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Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Plans Moving Ahead for ‘Emperor’ Documentary


Today marks the start of a year of “outreach” promotional efforts related to Ken Burns' three-part, six-hour documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, scheduled to air on PBS next spring.


Announcements were made at the just-concluded PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco where some 250 local PBS stations were updated about the initiatives, many of which are centered around the website,, which launched about a month ago.


The plans for the documentary were unveiled about a year ago at an event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when it was announced that Washington, DC’s PBS station WETA, the producing partner of all of Burns’ documentaries, would be involved. 


The film, Ken Burns Presents The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, is being executive produced by Burns, who also serves as creative consultant, and produced and directed by Barak Goodman. The 2010 book by medical oncologist Siddhartha Mukharjee, MD, PhD, was optioned for television and film rights in 2010 by the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) for its Stand Up To Cancer initiative at the urging of the late SU2C co-founder, Laura Ziskin.


I spoke by phone with Dalton Delan, Executive Producer of the documentary and Executive Vice President and Chief Programming Officer at WETA, and Anne Harrington, Director of Interactive Media and Engagement at WETA, after they met with the local station representatives.


They discussed what they say they believe will be one of the most ambitious projects to be undertaken by public television, using digital media and grassroots efforts to engage people throughout the country about the cancer-related issues—scientific, historical, and personal--raised in the series.


The website now includes three videos, and plans are to eventually include at least 20, featuring cancer patients, caregivers, researchers, and celebrity survivors -- in an effort to explore ideas, pose questions, and spur dialogue during the next year leading up to the broadcast, according to a news release. The Twitter hashtag is #CancerFilm.


A video interview with Sue Taylor, MD, an internist from Seattle, is scheduled to be released later today in which she discusses dealing with her brother’s death from Burkitt lymphoma when he was an adolescent, and reveals toward the end that she is a palliative care physician.


During a telephone interview Taylor said that after practicing internal medicine for many years and then getting involved in medical administration, she entered a palliative care fellowship at the University of Washington last year and will soon be moving to Arizona to direct the palliative care program at Tucson Medical Center.


She explained that she and Lin MacMaster, who was named Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer of the American Cancer Society last year, had worked together in Seattle several years ago. MacMaster then contacted her about sharing her story in a video related to The Story of Cancer documentary. ACS is one of the outreach partners involved in promoting the film.


WETA’s Delan and Harrington mentioned several projects that will lead up to the airing of the documentary -- including a behind-the-scenes “producers’ blog” scheduled to start later this month; an “interactive story-sharing wall” that will allow people to share their own cancer stories; an interactive timeline noting key events in cancer research; and Tweet chats and other moderated social media events that will include participation by the filmmakers.


WETA will provide station grants to 50 local PBS stations for their own efforts within their respective markets. The Washington-DC station also plans to begin an educational component for the documentary, with Sherry Lansing, a SU2C co-founder, EIF Board Chair, and Founder of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, serving as Chair of the Education Subcommittee.


Delan said the key is to have partnerships and then be able to coordinate the partners toward a common effort: “When we run projects related to Ken Burns productions, we are the media version of a military campaign, with our boardroom turned into a war room.”


Regarding the documentary’s title, he said that at first it had been changed from the book’s title to Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, but following feedback from focus groups, it was renamed again to the perceived-to-be-more accessible current name.

In addition, he said, plans are in the works for related projects that will continue after the airing of the series.


Along with the ACS, the campaign’s other partners are SU2C and the American Association for Cancer Research, with funding from Genentech, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Siemens, David H. Koch, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the Kovler Fund.