Rule Britannia

The British broadcast industry is in the midst of a shakeup, from the demise of ITV Digital to the introduction of the draft communications bill. But, how is this affecting the documentary community? CAROL NAHRA investigates
September 1, 2002

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, docs were considered a dying breed on Britain’s four terrestrial channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4), factual entertainment didn’t exist as a term, and the demise of a genre considered well-meaning but dull was predicted with increasing frequency.

The scene today is remarkably different. Docs, their cousins and their distant cousins are found everywhere on the (now) five terrestrials – Channel 5 being the most recent addition – as well as on a range of cable and satellite outlets, including Discovery Europe and BBC4.

‘There’s a diversity that is really pleasing,’ says Jeremy Mills, head of London-based Lion Television. ‘From where we sit, it feels like it’s a very healthy factual market at the moment.’ From where Mills sits, one can see why he thinks so. Last year alone Lion won more than 200 hours of commissions in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, much of it for factual entertainment. Mills, who produced docusoap Airport for BBC1 in the mid-1990s, long ago recognized the potential of the genre and has since capitalized on the industry’s seemingly endless appetite for new formats. And formats, with a mixing of genres that still feels wonderfully naughty, is the ongoing modus operandi of contemporary British television. After leading the world in developing serious documentaries in history and wildlife, the British are now demonstrating that factual programs can be fun.

Laugh and the world laughs with you…

‘Humor is such an important part of communication – in the last three or four years there have been huge changes in the doc culture,’ says Channel 4′s Jess Search, head of independent film and video. ‘There’s an old guard who are into grim observational stuff, but I think programs like Faking It show you can absolutely have it all.’

Faking It, a series in which individuals try to bluff their way in a new profession while the camera records their antics, has been a commercial and critical success for C4 since its debut in autumn 2000. The program concept was concocted by London-based indie giant RDF, which has developed a number of successful factual hybrids, such as Junkyard Wars, Scrapheap Challenge and Shipwrecked.

But, the popularity of factual entertainment has taken a toll on other non-fiction genres. The big loser in Britain’s focus on ratings-friendly factual series is international programs about ‘hard’ topics – current affairs, human rights, development and the environment. According to a recent report by 3WE, the Third World & Environment Broadcasting Project, the international doc in Britain is ‘virtually dead’. International hard coverage through non-news factual programs fell from 30% in 1989/1990 to 6% in 2000/2001. And, while the number of factual programs filmed in developing countries increased this year, the rise was due to programs like Survivor and Shipwrecked, made for the mass British market.

‘The more competition there is, the more channels and people in key positions at the national broadcasters fall back on making things for a domestic market,’ says Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for the BBC’s feature-length doc strand ‘Storyville’. ‘You’re basically forced into competition with people who always get much larger ratings than you can by doing domestic shows or factual entertainment,’ says Fraser. ‘The argument you have to have is, ‘Isn’t it fantastically important these days for people to know what is going on throughout the world?”

Even within the BBC, with its guaranteed income and unambiguous public service mission as ‘trustee for the national interest,’ the battle to show challenging docs is intense. Fraser has seen ‘Storyville’ increase to weekly (from only eight to 10 episodes a year), but it has mostly been sidelined from BBC2 to the less watched digi BBC4.

‘The last five years have been dominated by bean counters, focus groups, accountants and advertisers, and it shows on the screen,’ observes Mick Csaky, chief exec of London prodco Antelope. ‘We’ve not done enough to stop the introduction of tabloid TV… We need programs with bigger ambitions.’ Antelope has just completed Slobodan Milosevic, a follow-up to A Cry from the Grave, both coproduced with ‘Storyville’.

Yankee reconciliation

The U.K.’s constructed reality docs may have been conceived for a domestic audience, but they have helped penetrate the perennially evasive U.S. market. RDF and Lion have each partnered with TLC, A&E and wgbh. Factual copros have become a fact of life. ‘The British system used to be this elusive thing – they didn’t answer the phone, and you really had to figure out where to go,’ says Linda Ekizian of Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises. ‘Now, they’re calling us.’

On the downside, the need for copros inevitably creates tameness in subject matter and leads to self-censorship by indies. ‘I’m interested in Tibet, but I can get a film made more easily about Napoleon,’ says Phil Grabsky of Brighton, U.K.’s Seventh Art. ‘If I take a film with a political edge to Discovery for coproduction funding, they won’t touch it for fear of repelling advertisers.’

Much of the drive for copros has been forced by shrinking commissions. For new kid on the block Channel 5, a chronically low budget – £146 million (US$227.5 million), less than one third of C4′s £426 million ($664 million) – means it has always encouraged international copros. Factual controller Dan Chambers says copros are the only way C5 can show high-end docs with budgets of £200,000 to £250,000 ($310,000 to $390,000) per hour.

Having struggled for respect among broadcasters in its first five years (Granada chief exec Steve Morris once accused C5 of relying on ‘cheap overseas programming – U.S. imports and movies, soft porn and repeats’), C5 is now turning to docs for credibility and ratings. ‘They’re very good for the reputation of the channel, because they feel like quality,’ says Chambers. The channel has already earned kudos for its domestic half-hour arts docs.

C4: Sheep or shepherd?

While C5 is on an upward climb, C4 is struggling to hold its place. Throughout C4′s 20-year history, indies have looked to the channel to have the biggest ambitions and to commission the most innovative programming. But, C4 is experiencing difficulties straddling its unique role as an advertiser-driven public service broadcaster.

In 2001, C4 reported its first financial loss – £21 million (US$33 million) – and new head Mark Thompson began downsizing staff, which had doubled over the previous five years. In July the channel rejigged its commissioning structure, creating a factual entertainment department for its big successes like Big Brother, which continues to break viewing records. In its third season, Big Brother pulled in ad rates of £80,000 to £100,000 (US$122,000 to $153,000) – more than quadruple the average of £18,000 ($28,000). That’s music to the ears of a pubcaster that has struggled through a lengthy recession.

‘Is audience the be all and end all of how you measure success? It didn’t used to be at C4,’ says Grabsky. ‘Only 11 years ago I had a conversation in which I was told the ratings aren’t important, it’s whether those who watch [a program] enjoy it. Of course, that has all changed.’

The change dates largely to 1993, when C4 began selling its own advertising, rather than operating from a subscription levied on ITV, which in return sold C4′s advertising – an arrangement designed to ensure the two channels did not compete in programming and, therefore, create lowest common denominator fare.

The shift directly affected the diversity of docs, Ekizian contends. ‘C4 used to be distinctive in the marketplace with the factual programs they had. Now you can see there’s nervousness about what goes on the schedule and when. It’s all the same kind of show going out,’ she says.

Head of docs at C4, Peter Dale, says that changes have come not just from commercial pressures, but also from a shift in the ground that can be covered by docs. ‘I’ve been encouraging producers to think differently about what a modern broadcaster like C4 needs from its factual programs. I want them to be revealing and clever, but I also want them to be about things that engage a broad audience,’ he says.

An example of how C4 is trying to limit risk while continuing to innovate is the evolution of the first-time director’s strand ‘The Other Side’. It used to commission rock-bottom films at £5,000 ($8,000) per half-hour to 80 new directors a year. Now it provides larger budgets – £35,000 ($54,000) per half-hour – to seven carefully screened directors. Tellingly, commissioning editor Jess Search will wait to see how strong a resulting film is before selecting a slot.

Search also commissions for C4′s ‘Alt-TV’ strand, which represents a dying breed in U.K. TV: auteur docs. Alt-TV’s highly personal half-hour slots are for new directors, but such an opportunity is so rare these days that Search says she is besieged by well-established directors wanting to make an auteur film. ‘There’s an enormous amount of untapped talent, but there’s a limited number of opportunities,’ she notes.

Market Mayhem

Many in the production industry feel strongly that the increasing dominance of a handful of large indies is contributing to a climate of factory-style, formulaic programming. Smaller indies are also frustrated by the endless media graduates who migrate from subsidized training schemes to the largest indies, skipping over the companies that could use their talent most.

Says the BBC’s Nick Fraser, ‘There is a talent pool which is overused and driven downmarket into hackdom in Britain. The problem is if you’re prepared to do anything, you can make a living.’ he says. ‘But it’s the difficult projects that are getting harder to fund.’

It might be about to get harder still. The June publication of the draft communications bill by PM Tony Blair’s Labour Government sent seismic shocks through the media industry. In its effort to liberalize broadcasting, the bill effectively proposes dismantling decades of carefully constructed broadcasting policy, most notably by opening up media companies to non-EU ownership and introducing fewer regulations on content. For anyone interested in preserving an already weakened public service remit, alarm bells started to ring.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell’s speeches repeatedly assert that upcoming changes will not place at risk ‘the distinctive nature of British broadcasting’. Still, while many support the liberalization of regulation, there is widespread skepticism of how much Ofcom, the regulatory body to be formed by the bill, will be able to control program quality under foreign ownership. ‘I’m bemused, because we’re the first country to say we don’t care if our mass audience TV channel is foreign owned,’ says Fraser. ‘The Broadcasting Act portrays a touching belief, probably ill-founded, in the strength of regulation. Somehow these people think that if your company gets bought by Disney, and then you say you must have many, many hours of serious factual programming, it’s actually going to make a difference.’

The bill is now the subject of industry lobbying before it’s finalized later this year. One of its controversial elements is the recusing of the BBC from Ofcom control. The special treatment rankles, not least because of the BBC’s current domination of British broadcasting. While other broadcasters have struggled through a recession, the BBC is enjoying unprecedented health: the latest annual report shows a total income of £3.38 billion. The majority of this – £2.5 billion ($4 billion) – comes from license fees, which currently cost anyone with a color TV £112 ($170) a year. A large part of the remainder comes from a controversial aspect of the BBC – its commercial arm. BBC Worldwide is astute at selling BBC products – Blue Planet videos, DVDs and other items have earned the company £21.3 million ($33 million) in total, to date.

The BBC has been accused of compromising its public service remit by focusing too much on future cash sales and ratings. It’s not an accusation that is likely to go away. Responsibility for upholding Jowell’s ‘distinct nature of British broadcasting’ falls heavily on the broadcaster least susceptible to the strains of the market.

So, what’s the final word on the U.K. landscape for documentaries? Producer Grabsky sums up: ‘In some ways the documentary field has never been so vibrant. At the same time, it has never been harder to make well-crafted films of value.’

Industry Voices

‘We can’t match Big Brother, all we can hope is that the hunger for really good factual programs exists alongside people’s interest in factual entertainment.’ Nick Fraser, BBC

‘Over the last few years, there has been a shift in the kind of territory that documentaries can monopolize, partly because of increasing commercial pressures, but more interestingly because documentaries are at the center of a debate about what public service television is for.’ Peter Dale, C4

‘Sometimes the doc community can be quite snobbish and a little bit sniffy about anything that isn’t an ‘old-fashioned observational’ doc. Of course observational documentaries are always going to be important, and capture things in a unique way. But I’m all for being more modern and accepting about other forms of documentary. I don’t think we’ve exhausted constructed documentaries.’ Jess Search, C4

‘This notion of factual programming being comparable to a documentary is nonsense – they are two different genres. One is manufactured to look like reality, a construct of a rather lazy commissioner. The documentaries I favor involve a lot of research, a lot of grit, and a lot of pulling together of authentic elements. It’s a different genre.’ Mick Csaky, Antelope

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.