ABC News Studios Launches to Fuel Disney Streaming Wars

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George Stephanopoulos is known at ABC News for his turns co-anchoring “Good Morning America” and the Sunday public affairs program “This Week.” As Hollywood’s streaming wars intensify, however, he may soon be recognized for something else.

Stephanopoulos will be at the center of a new political documentary series slated to appear on Hulu that will examine the upcoming midterm election along with important races and key issues. The program is one among many currently in the pipeline at ABC News Studios, a new effort by the Disney-backed news organization to centralize its efforts to produce documentary programming aimed at fueling the fortunes of Disney properties.

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“We want to leverage our intellectual property that is generated across the news division in service of entertaining narrative storytelling. That is an absolute priority for us,” says Mike Kelley, vice president and head of ABC News Studios, in an interview. “We know that is the content that has become the most sticky in the SVOD marketplace.” The new unit intends to deliver more than 100 hours of programming across ABC, Hulu, Disney+, National Geographic and other venues in 2022.

ABC News is the latest of the nation’s mainstream TV-news divisions to launch a formal unit devoted to the production of documentary and documentary-based series. CNN has been developing or licensing documentary projects for years under the banner of CNN Films. MSNBC and NBC News have launched similar efforts. Paramount Global, parent of CBS News, launched See It Now Studios, a production outlet led by former CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, last year. The operations have gained traction in the streaming era, as more media companies see audience prospects in nonfiction content rooted in recent headlines or that can be bolstered with news footage.

“We think a large superpower of ours is that we are very broad,” says Reena Mehta, senior vice president of streaming and digital content for ABC News, referring to  “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” two of the most-watched broadcast news properties in the nation., “We want to tell stories that appear to very different types of people, and we feel we have that advantage.”

ABC News hasn’t had a formal documentary operation, but it has been producing such series for several years. Since 2019, the news division has fashioned two-hour versions of the long-running newsmagazine “20/20” that play more like true-crime mysteries when viewed on Hulu, where they have gained traction. ABC News has also backed “The Dropout,” a podcast and Hulu series about Theranos entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes anchored by ABC News correspondent Rebecca Jarvis.

Such efforts “made a clear case that we should be in this business in a more formal way,” says Kelley. ABC News will work, he adds, “to take Hulu’s non-fiction business from what was largely a licensed content business to an originals-based non-fiction business.” David Sloan, the veteran “20/20” producer, will serve as senior executive producer and creative lead of ABC News Studios.

ABC News Studios won’t be working only with ABC News personnel. The unit’s initial slate of feature documentaries comes from producers such as Dawn Porter; Irene Taylor, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard; Lana Wilson; and Stanley Nelson.

Among the projects in the unit’s pipeline are a new series of hour-long episodes of National Geographic’s famous “Explorer” series; a new weekly newsmagazine, “IMPACT x Nightline,” that offers deep dives on stories in the news cycle, newsmaker profiles and celebrity interviews and never takes place in a studio; and “Murder U,” a Hulu series that follows ex-FBI profiler Bryanna Fox and a crew that reopens cases of convicted serial murders.  At present, ABC News Studios has three feature documentaries and 15 series in production.

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