Sure, it gets good ratings, attracts the demographic that makes advertisers giddy and nabs the attention of the fickle press, but is there a hidden cost? In a media-saturated era that sees companies rise and fall on the strength of their brands, is the critically poo-pooed reality genre actually a crack in broadcasting’s foundation?
Head of documentaries
Channel 4, U.K.
When you have shows like Supernanny or Wife Swap that become such big talking points for viewers, commentators, opinion formers and television critics, sometimes they can eclipse all the other things you’re doing. In the week that Supernanny is on, people may not notice a big history show or a serious piece of observational documentary.
One of the things we have to address is that it’s not actually about what you commission, but how you market and promote your programs so that people are as aware of the more public service programs as they are of these big reality formats. I believe that Supernanny is a modern public service program, but some people aren’t going to see it like that. We have a public service remit, and as a public service broadcaster we have to get a balance between making enough money to fund next year’s programs and providing a range of public service programs. There’s a significant perception issue.
A big change happened with Big Brother. It became such a powerful show and attracted such large viewers, then Jamie’s Kitchen and Wife Swap came along and suddenly there was this group of shows that could get six million-plus viewers. Channel 4 wasn’t used to doing that in the multi-channel age. When that happened, there was a change in perception. It’s not huge and it’s not terrible, but it’s something that we are aware of and must work hard to address.
In 2005, Supernanny, Brat Camp and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares - three big hits for us in their first runs last year – will come back. And we’re looking for two or three more to do the same job for us this year. In terms of commissioning, we look for one or two big formats that we think have potential. They use up quite a lot of slots, so we spend a lot of time finding the individual narrative and observational films that make up the main body of what we do.
Senior vp of production
National Geographic Channel, U.S.
What the Brits call their public service remit, we call ‘The Brand.’ The brand integrity here is where we spring from – you either have your integrity or you don’t have anything. There’s a whole group of people, me included, that monitor the development process. We look very carefully at what kinds of shows we’re going to do. If they fit the brand, that’s fine. If it’s reality and it fits, that’s fine. But we’re not going to do The Swan; we’re not going to develop a show that’s off-brand. We’ve seen too many networks get into that situation.
That’s the challenge of programming now: With so many networks, how do you get attention and stay true to your brand? To use a baseball analogy, we like to hit a lot of singles and doubles. Occasionally we’d like to hit a homerun, but we’d rather stick to our brand on a show-by-show basis as opposed to looking for that one program that’s going to
put us on top. You might be hung by that later because you didn’t think it through with regards to the brand. When I was at A&E, we developed Biography. That was a weekly show, then a daily, and we built off that. A&E has gone through changes, but the show is the brand and the brand is the show. That’s the way we do it here. Your programming and your integrity are part of the brand. There’s not a sense of desperation here that I know exists elsewhere.
It used to be, in the documentary world, that the subject matter would carry the day. Now it’s not just subject matter, it’s production style, storytelling, characters, writing – everything has to really work in the same way it must for dramas or sitcoms. For a young channel, it’s hard to build a series around characters that you need to get to know over time, because we don’t have a habitual audience. It’s easier for NBC, ABC, CBS and, frankly, Discovery Channel – there’s a critical mass there. We’re still a new channel in many homes, so it’s going to be hard to grab audiences with a series that’s character-based.