My son asked what I wanted to do a few weekends ago, and I suggested checking out the Egyptology exhibit on loan to Toronto’s ROM from the British Museum. He interrupted my long-winded spiel on how the Brits had the largest collection in the world – and how they came by it – to tell me he knew all that. Turns out he watched a ‘TV special’ on the topic and was now something of an authority. He then took over the Expert Expounding role in the conversation, but rather than spouting facts on funerary practices, his take-away was more of a TV review. Apparently the recreations were quite good, ‘they would throw a bit of an Indiana Jones movie in, then go ‘Here’s Tut’ with monster movie sound effects.’
Referring generally to documentary specials, one just-turned-13 viewer’s perspective is thus: ‘They have the reality guys beat. It’s always ‘when we return, an exciting Atlantis discovery,’ but it’s not, it’s old guys arguing. I felt cheated of an hour and a half.’ Still, he prefers the specials to exhibits, which earned a harsher review: ‘Old statues, and labels with two pages of dates.’
After briefly leaping ahead to weigh my son’s future as a famous critic, the comment left me musing on the let-down syndrome that is a risk of program overhype, and wondering what the long term audience cost might be.
It’s a given that the ratings race is one competition that few broadcasters can ease off on. Even PBS is being tasked to put more store in counting eyeballs (see Upfront page 8). The quest has potential upsides. Sometimes it prods nets to take risks. And taking risks can lead to compelling programming, such as the audience-magnet science strands at C4 (see Programming, page 26).
While one downside of the ratings game is promising but not delivering entertainment, the temptation to tweak the truth, should it prove less riveting, is more dangerous. It’s that element of truth – this really happened – that truly grows an audience for docs (see Reality Check page 8).
Another danger is closing doors to stories with a less overtly sexy pitch.
As South African director Khalo Matabane said at a Hot Docs panel recently, ‘People are so concerned about ratings, but I think there’s another level.’ Matabane, whose Story of a Beautiful Country screened at the fest, echoed a sentiment I’ve heard a lot lately, that being too insular, having world views shaped only by a domestic POV, does not bode well for the future. ‘When you tell people’s stories, whether they’re in South Africa or Guatemala, what you’re doing is making them part of the world, and part of the future. Don’t give us McDonald’s filming. It’s about the survival of our children and us,’ he continued.
Matabane’s call to consider the bigger picture reminds me of a quote I’d read from another recent visitor to Toronto, the Dalai Lama, who said media plays an important role in the promotion of human values and harmony. ‘People get impression world more violent, everything much worse, based on media. Can’t see whole picture. Media need long nose like elephant to smell front, back, top part, bottom part to know reality.’
The notion of considering what might be good for an audience was also touched on in an opinion piece written by BBC CE Nick Fraser in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. ‘The triumph of TV as entertainment means that much of what is important – what we should think, or know about, as a bare minimum, if we are to consider ourselves truly citizens – is pushed out to the edges,’ he wrote.
In the ratings chase, perhaps it’s a matter of balance. Expanding knowledge certainly doesn’t preclude creating an entertaining package, but sometimes it’s the more serious films that resonate and cement a deeper bond, winning viewer respect and possibly a more loyal audience.