Small Town News: The Unconventional Road to a Different Kind of 2020 Story

For a show set during the last full calendar year, there’s surprisingly little in “Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump” that directly references the most pervasive, overarching story of 2020. Though the long-simmering documentary project paused its cameras for much of the year, when it returned in the fall, the goal was to make something that let its subject be the focus.

A lot of the show is as much a product of downtime as the biggest news stories of any given day.

“It’s a news station,” executive producer Randy Barbato said. “You would expect a series about it [to] be driven by date and time. But I think the more we shot, and the more we were into it, we weren’t going to try and shoehorn it into some format that said, ‘Here’s the lead story tonight’ or even a traditional reality show format, with a hardcore, A-line storyline. Each episode, it was the intention to make it feel more like you feel when you go hang out there.”

The six-part, half-hour docuseries tracks the goings-on in the small desert town of Pahrump, Nevada, where a privately owned TV station attempts to expand into a bigger market amid unprecedented times. Resisting a specific genre also comes across in the way that daily life plays out at the Channel 25 studios in Pahrump, Nevada. It’s a local news outlet serving a town roughly 60 miles west of Las Vegas. Of the area’s almost 40,000 citizens, a handful make up the full KPVM team, a roster with people wearing multiple on- and off-air hats. News director Deanna O’Donnell and station owner Vern Van Winkle emerge as two of the mainstays helping to both shape and maintain the station’s output.

There’s a distinct workplace comedy vibe to a lot of what goes on in the sales office, the production booth, and the channel’s edit station. Bailey and Barbato were insistent on making sure any laughs came naturally from the tiny absurdities and challenges of putting together a daily news show.

“We really love these guys, and relate to them. We have an office family as well, and we are dysfunctional members of that office family,” Barbato said. “Deanna is naturally funny. She’s hysterical. And Vern’s very funny as well. They have their own rhythm. They don’t really need us to pull out the highlighter and underline the punch line.”

Though “Small Town News” features central individuals, another recognizable throughline of the series is that this is a business with the occasional staff turnover. Not knowing whether the person you feature in one episode will still be around in a few weeks started out as a daunting possibility, but over time, it became something to weave into the fabric of the show.

“There was a moment where your producorial instincts kick in. Initially, it was like, ‘Oh my God. Wait, is he coming back? What are we going to do?’” Barbato said. “Ultimately, though, with KPVM, you have to just go with it. It’s kind of the strength of it. I love that people go, people come, people go, people come back. People who’ve gone are like hanging out in the parking lot.”


“Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump”

Gilles Mingasson/HBO

Given the simmering, mostly playful political disagreements between various members of the KPVM staff, last fall’s presidential election seemed like a natural way to experience not only the station’s response to that week’s events, but the town at large.

“We always knew we wanted to cover the election, because obviously, it was really important to Vern. And we just thought it was a great way to cover an election from this completely unique local point of view. All the election coverage is just normally big, headline-y, nationwide stuff. You got to see a whole different side of it,” executive producer Fenton Bailey said.

There’s no credited director on the series, something that Bailey and Barbato said came from the unconventional way the show came together. The pair did go out of their way to salute the efforts of fellow producers Nikki Calabrese and Nelson Walters, who each spent significant time on the ground in Pahrump.

“There was a lot of involvement in the edit. Not everyone was in the field, not everyone was in the edit bay, the edit took longer than the field. So yeah, it took a village,” Barbato said.

Despite that less-than-standard production process, the Pahrump crew are people that they want to continue to follow, should the opportunity for a Season 2 arise. This initial six-episode season doesn’t have a definitive stopping point, which might be the biggest signal of the way “Small town News” approached its 2020 setting in the first place.

“We love these people and they’re so great to be around. A lot of stuff, we do it because we get something out of just being around the subjects. I think it’d be great to do to do more,” Bailey said.

“It’s the kind of TV that we like, and there isn’t a lot of it where the authenticity meter is just off the charts,” Barbato said.

At the end of the KPVM broadcasts, archived on YouTube, the past two Mondays have concluded with a quick note about a community viewing party for the week’s new episodes. Bailey recognizes that to have a documentary subject respond in that kind of a positive way is not always a guarantee.

“You can never know how someone is going to react when you show them something. It doesn’t always turn out as great as this was. It was a really lovely experience,” Bailey said. “I think they especially loved seeing the HBO logo at the beginning. The show really showcases that sort of community that they formed, the family, and the bonds between them. They’re a really great, truly interconnected group of people.”

“Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump” is now available to stream on HBO Max.

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