If British broadcasters are under more pressure than ever to succumb to commercial pressures, what place does documentary filmmaking hold in the commissioner’s line-up? This week, I look at whether support for documentary filmmaking is about to become a lavish extravagance of the past.
It would be interesting to know how many ProductionBase members initially pursued a career in television because you wanted to make significant documentaries which could be watched by millions. I expect that a sizable number did, regardless of the genre of production each of you have specialised in since starting out. In practice, freelancers can find themselves pigeon-holed by genre; you may have taken that job on a popular satellite shopping channel, but you took it because you were trapped by financial responsibility, not because it fulfilled your creative desires. If this is the drift which takes people away from documentary, then where is the documentary itself drifting? In UK broadcast television, the documentary world has been changing fast, and here is what I see happening.
Broadcasters and production companies need to achieve one of two things with each production, and in documentary they can seldom get both at the same time. They must either gain a commanding audience or they must attain outstanding critical acclaim. If they can win a large audience then this translates into money in the bank – because they can sell advertising at a higher rate and/or they can sell this popular production at home and abroad. But every broadcaster needs some critical approval in order to retain credibility and so it will always support a few productions which give it kudos but cost more to make than the broadcaster can ever recoup. This dynamic even affects the BBC, where one might expect that the ring-fenced license fee income would protect it from such pressures. The third dynamic was traditionally the public service remit, but none of the broadcasters now face the kind of public service pressure that they did all through the second half of the twentieth century.
When that public service commitment was a factor, single documentaries could be seen as a relatively cheap and compliant method of filling the transmission schedule, and so it was easier to find docs to make or work on. However, over the last eight years, the single documentary has become a rarer luxury and few production companies can now run a business based on making them for television. The doc series is still economically viable, from popular ‘tea-towel’ television like the BBC’s Coast, watched by millions, to big-subject docs like Brook Lapping’s Iran And The West, which may not get hordes of viewers, but is guaranteed to be watched by the entire Cabinet and their shadows. But the market can only support so many documentary series. What about the 30-minute or 50-minute single subject standalone doc? Unless it looks like it will be an award-winning feather in the broadcaster’s cap, it is ever less likely.
Channel Four can’t be the same commissioner of single docs that it has been for the last 25 years. We know that its business model is now unsustainable, it can’t raise the advertising income that it used to, it needs to tear up its terms of trade with production companies and start making money out of programme rights. An arranged marriage between C4 and BBC Worldwide will make C4’s commissions all the more commercially minded, and I suppose that its outstanding role as cultural voice of minorities and alternative views will be largely a thing of the past. This, and the pressures on the other broadcasters means that there will be far less documentaries on television that are issue or culture led.
But don’t mourn the death of the documentary film quite yet – it is alive and well elsewhere. It is the lobbying medium of choice for a wide range of well-heeled charities, pressure groups and philanthropic funds, not to mention the corporations which need good documentary-makers to represent their viewpoint. There is money and support to be found for British film-makers overseas, and one only need visit the Amsterdam documentary festival, or Sundance, or look at the many international forums to realise how influential and significant the work of the documentary film-maker still is. If you ever want to return to your initial impetus and make documentaries, or to maintain it, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of viewers in the world who still want to know about it, but you might not want to rely as much on the support of the traditional British broadcasters to make them.