Iceland may be off the beaten track for most, but its national public broadcaster makes sure the country’s 95,000 TV households stay in touch with the rest of the world. Tune into the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV) during primetime and there’s a good chance a documentary will be gracing the airwaves. In operation since 1930, RUV devotes about 20% of its programming hours to factual fare that ranges from high profile blue chip series to locally produced magazine programs.
Acquisitions exec Gudmundur Kristjansson estimates acquisitions alone pull in about 125 hours of doc programming annually, the majority of which are sourced from international producers. Most of these programs air in the channel’s one-hour, 9 p.m. Monday slot. ‘We’re interested in a good mix of science, technology, culture and current affairs,’ says Kristjansson. ‘Stories with a strong human interest angle are also popular.’ Both series and singles are accepted. Recent acquisitions include The Blue Planet, an eight-part series by the BBC and Discovery; The Quest for Egypt, from Marathon in France; and The New Rulers of the World by John Pilger for Carlton International in the U.K.
Of all the genres, Kristjansson says science and technology are most popular with Icelandic viewers. Both are tackled in a short magazine program that airs Monday evenings around 10 p.m., immediately following the aforementioned 60-minute doc slot. Although the program is produced locally, acquired segments give the show a global flavor.
A new addition to RUV’s schedule is a one-hour, Wednesday evening slot for arts programming. The program airs after 10 p.m. and features everything from art to music to theater, concentrating on international subjects and events. ‘We are a public broadcaster,’ says Kristjansson, ‘Monday night features fairly mainstream documentaries, so we thought it would be a good idea to put more arty or heavy documentaries on Wednesday.’ Further expanding its oeuvre, RUV recently eliminated a long-standing Tuesday evening natural history slot and replaced it with a 30-minute Thursday evening program for factual fare that ranges from wildlife to philosophy. Again, series are preferred, but singles can be accommodated.
Kristjansson says the volume of acquired doc hours at RUV hasn’t grown in the last few years, nor has it decreased. His annual budget is about US$600 per hour. Acquired docs account for about 65% of RUV’s documentary lineup, the remaining 35% originates through national productions, in-house development and international coproductions.
Rúnar Gunnarsson, head of program production at RUV, notes that most coproductions are initiated with other Nordic countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway, in order to take advantage of the benefits offered by Nordvision and the Nordic Film and TV Fund. Nordvision is an organization that facilitates program exchange and promotes collaboration in production between Nordic pubcasters. Financial assistance for documentaries, offered through the NFTF, includes top-up funds for projects that have at least two of the organization’s TV partners on-board. ‘We don’t do many coproductions, because we don’t have the budget for it, so we try to work with Nordvision as much as possible,’ explains Gunnarsson, who oversees about 40 hours of factual production a year. RUV earmarks about US$1 million for Nordic documentaries, which averages about US$10,000 to $25,000 per hour. Gunnarsson notes the majority of those funds go to Icelandic productions.
In contrast to the acquisitions department, Gunnarsson is mainly interested in single programs about 45 minutes in length. Series should be no longer than four episodes. In harmony with the current international trend, subjective docs that communicate a filmmaker’s personal style are preferred. Most original productions air on the pubcaster’s 8 p.m. Sunday strand, which runs up to one-hour in length. It’s also worth noting that while RUV is supported by both advertising and license fees, commercials are only aired between programs, never during.