“I was Rob Benfield’s researcher in the 1980s when he was a producer/director on a regional ITV current affairs doc series called Facing South (and immigration minister Phil Woolas was a co-researcher!). Rob remembers that the series was run by journalists at the time and that he was brought in to make the series more visually interesting when the prevailing “mission to explain” ethos made programmes duller to watch. Complaints about the dumbing-down of docs began 25 years ago. No doubt, I did my bit to help the process too…”
A month ago I asked whether documentary production is really in demise, or are we just grumbling? The holiday season has proved harder to crack than I’d thought, and I’m still waiting for the indies and commissioners I’ve contacted to get back to me on the subject.
Never say never, but I’ve had some interesting offline feedback from, Michael Waldman, a veteran of BBC’s Forty Minutes doc strand, and maker of The House, Daisy Daisy, Stephen Fry In America and many more. And I can offer the academic’s viewpoint from, Rob Benfield, who runs the TV production degree course at the University of Westminster.
I was Rob Benfield’s researcher in the 1980s when he was a producer/director on a regional ITV current affairs doc series called Facing South (and immigration minister Phil Woolas was a co-researcher!). Rob remembers that the series was run by journalists at the time and that he was brought in to make the series more visually interesting when the prevailing “mission to explain” ethos made programmes duller to watch. Complaints about the dumbing-down of docs began 25 years ago. No doubt, I did my bit to help the process too…
Rob pointed out that a lot of investigative journalism is now to be found on the web, and is designed for people who want to make up their own minds about the information that they watch. What is the need for the BBC to tell us about corruption in other countries, when their own citizens can tell us directly about it online?
Of course, the web offers plenty of content but no production style in the main – and we still look for the editorial filter in which we can trust from our own broadcasters. But Rob notes that his multicultural students look to the web for content that they think represents their interests better than broadcast television does. And these will be our next generation of programme-makers and television executives!
The TV executives in place today are trying to cope with a multi-channel environment and different ‘viewer patterns’, where they expect viewers to be ready to skip channels at random. They want to keep the newly-arrived viewer’s attention – hence the repetition of content already given earlier in the programme. But we know that viewers are prepared to watch long-form factual productions on their computer screens, so our commissioners are still finding their way in developing the medium.
Rob noted that Current TV is now commissioning lower-budget, long-form documentaries from a narrowing group of younger film-makers who are making the channel their own. And the web isn’t all bad news for established TV documentary makers. Rob cites at least one smaller indie which makes international current affairs docs, is finding its ageing back catalogue getting a whole new lease of life, and bringing in money from ongoing sales, thanks to the internet.
Senior producer and director, Michael Waldman, is working at the forefront of prime-time, presenter-led documentaries. He knows that the genre is used by commissioners to punch through the schedules; it makes an immediate impact and can bring a wider audience to some subjects. He says that it is a challenging, interesting genre that is often professionally exciting to make.
It is clear to Michael that terrestrial budgets are shrinking and that there are plenty of talented programme-makers who are finding it ever harder to get the next commission. At the same time, he knows that there are areas of our lives and worlds which could be covered better on television than they currently are. But Michael is not pessimistic about the future of the documentary, although it’s a different matter for the professional future of many of our established documentary-makers.
Michael’s take on the commissioning editors is that they are doing the best job that they can in the face of financial and scheduling pressures which are not of their own choosing. He says that the best commissioning editors are still helping to make new and exciting television which wouldn’t happen without them.
From my point of view, it looks like the crafted documentary is living on across at least four out of five terrestrial broadcasters, with strands like True Stories, Cutting Edge, and Dispatches taking the high ground. But headlining individual documentary makers still gain devoted patronage from single broadcasters. I count Molly Dineen at Channel Four, Adam Curtis at the BBC, and ITV still supports John Pilger, Jane Treays and Chris Terrill.
Factual television remains essential to each of the broadcasters, even if their cash is running low and they have to busk hard for audience share. Even Five gets essential ratings for its popular doc series like Extreme Fishing and Highland Emergency. Docs may be down, but they won’t go out.