Towers Productions is city’s biggest production company and leader in programming for cable

Towers Productions, the 16-year old producer of cable content, is Chicago’s largest production company, with estimated billings of $10 million.

ReelChicago’s Catherine Rategan talked to founder/president Jonathan Towers and VP/production Mike Schmiedeler to learn about thriving company.

RC: As Chicago’s biggest production company, give us an idea of Towers’ size and scope.
Mike Schmiedeler: We have 104 people on staff, plus another 50 freelancers at any given time.

In addition to a full complement of staff producers, we employ four videographers, three audio mixers, eight editors and five associate editors. We also have a four-person 2D and 3D graphics department. We run a double-shift at all our facilities.

We try to keep as much work in-house as we can, but we also use a lot of shooters a lot of shooters around the country.

VP/production Mike Schmiedeler

RC: What kind of space do you occupy for an operation of this size?
Schmiedeler: Our office spans 24,000-square feet of space in two buildings in the West Loop.

RC: How many shows does Towers produce a year?
Schmiedeler: About 50 to 70 hours of documentary and cinema verite’ style programming. They run from 30 minutes to two hours.

RC: What would you say is the average cost of those shows?
Schmiedeler: It really depends on content and can run anywhere from $130,000 to $300,000 per hour.

RC: Who are some of your cable clients?
Schmiedeler: A&E, The Learning Channel, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, Discovery Times and the Outdoor Living Network. Many of them involve high-end recreations of real situations, such as storms and catastrophes.

RC: Jonathan, if I wanted to work for your company, what kind of resume should I have?
Jonathan Towers: You should have an undergrad or graduate degree in broadcasting, writing or journalism. We also look for experienced people with editing, shooting and/or graphics skills. We usually hire staff at the associate producer levels.

RC: We understand that your company built its reputation on journalism and writing.
Towers: That’s right. Our producers do a lot of their own writing. And writing is my background. I got a taste for TV early in life when video was in its infancy. My large suburban New York high school offered an experimental program in video and produced a daily TV show.

At Yale I majored in history and literature. Almost immediately after graduation, I began working as a print journalist.

RC: And you also worked in the news business.
Towers: In 1982, I went to work for a 24-hour satellite news channel, a joint venture between Westinghouse and ABC News. After that venture failed in 1983, I got a job at CBS News as a writer. There I wrote for Bill Kurtis briefly in 1985 when he and Diane Sawyer anchored the morning news. (Kurtis is a production partner in “American Justice.”)

Then I did a stint as a street reporter for CNN in Dallas, where I wrote, produced and reported on news events throughout the Southwest — floods, murder trials, plane crashes.

RC: When did you move to Chicago?
Towers: In 1988 I was delighted to move to Chicago. I had family here, and I fell in love with the city. The following year I’d completed my three-year CNN contract.

RC: What was your take on cable back then?
Towers: I knew they’d need content, especially nonfiction, and I intended to meet that need. So I took a leap into the unknown and started my own production company in 1989.

RC: Why do you think Towers Productions has been so successful?
Schmiedeler: Probably because of our emphasis on story and character and because our reputation is built on strong writing, good journalism and extensive fact-checking. Also our programs are even-handed.

RC: How do you market your services?
Schmiedeler: We’re always out at documentary and programming conferences and trade fairs in major markets. Jonathan works hard at promoting the company and seeking new projects. And we’re always looking for new stories and new outlets.

Towers has a big investment in high-end equipment

  • Nine Avid Media Composer Adrenaline edit suites
  • Two Avid Symphony finishing suites
  • Graphics department featuring six workstations with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After-Effects and Newtek Lightwave 3-D with a graphics rendering farm, and complete in-house post-production capabilities.
  • Two audio mastering suites using Pro Tools HD workstations and three Avid Xpress Pro workstations, all collaborating on an Avid Unity Media Network
  • Six terabytes of storage linked to a central machine core
  • 10 Apple Final Cut Pro editing workstations
  • RC: Nine years ago Ruth L Ratny’s Screen Magazine named your company one of the year’s for “putting Chicago on the cable programming map.” What has happened since then that you can point to with pride?
    Towers: We won a National Headliner Award for film about Iraq and several Cine Golden Eagle awards. We’ve been nominated for national and local Emmy awards, and we won a local Emmy for Ch. 9 shows. But I guess what I’m proudest of my children, ages eight, seven and three.

    RC: What advice would you give producers interested in supplying programming to cable?
    Schmiedeler: I’d advise them to put a high value on the story and its facts. If you find strong characters with a story to tell, it will tell itself. That’s what makes for riveting television.

    Jonathan Towers and Mike Schmiedeler can be reached at 312/993-1550.

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