Reality Check: Peek Show: The Brits and their taste for soap

Love it or hate it, reality-based programming is a consistent ratings grabber produced at...
May 1, 1998

Love it or hate it, reality-based programming is a consistent ratings grabber produced at

a fraction of the cost of traditional drama. As U.S. cablers and networks trot out their fall fare at L.A. Screenings, STEVE CLARKE explores the docu-soap phenomenon in the U.K.

Not so long ago, reality programming in the u.k. revolved around crime and reconstructions of real-life disasters. These formats continue to win peak time slots on Britain’s main terrestrial networks, but their popularity is being eroded by the rise (and rise) of the factual-, or as the Brits like to call it, the docu-soap.

These real-life sagas of ordinary folk in ordinary situations, often the workplace, represent the only program genre whose popularity has increased in the u.k. during the past year. Factual soaps are a fixture on all mainstream British stations. They have even infiltrated flagging satellite station Sky, where Ibiza Uncovered and Caribbean Uncovered, the genre’s late-night, raunchy underbelly, have given the satellite operator rare original hits.

Docu-soap’s hold on the national psyche is such that, in some cases, the people featured in programs like the bbc’s Driving School and Hotel, and itv’s Airline, have become almost as famous as the actors who star in the real soaps.

‘Audiences like them because, at their best, they are very revealing,’ says itv’s controller of documentaries and features, Grant Mansfield. ‘People often ask me what the magic ingredients of a successful documentary soap are. In fact they’re not radically different to any other documentary. It’s essential to have a good subject, good characters and, crucially, good filmmakers.’

In his previous job as managing editor, network features, at BBC Bristol, Mansfield helped mastermind many of the series that have led to the current glut of factual soaps on British TV, including Driving School, Vets’ School, Vets In Practice and Holiday Reps.

Critics of the genre maintain that, at their worst, the u.k. docu-soap is a cut-price, populist version of traditional fly-on-the-wall filmmaking sparked by cost-cutting and an inability to fill entertainment slots with effective comedy and long-running drama.

The truth is probably more complicated. Mansfield agrees there is a strong ‘feel good’ factor at work in factual soaps – and that they offer good value. Yet he denies the docu-soap is another manifestation of documentaries dumbing down.

‘These films talk directly to a lot of our audiences,’ he says, ‘because they take them further into worlds they already know something of. So, in their own way, they are very revealing. They’re light, but not trite.

‘They’re not investigative films, but if people are sitting down and watching documentaries, it’s better than them watching quiz shows.’

One of the bbc’s most successful docu-soaps to date was The Cruise, a behind-the-scenes look at a cruise ship sailing the Caribbean. Scheduled twice weekly last winter, the 12-parter averaged an impressive 43% audience share.

In common with most u.k. docu-soaps, The Cruise was shown early evening, pre-watershed, with a mainstream, family audience in mind. This, says executive producer Olivia Lichtenstein, inevitably imposed certain limits on the program’s makers, but all filmmakers, she argues, have to work within boundaries.

‘It’s a mistake to assume that all these programs are easy and cheap to make,’ Lichtenstein insists. ‘The Cruise was in the cutting room for a year.

‘One reason these programs are so popular is because viewers like seeing ordinary people with attitude, people that are like them and belong to them. Audiences find other people’s lives endlessly fascinating.’

This may be true, but not all factual soaps succeed. It has taken itv three bites at the cherry before finally scoring with the six-part Airline (see box). Both Dover, which attempted to take the lid off Britain’s best-known channel port, and Babewatch, a warts-and-all account of wannabe models, bombed.

Neither have they yet made much of a splash internationally. Nadine Nohr, managing director of the Granada-owned distributor brite, thinks these series could do well in certain, mostly English-speaking markets, but reckons the genre is still too new to assess its full potential.

‘We’ve had interest from cable and satellite markets from all over the world,’ she says. ‘It’s not primetime fare, and there are complications with rights. Their appeal is very domestic. Exporting the formula rather than the programs themselves is probably the way forward.’

It is perhaps also wrong, as Lichtenstein suggests, to lump all these programs together under one umbrella. At the top end of the market with broadcasters like the BBC and, to a lesser degree, itv, budgets hover around the £100,000 mark. At niche nets like Discovery Europe, they cost around a fifth of this.

The competition between broadcasters for new ideas for factual soaps is now so intense that program executives are reluctant to discuss forthcoming projects in case the opposition runs with the idea first. But series in the pipeline include Doctor’s Orders, set in a doctor’s practice, Premier Passions, charting the fortunes of a North of England soccer club, all from the bbc, and itv’s Chalet Girls, set in a French ski resort.

Scheduled for the fall on the bbc are The Store, telling the inside story of the upscale London department store, Selfridge’s, and a four-parter set aboard a nuclear submarine. Meanwhile lwt, makers of Airline, is considering taking its portable cameras out on the streets to observe the lives of British hookers. This will most definitely be a post-watershed show.

Flying High: A Reality-based case study

Airline, a factual soap that follows the trials and tribulations of life aboard Britannia Airways, Britain’s biggest charter line, has become a much-needed high flyer for struggling u.k. terrestrial network itv.

The six-parter, produced by London Weekend Television, crashed into the top ten-most-watched British programs earlier this spring, confirming once more that, provided the characters and settings are right, the u.k. public now prefers small screen fact to fiction.

For its first three weeks on air, Airline achieved a 50% average audience share, making it one of the most popular British docu-soaps to date. This kind of performance was helped by shrewd scheduling: Airline was given an 8 p.m. Friday slot, shunting aside the veteran British police soap, The Bill; it therefore inherited a big audience from Coronation Street, the long-running soap and number-one u.k. television show.

The film’s success suggests that factual soaps will not only continue to play a vital role in British tv schedules, there is likely to be still more of them. Jim Allen, controller of factual programs at lwt, says: ‘With so many docu-soaps being shown in peak time, people were beginning to think a fatigue factor was building up. Airline’s success suggests otherwise.’

The series’ demographic profile showed it was most popular with 25- to 35-year-olds, with more women watching than men, and with a higher proportion of middle-class viewers than itv usually attracts. ‘Airline proves that people respond well to documentaries that are very accessible,’ says producer Joe Houlihan. ‘It shows ordinary people dealing with problems.

‘In common with Airport (a bbc factual soap) and The Cruise, there’s an added element of glamour, which I think appeals to audiences.

‘You have to hit the right balance. One of the dangers of these series is when they are too removed from the experience of ordinary people. We got it right with Airline.’

Also see:

- Peep Show – America’s penchant for voyeurism gains ground as the reality-based genre gathers steam

-Reality Bites: Upcoming reality-based shows

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.