While the channel build in Europe is clearly giving more opportunity to producers, the verdict on the nature of that opportunity is still out. The market for infotainment – which some call semi-exploitative given the licence fees available – means opportunity abounds for format-driven series programming.
One area where one-offs and experimentation remain welcome is the new directors strand – of which England has many – recently showcased at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One such window is Picture This, the five-year-old, half-hour BBC2 new directors strand which explores humanity. According to commissioning editor Peter Symes, an example of innovative structure emerging from the series is Playing Out, a film about little boys directed by Ian Duncan. While shot and clearly constructed like a drama, the film ‘is totally an honest portrait of what they do every day of their life.’ Its soundtrack also mirrors the use of dramatic conventions.
Another example of playing with the genre is Life On Air, a film by Annie Griffin about a day-in-the-life of a commissioning editor at mtv. Shot over two days with two cameras in b&w, the director cast herself as a ‘rock chick.’ She acts as an interviewer, asking seemingly obvious, but actually quite clever questions which serve to put people at ease while eliciting answers. She also appears in (color) pop promos within the film.
For its 1998 season, Picture This is being shifted to a later evening spot on the schedule in accord with the network’s decision to put programming in blocks, with most factual going after 9 p.m. (‘unless it’s entertaining’ – programs such as Antiques Road Show). The reasoning, according to Symes, is that the doc-watching audience is made up of people who tend not to watch early, ‘so the 9:30 slot is rather good for me.’ He says the post-watershed slot move means he has the option to use stronger stories. And, most crucially, controller Mark Thompson has told Symes he’s not overly concerned about the viewing figures, so the strand can remain true to its experimental brief, focused on the extraordinary within ordinary lives.
While commissions have so far gone to British filmmakers (both newcomers and those moving into docs from other areas), Symes is talking to an American about a project for the next round of Picture This. He also does some copros, and may buy in on non-u.k. projects.
In addition to its on-air presence, there is a bursary scheme with film schools, designed to get students to write doc treatments for the Picture This brief. This grew partly out of Symes being subjected to less-than-stellar treatments and the generally non-commercial focus of film schools. As well, there is a lot of concentration on drama, and Symes wants to encourage new filmmakers to think about docs and approach them in different ways.
Due to the volume of side channels bbc is embarking on (i.e. joint ventures with Discovery), the concern is that there will be a squeeze on existing network programming budgets as central bundles are being cut. ‘I think there’s more diversity and a greater range of documentaries on British tv than in a long time,’ says Symes, but he also cautions, ‘I don’t think we should be complacent.’
One of the pressures of the increasing options for eyeballs is financial. ‘As the competition hots up, the pressure is to spend less money and be more entertaining.’ After all, Driving School, a very economical and droll series that points the camera at (often inept) folks learning to motor, gets 12 million viewers. ‘This is the danger, you get a popular format and it bulldozes the schedule.’
Programming Profile: Discovery commissions from tapirs in London to Tallinn’s Bomb Squad