Selling Your Documentary To Cable

By John Jackman

VP, Comenius Communication, Inc.

One question I am often asked is how to go about selling a documentary to The History Channel or Discovery or PBS. The question usually starts out asking whether DV is “good enough” for these venues; the questioner then proceeds (with dollar signs in eyes) to speculate on how much they could “get” selling a doc to one of these channels. I really dislike this question, because I hate to rain on anyone’s parade. But they are asking for the legitimate answers, so I don’t sugar-coat the answers.

The answer to the initial question is that yes, DV is “good enough” for the big time. There are a lot of shows running that were shot on DV. ITVS, one program funding arm of PBS, has a category of funding specifically for DV programs. But that’s not the whole answer. The hard part is that DV is good enough ”“ if you are good enough. Of far greater importance are production values, careful lighting, good audio, finesse in editing, and skill at storytelling. It ain’t the format, friend, it’s the skill with which it is used.

OK, the format is good enough. (Editor’s Note: Some shows are requiring HD.) OK, you’ve learned your craft and your production values are up to par. How much can you sell your doc for? One answer I could give is “it depends.” But the blunt answer is “not much.” Docs are not like wedding videos or industrials. In most cases, the “client” is not going to pay full freight plus a profit.

Making a great documentary is tough enough. But the documentary business is even tougher. Low budget docs are unlikely to make the grade unless you’re a real genius or your topic is so hot nobody can turn you down. Even pinching pennies, if everyone working on the doc gets paid something reasonable, and you buy all the appropriate insurances (you did buy E&O – Errors and Omissions Insurance – didn’t you? See How To Buy Video Production Insurance) and all the graphics and other visuals are properly licensed (you didn’t pilfer any stills from the internet, did you?) it’s quite easy to spend $100,000 creating an hour long doc. Remember, you’ll have to certify in writing to the broadcaster that you have full legal right to use every frame of video and every measure of music. Of course you can do it for less if you keep your day job and everybody volunteers their time, but you’ll still have some pretty large hard costs that can’t be reduced.

When selling a finished doc to a broadcaster, you aren’t really “selling” it at all, you’re licensing them certain broadcast rights for a specified period. Very rarely will a channel buy full rights to a finished program that has been brought to them. You will continue to own the intellectual property. Say you spent $100,000 to make a doc on the world’s largest widget collection. It’s interesting, production values are good, and it fits in the profile of The Widget Channel.

So you do a deal ”“ for example, they have exclusive first-run rights for two years, during which time they can run the program as many times as they want. For this they pay you a license fee of $10,000. That’s right, $10K. If you’re lucky. Since The Widget Channel is new and only has a smaller audience, it might be $2K. But even with the big guys, it is unlikely to be higher that $10,000.

So how can you make your money back? By selling the program again and again to multiple markets.

Sell to other broadcast markets: Every country is sold separately in most cases, since their television networks are national. License fees will vary from country to country.

Sell to cable/satellite outlets: Some of these are huge, other networks don’t have many more viewers than a big local station. License fees will vary accordingly.

Get a distributor: unless you’re ready to go into the retail distribution business, find a DVD distributor that specializes in your topic or type of program. The distributor may be willing to give you an advance on royalties as part of the deal. This will be based precisely on the distributor’s guess as to how many DVDs they will sell. It may be as high as $10,000 or as low as ”“ well, nothing. Royalties will also vary, typically from 10% to 20% of actual sales price. Bear in mind that means the price the distributor gets, not the list price. Some distributors operate a retail website, but many sales are also to bookstores and other outlets where they sell at wholesale. If you have a popular topic that is suitable for mass market (Target, Wal-Mart) find a distributor that specializes in that placement. Here’s the harsh reality: the DVD will probably retail for $9.95, and Wal-Mart keeps half of that. You’ll probably see only 50¢ from each DVD.

Sell to distributors in other markets: first find DVD distributors in other English-speaking countries. Focus on areas where there is an audience for your topic or type of show. Then look at non-English speaking countries. Since the distributor will have to foot the bill for translation and subtitling or dubbing, advances are likely to be lower or nonexistent.

Try to negotiate a DVD sales tag as part of broadcast deals. You know, “You can buy a copy of the program you’ve just seen (because you were too dumb to slap a DVD in the player) for only $19.95 plus $75 shipping and handling.” This will typically have to be part of the program running time, and some networks won’t do it. Others will want a hefty slice of the DVD sales revenue, or will insist on distributing the DVD themselves. However, the “tag” is free advertising every time the show runs, so try really hard to get this. Make sure the DVD distributor is up and running before the program and the sales tag are broadcast! Don’t laugh ”“ it’s happened more than once!

Sign up with a documentary distributor who will do all of the above for you. The doc market is quite limited, and these guys basically know everywhere they can sell one and how the deals are done. In exchange for their work and knowledge, they’ll keep a goodly chunk of all the license fees. But on the other hand, do you know where to sell a documentary in Brazil?

Please don’t go to any broadcaster or distributor until you’ve checked to make sure that your idea is in their “profile.” Every network and every distributor have a type of program they deal in. Don’t take you vampire flick to The History Channel and don’t take your educational video on oral hygiene to Kultur/Whitestar Video. They’ll just think you’re an idiot (they’ll be right!) and won’t take you call next time.

So don’t these channels ever pay the full cost of a doc? Sure they do ”“ mainly when it’s their idea. And then they’ll go to the small circle of tried-and-true production companies they always use. You have just about zero chance of breaking in that circle. The network has absolutely no reason to take a chance on some untested but enthusiastic newbie. Hate to be blunt, but that’s the way they see it.

You have a better chance of selling them a program concept. Say you have an idea for the best doc ever ”“ and you have developed special access to the subject, or knowledge of the topic. If you just go make it and bring the finished product to their door, they’ll pay you $10K tops. Why would they do otherwise? There it is, in the can and you hopping on one foot to get it broadcast. They don’t have to buy the silly thing!

But ”“ if you bring it to Discovery or The History Channel in its concept phase and pitch them the idea, you might have a chance. It had better be a really spiffy idea, one that you are uniquely qualified to produce. Otherwise, (trust me on this) they’ve already had twelve similar proposals, had thought of it themselves already, and have one of their trusty inner circle working on it. In that situation, they don’t need you or your idea. But if you have unique knowledge of the subject, or special access to the subject that you have cultivated, you may have a chance. All networks like to be in from the beginning so that they can shape the program to their needs. (Translation: expect compromises!) Here’s where you have a chance at full funding. But if they fund it fully, they will usually want to own it and kiss you goodbye. You should think long and hard before doing that. You want to retain part ownership of the intellectual property.

If you do not have a broadcast production track record, you’ve little chance of receiving full funding and being in charge of the production. More likely they’ll team you up with one of that “tried-and-true” circle to do the production. Or they’ll let you do it under the watchful eye of a trusted executive producer who will eat up a large chunk of the money.

Much more common today are co-productions. This is where (for example) A&E funds 1/3, BBC funds 1/3, and the producer funds the other 1/3 through investors. Or make up some other combination, the sky’s the limit.

One last sad and difficult note. If you had your eyes on PBS, you have a lot of work cut out for you. As one Hollywood producer said to me recently, “There’s no upside to it.” PBS expects you to come to them with your program fully funded in most cases, and the politics are byzantine. If you approach through your local PBS affiliate, don’t be surprised if they demand a slice of all your funding “to get the program through the hoops.” Your best chance here is to go through one of the funding programs like ITVS ( or cultivate deep and meaningful relationships at your local public television station.

Good luck. Remember, a great program and perseverance wins out!

Editors Note: Don’t be discouraged. Selling your documentary is not easy. But there are some very profitable markets for documentaries in educational and other markets. See my book Secrets of Producing and Selling Successful Videos. Now is the best time to be selling your own special interest videos on the Internet.


Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry : From Negotiations to Final Contracts by Mark Litwak

Silman-James Press, 1994; ISBN: 1879505150


CS Associates

332 Pine Hill Rd.

Mill Valley, CA 94941


The Cinema Guild

130 Madison Avenue

2nd Floor

New York, NY 10016-7038



2337 NW York #202

Portland, OR 97210

Kultur/Whitestar Video

195 Highway 36

West Long Branch, NJ 07764


Solid Entertainment

11911 Mayfield Ave #9

Brentwood, CA 90049


Chip Taylor Communications

2 Eastview Drive

Derry, NH 030038

P: 603.434.9262


Fanlight Productions

4196 Washington St, Suite 2

Boston, MA 02131

800-937-4113 or 617-469-4999

Landmark Media


The Media Guild

11722 Sorrento Valley Rd.

San Diego, CA 92121


National Educational Media Network

655 Thirteenth St Suite 100

Oakland, CA 94612



Vision Video

P.O. Box 540

Worcester, PA 19490

(610) 584-3500

JOHN JACKMAN has over twenty years of experience in video production and video technology. He is widely known in the industry as an expert on DV production, and for his contributions to several industry magazines. Since 1998, he has written exclusively for Digital Video Magazine. He is an active member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).You may reach him at (336) 945-3722 or by Email

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52 thoughts on “Selling Your Documentary To Cable

  1. Dave Chambers


    I’d be interested to know the names of the tried and true, small circle of prodcution companies that have some success getting their documentaries submitted.



  2. Paul Mills

    Very insightful article. Having produced a huge number of documentaries, some world firsts and unusual specialist subjects, I have found that marketing them is a nightmare for me. My agent does all that for me. I self fund every documentary and license the broadcast, I never sell the material outright. I also tend to be a loner, I rarely have crew with me, I tend to do my documentary shooting on my own. In many cases, not having a crew is less intimidating to subjects who may be freaked out by cameras & people. I do all of my own post production and audio, luckily I have the facilities to hand in my own studio. I used to shoot on Betacam, moved to D-9 and now shoot on HD-PRO. Luckily I have also established a line of stock video material which sells quite well, and allows me to do what I want. Additionally, I keep all of my footage in a data base and have around 9000 hours of material quite a lot of which can be used to support current projects. I also have equipment which I rent out to other film-makers which helps subsidise my own stuff. But my only advise to anyone attempting a documentary for broadcast, make sure that your script and the information contained therein is accurate. And acknowledge every source that helped you with the information.

  3. patanjali

    I am from India, I made some docs and wanna give for brodcast but yet I cann’t find an agent.

    Is anyone there for me?

  4. Dianna Perez

    We are self-producing a feature length documentary. Can sales agents do pre-sales for us to find finishing funds? Any other finishing funds suggestions?



  5. zach

    Let it be known that although the article above has provided broad insight into the world of broadcast media; which is especially helpful for someone like me who is just entering the field, I cant help but feel that the industry is changing rapidly. Now, you say that I am only an amateur, which is true, but may be considered an expert when it comes to watching film. My point is this, the reason I chose to pursue this path is to try and help save the beyond pathetic excuse for programming which now resides. I am especially frustrated with the history channel, because now days they are actually playing documentaries on “monsters,” and ironically, vampires are included under the category of “monsters.” Whats even worse, they actually hunt for these “monsters!” All I can say is wow, are they that desperate for some quality/ meaningful programs? So with that said, I believe that the market is unstable and unpredictable. But, the creative mind thrives in such environments. I am going to make a quality documentary on a subject other that aliens, monsters, or nastradamous effects, etc… Good lord, give me a freaking break History Channel- Monster Quest?

  6. Gehad

    Paul Mills, is there anyway I can reach you, the comment you left is very intriguing. please let me know how to reach you.

  7. Kas Basma

    Hi, I’m a documentary sales agent. I can’t offer finishing funds or pre-sales (this is almost impossible) but I am always on the lookout for new producers to work with and documentaries to license. If you have a film you’d like pitched to international broadcasters please get in touch with info about your film and the territories available. Thanks and best wishes, Kas – [email protected]

  8. wilber breseman

    I just returned from Tanzania and have a 3 minute film about a wildibeast river crossing and a huge croc attacking and getting one of them.

  9. Widnique

    I have these two great Documentaries I just shot in Haiti and I would like to sale them to a Broadcast Television. Can Anybody in here help me do that, please?

  10. jp

    Great article John. Obviously John is an expert, however, I would like to see one issue addressed – it seems like stations will put just about any junk on someone produces so I am not so sure you even need to have a good idea. IF you do have a good idea – I would say that puts you in the top percentage. I can’t tell you how many show’s and movies I’ve watched that are just pure crap. Right now watching “Colors” HORRIBLE no point to it at all. Also saw a show about little girls at YWCA who had a synchronized swim team. It was no more than some home footage some ameateour shot. It was on PBS. PBS also had show about some guy trying to save turtles. Now I can’t tell you how HORRIBLE and boring it was – it was like watching paint dry. I only kept watching it to see if it was really going to stay THAT BAD throught the entire show and yup – it sure did. They have a show about a tatoo parlor – so they PUT ANY JUNK ON. I can go on and on and name 1000 other lousy shows so I don’t doubt what John is saying – but I think the bar to entry is pretty low. Cable stations with 100 channels – doesn’t seem as though they can keep the channels supplied. I am convinced my ideas are as good as any and better than most.

    Something else – everyone starts at the bottom yet many do get shows etc. I am not saying those people are not experienced and did not pay their dues. I am sure they did but the point is – everyone starts off at the bottom.

  11. javed


    Your article realy open my mind.Actually I want to produce a doc on the great mountain”Hindu Khus” culture and nature.

    Here is a lot of nature i.e snow leopard,Ibex markhor and so many wild life which never been flimed and a unique culter.

    I have 24 hour access to them I’m livig here in these mountain.It circle the whole year I can capture them in winter when in snow they came down to village I can captuer them in summer when they go to up mountains.

    what do think is this idea right?

  12. Thor Wier

    I have a half hour documentary I have shown on;
    1. The big island of Hawaii; and a
    2. San Diego local Channel 23

    It is a true story of 2 others and myself traveling from San Diego to Canada by horse,..2600 miles along the coast, mountains. I need to market it, post production would be a help, but it is ready as of now,………..Now can someone out there help us.

  13. ronnie j

    Just want to say a big thanks to John for this open and blunt hard truth.

    We are in Africa working on some strong topics and are learning how to enter this section of the industry.

    Thank you and if anyone can guide us to reputable distributors, great!!1

  14. mahraz

    Hi. I am a documentary film maker in Iran.I have made a film that name is ( cat’s life in persia)and it is about persian cat’s and how they live in Persia,and people how behave with them(because most Iranian hate cats),making this film lasted 3 years and it’s about 40 minutes ,with dvcam widescreen format and english narration.I want to sell this film but i don’t know where and how?please advice me

    thank you

  15. Ed

    Just bumped into this intresting article. Have being thinking about a documentary and have actually started working on it (Gathering Info), kindly send me contact of where and who to approach to have a good finished product from start to finish

    Kind Regards,


  16. awadesh kumar

    I am a freelance producer/director/cinematographer

    making documentries,short films in India.

    Please guide me to reputable distributors wordwide,

    Thanking you

  17. Tom Barton

    i have a 38 minute finished docudrama on the Donnellys of Lucan Ontario, who were brutally murdered by a group of thier neighbours in 1880. It is based on the novel by Ray Fazakas called the Donnelly Album and was co-written by him as well. Canadian actor Jeremy Ratchford did the narration. I would like any information on distribution and a good distribution company. If anyone has some advice it would be greatly appreciated. With financing the documentary myself I have next to no resources left for distribution.


  18. ademola

    basically we make films and documentary better called short films and we have interesting and mind blowing stories about sub sahara africa touching issues like child trafficking, drug abuse and many sensitive issue that will hold viewers spell bound.please we need a reputable distributor and agent please .

  19. Mpumi Bikitsha

    I’m so grateful for this informative piece, very informative. For years we’ve been struggling to get this kind of information to no avail. We are new in the industry but we feel we have a strong cncept to see broadcast. We know that there’s a lot we don’t know in this field but we’ve got the ideas and we know exactly how we want to view them on TV. Our problem, how do we get funding and what kind of relationship do we have with the public broadcaster?

  20. lloyd

    Dear Sir

    I understand the information you are given out on your website is for people who are in the documentary business . I am not in the documentary business I am looking for a documentary for home use only I once went round to a friend house where he showed me a boxing documentary in black-and-white

    with Joe Louis and Max smelling fighter in 1939 I was wondering if you know our I could get a copy of that documentary my e-mail address [email protected]

  21. Joe

    If I’m only going to make .50 cents from a $10 DVD sale….what is the point of my even making a program? How can you make a profit from that? Even if you sold ONE MILLION copies you make less then 500K, and of course your not going to sell anywhere near one million. Maybe 10K.

  22. Yahya isaack

    Am isaack from southafrica,am 1 of refugee frm somalia,i hv made a documentary about the life of refugee from somalia in southafrica and their massage to somalia,i wana sale it to tv,any agent for me my no 0739564052

  23. Dave

    I’ve made 11 documentaries. Everyone I have self distributed and all have done well and kept me going. Distributors promise much and many deliver nothing, many promise quartley reports but you really have to ask over and over to get them and how do you know how much they’ve really made off your film? Do it yourself, it’s a lot of work and calls, but you make back 100% instead of 25%.

  24. Hal


    Thanks for your post. How about a link to one or more of your films? I’d love to know more.

  25. Dave

    I seem to have a few things to say which I will submit seperately. One is Film festivals and the other is low budget projects.

    I can’t tell you how frustrating it is recently to submit a film to film festivals. Often times the fees are getting higher ($35-100.)If you are lucky enough to get accepted then you have to figure out how much its going to cost you to attend this great honor.Recently I was accepted to two film festivals. One fee was $45.00 to enter the other $75.00. I entered these two festivals because they were both within 2 hours drive for me. God forbid I have to fly and spend over $400 for a round trip. And then there’s the hotel. For two nights, I’d be spending $250, and then there’s meals, $30/day and so on. One $75.00 festival sent exciting emails about the festival, the big celebrity film makers and actors in attendance and then the Gala awards dinner for the film maker, which this festival finally said, would only cost the attending film maker, $100. All said and done I would have spent over $700 to see my film screened at a festival. It’s hard enough that you struggle to make your film in the first place, the glory should be when you get accepted, there should be some reward for the film maker. Needless to say, it’s frustrating.

  26. Dave

    My other frustrating thing these days are how low producers & clients will go to take you down so they can rise for their projects. recently I’ve been editing Sizzle reels for people. Sizzle reels are basically the new term for demo or promo reels. It seems that the lower the budget or no budget a project is, the more the Producer will take advantage. Many low budget Producers will say, they are making a sizzle reel for a new reality show they want to pitch. “Aw, we want to shoot with two cameramen to get the best shots and to make the cutting look good.” “can you get someone who is really good, who knows what they’re doing?, we can only pay them $100/day.” Now someone who knows what their doing normally would get between $400-$600/day for 10 hours. “Then it will only take you a day or two to edit… Right? Oh, by the way, we can only pay you $250.” Now a good Editor makes between $2,000-$5,000/week. I tell them, it’s not going to take 2-3 days to edit a sizzle reel. Be realistic, it will take almost a month. Here’s the breakdown. For the sake of argument, you/they shoot 10 hours of footage, Tape or SD cards. You have to load the footage, create bins, and log it. That takes a couple of days to start. Then you edit. That takes about a week for a rough cut. You usually end up editing it yourself because the Producer or Director who said they would be right next to you is always on their cell or laptop. They see it and have all these changes which realistically takes another week to edit by yourself. Its amazing that a 2 minute sizzle to look really good takes about a week to cut. Then the Director has more changes after showing it to friends, wives, husbands, agents, etc. Then they want more footage cut in, re-cut, re-cut, etc. Now its coming up to four weeks. Unless you tell them your not going to do anymore unless they pay you more, or or threaten them, low budget directors and producers will squeeze the life out of you, then 4 weeks later they wonder why you want more money. I don’t do sizzles anymore, unless they are prepared to pay. Those you can pay, great lets edit for 10 weeks, and those who have a budget stick to reality, those who don’t will take full advantage of your kindness and in the end you’re the one paying for it.

  27. Umesh Patel


    I’m a documentary filmmaker in India. I have some good concepts and I want to make those projects for Discovery or National Geography channel.

    I don’t find how to contact them for the proposal.

    I need you help 🙂

    Thanking You,

    Umesh Patel

  28. Elijah Marchand


    I filmed, directed and produced a documentary called Tin City Voices which follows three main characters lives in the ghetto of Tiger Bay, Georgetown in Guyana. The trailer for my 1 hr. long film can be found on my website and Yutube. I am looking for an agent who could help me sell this documentary to a network. Please contact me at [email protected]

  29. chandan jha


    i live in Nepali i was in job as story fixer for London media company but not now, my many stories was published in Discovery Channel and Channel 5,

    I am lit bit poor in English so i cant explain all,but i have Big ideas -interesting topic from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Tibet etc, at present i have six rare medicals cases eg- Snake skin boy, Big head Girl etc, i have other topics like Honey hunting, Jungle mans (Rauta People) and many more,

    i dont have money to self produce it so plz Help me anyone… my E-mail [email protected] or [email protected]

  30. Soma Biswa

    I worked in production field as a coordinator from last three years. now I want to make documentary on various topic of India like social-political issue, social issue, cultural issue and others. I need proper guide for making documentary and main mostly need how can I sell this. if some body help me for my requirements I will be obliged .



  31. Hal who runs VideoUniversity

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  32. mansaray


  33. Adam


    Has anyone sold a documentaries for the Middle East market, I have few documentaries suit that market but i don’t know who to approach.

    topics various from social issues to food and travelling.

  34. Zizou

    When filming on a high school or a high school team do you have to pay the high school to do it? Do you think that the film undefeated give money to the school? I’m having a really hard time getting approved at a high school principal and the athletic director are really holding me up what do you recommend?

  35. Hal

    It’s a little more complicated than that. Check out the book “Clearance & Copyright” by Donaldson. He’s an entertainment lawyer who can answer your questions.

  36. AmDe Sidik

    I’ve made few video clips focusing on Borneo’s ethnics and cultures
    -and I now preparing for 10-20 minutes documentaries-incase any one wants to give views or advice or interested on the topics let me know

  37. Giovanni Fiorentini

    I just recently came back from Italy and I filmed hours and hours of video from all the major sights. I did what you guys call gorilla filming. There were some sites where they said that filming for commercial use that I had to get permission to do so. But I didnt get permission and got everything on video anyways. Will I still be able to use those video footages on my documentary. I plan on starting the editing here in a few days. Please let me know.

  38. Hal Post author

    Some places yes, some places no. If you do not have proper clearances, you will not be able to get a distributor. To determine what’s legal and what’s not, you might want to check out a book called “Clearance and Copyright” by Donaldson. He’s an intellectual property attorney. The book will teach you how to stay out of trouble.

    Good luck.

  39. Emeka Okoye

    We are new Satellite Tv station Africa Home Tv, we are interested in buying Documentary rights for certain period ideal subjects are: Environment, Gender marginalization (Male / female), Agriculture, and social development. Email to elinmedia @

  40. Cindy

    Your comment is right on!!!!
    You sound like a professional person and I understand your frustration as I have experienced this exact scenario.
    Beware of people who squeeze everything they can out of you, while at the same time splashing out on the most expensive gadgets. Talent and time are two non expendable items.
    Good luck with your new ventures.

  41. Kenneth Akaeze

    There Is A Mountain Here In Nigeria Where The Footprint Of An Angel Believed To Be That Of Angel Gabriel Was Discovered At The Top,today People From All Parts Of The World Troop Down There To Catch A Glimpse Of The Footprint Of An Angel Believed To Have Been Thousands Of Years Ago.
    There Is A Town Here Too Where Every First Time Visitor Is Visited By Snakes,these Snakes Are Forbiden To Killed By Human Beings. These Will Make A Good Documentary When Covered,interested Tv Channels, Journalists, Media Houses And Individuals Who Want To Do A Documentary On Them Or Want Me To Do The Documentaries Should Contact Me. +234 8079456880

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