South Bend Tribune

May 18, 2003

Documentary Produced by Alum of Local TV Show



Tribune Columnist

Alesia ReddingWhen television producer Phil Frank started a business consulting and producing programs for networks, he was armed with an impressive list of contacts garnered from years working at CNN and The Travel Channel.

And it should come as no real surprise that the former South Bend resident, whose documentary "The Point: Kidnapped Abroad'' airs one week from today on cable network A&E, also had four years of "Beyond Our Control'' under his belt.

In fact, the Junior Achievement-sponsored program aired by WNDU-TV from 1968 to 1986 has been the training ground for a number of people making a living in television these days.

The list of "BOC'' alumni includes "Blue's Clues'' creator Traci Paige Johnson, television producer David Simkins and screenwriters Daniel Waters and Larry Karaszewski.

And Frank, of course, a 1978 LaSalle High School grad who, in a recent phone conversation from Washington, D.C., expressed a deep sense of appreciation for the "BOC'' experience.
Phil Frank
Television producer Phil Frank, who grew up in South Bend, is pictured in Pandy, Wales, in the middle of filming "Kidnapped Abroad,'' a documentary that will air May 25 on cable network A&E.

Photo provided

'The Point: Kidnapped Abroad.'

When: 9 p.m. May 25, 2003

Network: A&E
"It was just amazing,'' he says of the program, which involved students in every facet of television production. "I learned so much. Everything was hands-on.''

Adds Frank, whose parents, Irene and Jack Frank, still live in South Bend, "You had a certain level of control -- which most high school students never feel.''

The Indiana University graduate, who majored in telecommunications, built upon that foundation, spending a decade at CNN, where he produced and wrote science and environmental programs. He also helped launch cable's Travel Channel, where he spent four years.

From there, Frank struck out on his own, opening a business to consult and produce programs for various networks. Thanks to his expansive range of contacts within the industry, Frank does very little pitching and is often asked to flesh out an idea and create a documentary.

"What I really like about what I do is being able to tackle a brand-new topic, learn about it and turn around and put it in context so that people will want to watch it, be entertained and informed by it,'' says Frank, who in his high school yearbook stated a future plan to "direct a world-renowned documentary.''

His latest effort, "Kidnapped Abroad,'' came after an introduction to someone at Bill Kurtis Productions, best known for producing "Investigative Reports,'' a signature A&E series.

Frank was asked to come up with a documentary subject right around the time that the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was in the news.

Frank, who notes, "I know a lot of people in the business, and I know it can be a dangerous thing,'' had found his topic.

"Kidnapped Abroad'' examines the increasing risk of kidnapping that Americans face abroad, how the United States government is responding to this threat and how you can prevent and survive a kidnapping.

The special includes the story of Pearl's abduction and murder and travels to a special school hidden deep in the countryside of Wales that teaches kidnapping prevention. Also featured are the stories of two businessmen kidnapped for ransom in Nairobi, Kenya, and a tourist abducted in Ecuador.

During the yearlong process of producing the program -- he'd initially figured it would take about four months -- Frank discovered how difficult it was to get people to talk about the subject. As narrator Bill Kurtis says in the program's opening, the official number of Americans kidnapped abroad is less than 50; but unofficially, the number is much higher because most of these crimes are kept off the books.

"It took several months to get the FBI to talk to me. I had written many letters,'' Frank says. "But I finally got permission to talk to some of their agents.''

Connections within the industry also came in handy for the producer, who landed an interview with Paul Steiger, Pearl's managing editor at the WSJ, through contacts made while he was at CNN.

And Frank says a "stroke of luck'' accounts for the interview with a man who had been kidnapped and released. Originally, the man had phoned A&E to say he didn't want to tell his story. Frank ended up contacting him. "I talked to him and convinced him I was a fair journalist.''

In fact, Frank is also a well-traveled journalist who discovered that in many developing countries, including the Philippines and Columbia, kidnapping is an industry and Americans are preferred targets.

"I've done stories in the boonies of Mexico. I guess I was at risk,'' he acknowledges, adding, "It's a matter of being smart, of not going to the hottest of hot spots ... of not wearing a sweatshirt with an American flag, or lots of jewelry or anything that implies wealth.''

Staff writer Alesia I. Redding:

(574) 235-6244
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