When a tsunami struck south Asia in December, the doc community responded. Like it or not, disasters make for must-see TV; viewers want information and perspective, and the non-fiction industry can supply both.
But with 24-hour news organizations spitting out endless reams of footage, how do broadcasters and producers decide what content is appropriate, and what the best timing is?
‘Because you are overwhelmed by content,’ says Mentorn creative director Steve Anderson, ‘you have to find a different angle… that’s the tricky bit.’
The London prodco began working on a one-hour doc for Five in the U.K. and Nat Geo stateside almost immediately after the disaster. Anderson was struck by the quality first-person footage coming back from Asia (thanks to vacationers with high-end video cameras), and decided a first-person special would be appropriate. Tsunami: The Day the Wave Struck broadcasts on January 26 in the U.K.
Discovery Channel U.S. EVP and GM Jane Root agrees that unless producers can answer a unique question or find an informative approach, they should avoid the topic. Root saw the opportunity to tell a science story – why tsunamis happen and how early warning systems can prevent catastrophic loss of life. The Next Wave: Science of Tsunamis was turned out in 10 days, broadcasting on January 10. It averaged over two million viewers, and resulted in 300,000 unique page views on a website providing more information.
Says Root, ‘Being sensitive is absolutely key. You ask yourself questions over and over again: Is this exploitative? Why are we doing this? If you can’t answer those questions, then you shouldn’t be doing it.’
Eventually, news needs to give way to historical perspective. ‘For September 11,’ observes Root, ‘there was a point at which merely showing those shocking images of the towers on fire wasn’t contributing. As a broadcaster you say: ‘No, we’re not doing this.’
‘There is a point at which you don’t want to just watch more pictures – you want to understand,’ she continues.
Madrid’s El Mundo TV chose the historical approach for 11-M: Historia de un Atentado (March 11: History of an Attack), a one-year-later recounting of the Madrid train bombings which it undertook with TeleMadrid and Canal 9. The special recounts the March 11, 2004 blast, and uses real footage and reenactments to tell stories that could not be told at the time. El Mundo’s Margarita Castro says the time permitted the addition of well-considered dramatic elements that allowed viewers to understand the whole story. ‘The main concern of the Spanish broadcasters is that the victims were treated with respect,’ she says, ‘and [that the special] used no explicit images.’