reprinted as table-top shots.

It may not sound like much, but because the show was VERY concerned with maintaining it's TVPG rating, the majority of my work was rebuilding crime scene photos to make them squeaky-clean for television.

For example if someone took a bullet to the front of their skull and the shot was of the back of their head (which of course got completely blown away) it would be my responsibility to rebuild the skull and make it look like just a small exit wound with some matted blood around it!



Philip Yunker

I have worked for ESPN, ABC Sports, and SPEED (and others). 

The work for ESPN has included live to tape billiards shows as a editor and tease producer, editor for for the Great Outdoor Games, Editor/Producer for the IndyCar racing series, and camera operator for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. 

For SPEED, I have edited / produced and been a camera operator or DP for the following shows or live broadcasts, AutoWeek, Formula BMW, Porsche Rennsport II and III, Champ Car World Series, American LeMans Series, 24 Hours of LeMans,  Grand -AM Rolex Series, Barrett-Jackson Auto Auctions, SEMA Show special programming, to name a few. 

For ABC Sports, I have edited / produced, camera for IndyCar Series.

Philip Yunker


Benjamin OliverBenjamin Oliver

Last year I edited the final episode of, a reality based, unscripted dating show set in [a very famous sports venue, edited at Benjamin's request].

While it wasn't exactly the most intriguing, important work to edit, I learned lots of things. I learned that when editing "reality" tv, you can do just about whatever you want. You can juxtapose images together to make people look like fools, and your bosses never figure it out. I could watch the episode at a bar with friends, and laugh because that just got broadcasted.

Also, I really dislike [this sport], so, I got to throw out all sorts of funny jokes at an audience that really loves [this team], and apparently can't date.

Overall, the show was a success. I think 11 episodes were made total for the show, and I cut the last one...because everyone who had cut episodes 1-9 hated it a lot. It's a great way to spread the work around, and make sure we all make a buck on the production. 



Benjamin Goldman

I've been animating/directing AE based material for The History Channel over the past few years using techniques and workflow I first used as lead animator and technical director for "Lemony Snickets a Series of Unfortunate Events" end credits sequence.

I'm in the middle of creating twelve short animated documentaries for THC which illustrate the stories of an off-kilter historian. They will be programmed as interstitials and web content this year. The gig came from a History Channel / New York Historical Society animation I directed/lead animated for a plasma display museum installation.

Paul Escandon

I am the Lead Editor at the Outdoor Channel in Temecula, CA. We're an American cable television network available in over 31 million homes across the nation. Our core audience is made up of outdoorsmen and women who partake in the American outdoor traditions, such as fishing, hunting, and high-adventure activities.
Paul Escandon
I've worked for the company for nearly 3 years and have to wear many hats as the lead editor. My job responsibilities include motion graphics designing, color grading and correcting, compositing, and acting as director of photography and camera person on some in-house productions.

My most recent work includes working on a show called Ultimate Match Fishing College Edition. On this show we pit 2 collegiate anglers head to head in the same boat and have them fish for four quarters - similar to a traditional NCAA event.

Bass fishing is exploding right now in the collegiate ranks and since this show features college kids and our core audience might tend to be a little younger I wanted to go for a more "grungy" or "gritty" looking approach to the show elements. This particular show airs Friday nights at 6:30pm on Outdoor Channel.

I'm building all the motion graphics and doing the color grading for the 13 original episodes set to air this spring, and using Final Cut Studio 2 and Adobe After Effects to accomplish the animated show opens, bumpers, lower thirds, and scoreboards.


Shane Ross

I have been working in non-fiction television for over 10 years...beginning with When Animals Attack where I was the Tape Librarian.  When I was hired they didn't have any sort of tape database.  The producer just knew what was on the tapes, and where they were.  But, the tapes were beginning to pile up, so I was hired to organize them and create a database, which I did.

From there I moved onto another job as a vault manager (tape librarian, vault manager, same thing) for a larger company...America's Funniest Home Videos.  They had a LOT of tapes to manage...let me tell you.  From there I was hired as a Post Coordinator at a company that did History Channel shows, Electronic Press Hits for Dreamworks, and a couple series for Lifetime Television.  While working there as the Post Coordinator, I also worked nights as the Avid Assistant and eventually became an online editor.  While here, I learned how to take apart an Avid, and how to install the software from scratch and troubleshoot problems with the systems.

Then I entered the market as a Freelance Assistant, working on a couple failed pilots, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown, a couple VH1 shows (as the online editor) then eventually ending up at a company that produced Disney Channel shows.

After a couple years there I was sought after as an editor so I jumped ship and became an editor at a company that produced programming for The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, History Channel, SciFi network and the Travel Channel. I kept myself busy there, and at a small company down the street (cutting more History Channel shows) and ended up cutting a few shows from my home office.



Mads Nybo Jorgenson

I do editing for BBC World's HardTalk and Extratime. Camera and editing for Danish Broadcasting News and Sport. And in a distant past I've worked as a Freelance Editor for CNBC, Reuters, ABC, ITN, CH-4 News, BBC News & World and so forth.

When I first became a freelancer, News and Sport was an easy place to start. It was very short-from high adrenaline work and when you went home it was all finished. And it did help, that there was a lot of work going around that was well paid. However when I was hired to train Journalists on desktop editing, even I could see that that party was about to end.

So I set up Mac Million, a central London based Post Production Company turned Production Company. The business was at first based around one discreet edit* system which soon got to work on fast turn around corporate videos and long form broadcast magazine programmes. The company got really good and fast at taking an ENG two camera interview and turn it into a 24 Minute self contained master.

In late 2006 we changed direction to be a Production company, but holding onto the elements of quick turn-around filming and editing. We have found a big market in non scripted production for corporate, PR and broadcast companies. The kind of work where you film in the morning and do the editing in the afternoon.

Harry PallenbergHarry Howser

I am a producer for Huell Howser Productions based out of KCET - PBS in Los Angeles, CA. My normal duties include researching show ideas, fleshing them out, finding people to interview, finding archival photos and films, scheduling the travel and shoot, then guiding the show through the edit, output, dubs, and DVDs. 

Most of my work on each episode is done at my desk via phone and internet, occasionally I go on a scout to see things 1st hand, and other times I go on the shoot itself to lend a hand doing whatever is needed from shooting b-roll to schlepping gear.

The California's Gold shows are about people places and natural wonders in the state of California.  California's Green is about how California is dealing with environmental issues. California's Golden Parks is about the State Parks system.

I also do most of the graphics for our shows. This includes on air, print, web, DVD box art. I also am constantly updating the website with schedule information, show descriptions, and so on.

Additionally I work nights and weekend on my own documentary films. Currently I am in deep post and seeking distribution for WOMEN IN BOXES, a doc on the ladies behind the magic.


David Roth Weiss

I led a team, including renowned underwater cameraman Howard Hall, on a secret expedition out into the waters off the California coast for National Geo back in the 1980s.

This all took place 120 miles out at sea, in the open ocean, under cover of darkness, in shark-infested waters, in an effort to document and expose modern commercial fishing practices that were decimating populations of sharks and other marine life at an alarming rate.

My team was able to capture a collection of shocking and haunting images that were distributed around the world and which ultimately became the basis for my award-winning documentary film, AN INCIDENTAL KILL. The film was shown on National Geographic Explorer, Discovery's first-ever Shark Week, as well as both PBS and the BBC.



Christian Glawe

The bulk of my experience is non-fiction TV!  Briefly, I've edited programming (and created graphics for) for Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, PBS, Jack Hanna's Animal Adventure (international syndication), Speed Channel, TNN, G4 TV, TV Guide Network, among others.

I'm not sure how much detail you're looking for, buuuutttt....

Graphic assist and rotoscope work for shows "Adventure Camp" and "Shark Camp."

Travel Channel:
Off-line and on-line 3 x 1-hour specials

Off-line, on-line, graphics for 1-hour documentary "Two Rivers" (this work wasn't done *directly* for PBS, but it's airing on PBS stations around the U.S.)

Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures:
Off-line, on-line, and graphics for 30+ episodes

Speed Channel:
Off-line, on-line, graphics for 100+ episodes of "Two Guys Garage"

Off-line, on-line, graphics for 25+ episodes of "Crank and Chrome"

G4 TV:
Package editor for "Filter", "Attack of the Show", and "X-Play"

TV Guide Network:
Package editor for wide variety of shows.



Seth Bender
I was one of two editors for a relatively new show called Secret Lives, which was largely unscripted.  It was Seth Benderessentially three 'contestants' each of whom would tell a story with a common theme, (Supernatural, or Unwanted Guests, for instance) but one of them was lying, and they'd all try to decide who was lying.  It was kind of a thin premise for a show, but it was original programming, made locally, and that was pretty cool. 

I've also done work on unscripted TV for the WGBH children's department, and a show called Design Squad for about a year.





Walter Biscardi

Assignment Earth - The Series.  Al Jazeera International

This is a 30 minute environmental series produced by acclaimed international reporter, Gary Strieker.   The first 5 episodes of this series were completed in 2007 and featured stories from West Virginia in the United States to the Mekong River in Thailand.   All shows were shot on either the Panasonic HDX-900 or the Sony Z1U HDV camera.  

We are providing all post production for the series from editing to animation.  We convert all to 1080i DVCPro HD during ingest for editing and color correction using Apple's Final Cut Pro and the AJA Kona 3 capture card.  We have a good track record with the DVCPro HD codec and are just not ready to turn completely over to the new ProRes codec yet.

The series originally aired on Al Jazeera International and is currently being re-packaged for re-distribution in the United States.

Good Eats.  The Food Network

I became involved in the series during Season 9 when a fellow Cow reader asked me help out with some Monty Python inspired animation for the show.  I met with Alton and the Producers and a few weeks later, we introduced our first original animations to help tell the story of some classic tales surrounding Leeks.

 The animations were well received and we will be going into our 4 season of animations in 2008.  I was then asked to develop the high definition post-production workflow for the series when the decision was made to move to HDTV production beginning with Season 10.  

Working with the DP and Food Network Quality Control, we ran a series of test using the Panasonic Varicam and various HD editing workflows until we hit on something that brought out maximum quality and exceeded Quality Control standards.  We also introduced Final Touch HD (now Apple Color) color correction to the series during the latter stages of Season 10.  We continue to provide all high definition post production and animation for the series as we move into Season 12.

This American Land.   PBS Interstitials

A series of 2 - 4 minute interstitials about environmental issues impacting the United States.  Created by acclaimed environmental reporter, Gary Strieker, these stories run the gamut from animal rescues to pollution to plans for alternative energy sources.  We provide all post production for this series and produced approx. 48 stories in 2007.  The series continues in 2008 with the potential to turn into a regular 30 minute series.  

This series is shot on all formats from MinDV to HD with all footage converted to 8bit NTSC SD during ingest.  

Assignment Earth - Interstitials for NBC News and Yahoo! News

A series of 2 - 4 minute interstitials about environmental issues impacting the entire world.  Created by acclaimed environmental reporter, Gary Strieker, these stories have featured climate change, population issues, species threats, and fresh water contamination. We provided all post production for this series and produced approx. 50 stories in 2007.    

This series is shot on all formats from MiniDV to HD with all footage converted to 8bit NTSC SD during ingest.  Production has just begun on new stories for 2008.



Whew! Not bad for a first edition.

I know I'm leaving out thousands of stories from every aspect of non-fiction TV production.

Seriously. Thousands. Help me out with the math here: there are around 600,000 people regularly passing through the Cow, and if only 2% are doing this kind of work...well, you get the idea.

If you'd like to share your story too, please email me, and I'll be sure to include it in a future edition.

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