The Format Who Left Me

Once upon a time, the 30-minute format reigned supreme in the land of non-fiction programming. It was the format of choice to fill in around other shows, and was widely available in a variety of genres. Then came word (via the...
March 1, 1999

Once upon a time, the 30-minute format reigned supreme in the land of non-fiction programming. It was the format of choice to fill in around other shows, and was widely available in a variety of genres. Then came word (via the RealScreen Factual Price-Guide Survey) that the 60-minute format was making a bid to usurp its position. Rumor or truth? As with all tales, the answer contains a little bit of both.

According to the results of the RealScreen survey, the 60-minute format accounts for 84.1% of respondents’ sales, with 60-minute one-offs responsible for 58.1% and one-hour series for 26%. In subsequent surveys of distributors and producers, many readily confirmed these results.

‘I rarely see the 30-minute format for documentaries these days,’ says Pierre Touchette, an independent producer with Montreal-based Amerimage Spectra. ‘Actually, I couldn’t even give you an example of a 30-minute format. Pretty well everywhere I see, whether it’s in Europe, the States or here in Canada, it’s the 60-minute format that’s the one that’s privileged.’

Executive producer Bruce Cox of producer/distributor Duke International has made similar observations from his base in the U.K. ‘We do a lot with Discovery Channel Europe,’ Cox says. (Duke produced a 4 x 60-minute series on Ferraris for Discovery Europe last year.) ‘We find with them, and similar commissioners of documentaries, that the 30-minute format is almost ignored these days. They tend to want 60-minute programs from us.’

The news from Down Under is the same. ‘We sell a lot more 60-minute programs as opposed to 30-minute,’ says Emily O’Neil, sales and marketing manager of Jenny Cornish Media. ‘We sell a lot more and we get more requests.’ JC Media conducts a wide range of international sales from its base in Australia, especially in Europe, North America and Asia, O’Neil says.

But that’s not the whole story. While the 60-minute has obviously become a hot item, it hasn’t really pushed out the half-hour. Rather, each format now has more clearly defined territory. The one-hour dominates as a one-off and is the preferred format for series that require in-depth analysis. The 30-minute works best in such genres as the docusoap, lifestyle, cooking and travel, which are usually presented as series. And in the rapidly expanding satellite cable universe, broadcasters are demanding a lot of everything.

Rex Recka, VP of programming for Discovery Networks International, says he buys approximately the same number of 30-minutes as 60-minutes. ‘I think a lot of it comes down to subject matter. By that I mean if you’re working on a single program with a single theme, certainly a one-hour lends itself better for scheduling purposes. But if you have a multi-part series, 30s or 60s have proven to work very well for us.’ Recka says Discovery International runs a lot of half-hour science programs (‘they tend to be relatively fast-paced’), while topics related to history, world cultures or natural history tend to be an hour, ‘to really give full context.’ DCI’s international reach extends to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the Middle East.

In the U.K., the BBC may want serious 60-minutes, but the younger commercial broadcasters want fast-paced half-hours. ‘There is an increasing appetite for the more commercial information and infotainment-type programming in the half-hour format,’ says distributor Simon Willock, chief executive of Primetime. ‘If you look at Sky here, all those sort of cop chases and real videos and fly-on-the-wall type programs tend to be half-hours.’

Even in New Zealand, where the 60-minute is the well-entrenched standard, half-hours have found a way in as docusoaps. Kiwi producer Vincent Burke of Top Shelf Productions says he’s done two docusoap series in the last couple of years, and they’ve both been half-hour formats. But, he maintains, they are the exception. ‘The docusoaps that I did were planned for Channel 4. It’s a commercial network and it runs a much more youthful orientation,’ he says. ‘They run half-hour formats at the key time of the evening… but on the other channels, by the time you hit 8:00 to 8:30 in the evening, you tend to hit one-hour strands.’

Despite the docusoap phenomenon, the trend in New Zealand is towards even longer programming. ‘A lot of programs are going to one-and-a-half commercial hours,’ Burke says. ‘They [the broadcasters] are being much more flexible, mainly because the documentaries are rating so well against the commercial American product. They’re quite heavy for the audience to be held over… for another half-hour.’

From the producers’ point of view, the 60-minute is infinitely preferable to the half-hour, which doesn’t even allow a full 30 minutes for the story in some cases. On commercial outlets, a half-hour show has 22 to 24 minutes in which to make its case. ‘I think to tell a story, to provide enough room for a strong story art… that’s just not enough time,’ Burke says. ‘It’s hard enough fitting it into a 42-44 minute [commercial hour] format.’ Touchette agrees: ‘The documentary is supposed to get you into a mood, whether it’s a war documentary or an arts documentary on music,’ he says. ‘To do it in 22 minutes is not enough.’

For certain genres and certain markets, though, 30 minutes is just right. New satellite and cable channels have increased the demand for blocks of programming. Duke International’s Bruce Cox says, ‘The only time we find a lot of interest in the 30-minute stuff is when we sell to cable stations around the world that are looking for filler material. That’s where the 30-minute slots seem to be popular. It’s like `Give us 100 30-minute programs on whatever you’ve got’ sort of thing.’

So, while the 60-minute doc has established itself as the thinking person’s format, the 30-minute remains a staple for broadcasters in need of series, particularly doc-lite fare. The half-hour has not been exiled to make room for the longer format. Instead, the broadcasting kingdom has grown to accommodate them both.

See also:

Price Guide Overview

A View to a Sale: The Middle East

A License to Kill (For): U.S. fees still top the scale

From Russia With Love: Eastern Europe

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.