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August 02, 2016

Stormy Bellwether

A Donner party doc helps flesh out the Weather Channel's move to original programming.

Neil Turitz
  • Weather Channel

Most of the time, the word party suggests fun, friends and revelry. Unless, of course, the subject is the Donner party.

Some 170 years after a cataclysmic snowstorm stranded the caravan of almost 100 men, women and children in the Sierra Nevada Mountains — forcing the survivors to turn to cannibalism — the story is still a source of fascination.

It was the inspiration for a two-hour documentary, Dead of Winter, which premiered late last year on the Weather Channel and continues to air sporadically.

Coming from ThinkFactory Media, the company behind the Emmy-winning miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, the doc features narration by Powers Boothe, historical reenactments, commentary from experts on weather and the Old West — even observations from Karl Ahlrichs, a direct descendant of George Donner, for whom the infamous expedition was named.

So, why revisit the story now?

"We stumbled upon it," admits Adam Freeman, creative director at ThinkFactory and an executive producer of the film along with Adam Reed, Leslie Greif, Raymond Bridgers and John Joseph. "We applied the same filter we did to Hatfields & McCoys: it's a recognizable brand and story, but you don't really know the full extent of it.

"It combined the best of everything, and an ability to speak to the Weather Channel audience about a part of Americana." While weather was a major factor in the plight of those pioneers, it still is a leap for some to connect the story with the Weather Channel. But with the cable network turning to more original programming, it's a leap that president David Clark hopes will soon become a more natural one.

"We've been pushing into telling longer-form stories about the weather and how it impacts people's lives," Clark says. "A lot of it has an adventure bent to it.

"This is the first feature-length, made-for-television documentary," he continues, "but it fits everything else we've been doing. A lot of our programming looks at how you make decisions when faced with crazy weather situations — and this is about as crazy a weather situation as you can get."

And as Freeman notes, "Man versus nature is a timeless story. People are fascinated by others overcoming the elements, overcoming unbelievable odds, plus, there is the history and lore around it. It's one of those stories that is embedded in the American psyche."

But you may need to pull on a sweater while watching it.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2016

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