Key Issues 2001

What is the key issue facing the factual industry?
December 1, 2001

What is the key issue facing the factual industry?

Almost half of poll participants turned to the bottom line when asked to list their biggest concerns. Not really all that shocking for a market that lives on the edge of uncertainty at the best of times. What was a little unexpected was the second highest-rated area of concern: truth and the future of the documentary form. Over a quarter of those surveyed said that what scares them most is the degradation of the genre.

Money – 43%

Not surprisingly, money (or lack thereof) was foremost on the minds of respondents. Concern focused on several key areas, but most common was anxiety over low or declining license fees, and by extension, the problem of finding a way to provide solid content for what seems like less and less money. As dollars drop, many believe producers will turn to formulaic programming that has worked well in the past (insert dig on reality TV here). Creating innovative programming with less money that still attracts viewers is difficult, and it’s a trick that promises to get even harder.

In what might be perceived as an extension of the same problem, many responses underlined the difficulty in retaining significant rights under current market conditions, a reality that means less long-term income from even the most successful properties.

Other areas of fiscal concern stemmed from the shrinking ad market and what that will to do to programming. Getting broadcasters to sign on the dotted line is also proving to be a distraction, with many responses targeting the agonizingly slow greenlighting process many outlets operate under.

The Truth – 28%

Respondents ranked accuracy and ethics as the second consequential issue facing docs today. Over a quarter of those responding said they were worried that information was giving way to infotainment, with facts drowned out in the name of ratings (especially in the U.S. and the U.K. where ratings wars have taken their toll). Many pointed to what is perceived to be the biggest offender – reality television – but areas of concern extended to biography and lifestyle programming, often branded as ‘cheap and cheerful’, or as one respondent put it: ‘homogenized dreck [used] to fill the gaps between commercials.’ Ouch. You take your life in your hands when you mess with Martha Stewart.

On a more fundamental level, there was a worry that a lack of honest investigation and accurate research – be it due to budgets or time constraints – is costing factual programming its credibility. Some predict the trend will continue, with demand from ever-increasing outlets investing less and less money taking its toll on prep time. Institutional knowledge was also addressed, with many expressing concern over a ‘lack of memory, history, respect for elders, craft [and] technique.’

To a large extent, the events of September 11 may serve to address this concern, with viewers and programmers moving away from lighter fare.

Broadcaster Globalization -11%

Further down the list of concerns was the fear that the internationalization of broadcast brands was hurting the industry. Beyond the expectation that international outlets would be able to artificially control the pricing of docs and that they were creating an unhealthy amount of competition between filmmakers, concern was also expressed that subject matter and style are suffering standardization between regions in the name of streamlining, which will translate into less localized content. As most of the international players are U.S.-based, many expressed concern over a perceived ‘Americanization’ of content, articulating their hope that stories from other cultures and regions would find a place on the air, despite how they might fare in a U.S. broadcast.

Market Congestion 9%

The word ‘saturation’ was common to more than a few responses, making the crowded state of the market the final of the four major concerns highlighted during the survey. The broadcast boom of the last few years and the onset of digital television have caused the number of outlets to increase exponentially, leading to a strange dichotomy in which producers complain on one hand there are too many producers and too much programming for them to compete with, and on the other that there are too many outlets. The first leads to lower budgets and poorer films, the second to viewer confusion and further market fragmentation, neither of which is healthy in the long run.

What is the most important market or festival you attend?

Festivals and markets are critical for inspiration, feedback, and perhaps most significantly, investment. For the 2001 Year In Review, RealScreen asked what you thought was the most important event to attend. The big winner was Reed Midem, with 49% of respondents picking MIPCOM or MIPTV as the most important events.

1 MIPCOM 25%


3 RealScreen Summit 9%

4 IDFA/Amsterdam 6.5%

Hot Docs 6.5%

Jackson Hole 6.5%

NATPE 6.5%

8 Sundance 4%

9 Wildscreen 3%

None – markets increasingly irrelevant 3%

Honorable Mentions

AFM, Berlin, IFP, IWFF, Science Congress, SXSW

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.