Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fil-Am executive producer reimagines History Channel

(Published January 13, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit

“If you ask how we got this big, one of the most important factors is the fact that we emphasize entertainment,” said History Channel’s Filipino-American executive producer Paul Cabana, during his Manila visit last December.

Cabana added during the press lunch at the Peninsula Manila: “It’s our challenge to find different ways to incorporate history with entertainment – consider ‘The Kennedys.’ Ultimately, it’s about how you tell a story, and how you keep people captivated.”
According to Cabana, having a hand in the channel’s programming was the farthest thing from his mind five years ago; he initially thought it aired only black-and-white war documentaries.

Born in the United States to parents from Pampanga and Quezon, the Harvard-educated Cabana grew up influenced by an “incredibly emphasized” work ethic.

“I studied Business and a lot of other things,” he said. “My first jobs were in advertising and magazines. But I watched a lot of TV. About 10 years ago, I decided to move to New York [from Chicago]. I started from the ground up, getting coffee, running errands and being a PA [production assistant]. I worked my way up as a researcher… I spent most of my time in television, just learning how to make shows, produce, hold a camera, tell a story… and doing a whole range of things, from home makeover shows to biographies, to science docus.”

Eventually, he had the opportunity to pitch some ideas for the revamped channel. He became field producer for the 2008 Travel Channel miniseries, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy.

Now 37, Cabana is actively involved in several History programs, including “How the States Got Their Shapes,” which explores facts about the differently shaped US borders, and “Top Shot,” which showcases the shooting skills of competing marksmen.

“In the Philippines, just like in the States, competition shows are hot – whether it’s in fashion, food, or losing weight. [‘Top Shot’] was a huge risk; we didn’t think it would do well, to be honest. We didn’t know if the audience would accept it, but we were pleasantly surprised to see the ratings.”

Several ideas for new shows, however, don’t make it past the pitching stage. “We get hundreds of pitches everyday and some of them are really bad,” Cabana revealed. “The worst ones are 100 percent copies of something that’s already on air. A lot of times, people just pitch themselves.”

The success of certain programs in the US doesn’t assure the same reception in other regions, Cabana said. “There are shows that [failed] in the US but do incredibly well internationally. There’s ‘Jurassic Fight Club,’ that’s doing well here. We actively talk to our regional officers and make sure the ideas we’re developing will translate.”

He added that combining entertainment with relevance is crucial to winning over viewers from different countries. “One of the most important things you have to do, now, more than ever, is to connect whatever story you’re doing to people’s lives,” he said.

Periodically planning new shows also requires a discerning perspective. “To be a good programmer, you have to think in somebody else’s head,” he said. “If someone is interested in the Bible, or in another subject that I’m not interested in, I have to figure out what that person is thinking or watching. The biggest lesson I’m learning is to think about the whole audience, not just myself. It’s hard, too!”

Cabana is currently working on a top-secret project that he described as “huge” and with “an international scope.” He’s confident that Filipino viewers will respond favorably to it: “In the next two years, it will be big in the US – and in the Philippines!”

(“Top Shot” will air Tuesdays, 9 p.m., beginning Feb. 28.)

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