Where Now Current Affairs?

Sean McAllister is frustrated, which is surprising.
April 1, 2005

Sean McAllister is frustrated, which is surprising.

He has just returned home to London from Sundance, where his doc The Liberace of Baghdad won the Special Jury Prize. The same film aired to great acclaim on BBC4′s ‘Storyville,’ the strand for which it was commissioned. But someone has forwarded him an article by BBC director of TV Jana Bennett, and reading it has irritated him.

In the article ‘How we let Iraq’s Liberace play’ from the February 6 edition of The Guardian, Bennett writes, ‘Here was a filmmaker who was given the creative freedom and space to make the film he wanted, not exactly the one he had been commissioned to make – and was trusted by the BBC to deliver the best story he could for the audience.’

Says McAllister, ‘I felt like writing back and saying, ‘You left out that you gave me such a small budget I had to remortgage my house. What support were you then?”

McAllister’s film, which profiles Baghdad pianist Samir Peter and his family following the U.S. occupation, received about £50,000 (US$94,000) from ‘Storyville.’ ‘And I had to present a budget to make that work,’ says McAllister, ‘which meant deferring all my fees and expenses. I dispensed with the producer and found the most important thing in filmmaking today, which is a financial advisor, who helped me find a remortgage package on my house.

‘Beyond that, what [Bennett] said is true,’ he continues. ”Storyville’ trusted me and sent me out there, and allowed me to go and make the film I wanted to make, so I can’t be too ungrateful. All they had was £50,000.’

Budgets weren’t always this paltry. McAllister’s 1998 film The Minders, about Saddam Hussein’s two ministers of information, was given £110,000 ($207,000) and aired on the BBC’s ‘Modern Times’ to an audience of 2.5 million. In 2002 and 2000 respectively, he produced Hulls Angel and Settlers for Channel 4′s ‘True Stories’ with budgets of about £160,000 ($300,000) each. But neither of these strands are still on the air. Their loss is echoed by the disappearance of ‘Disclosure’ on the CBC in Canada, and the conversion of Insight on sbs in Australia to a panel chat show.

Is the market for serious current affairs programs shrinking? Has the dramatic increase in reality TV irrevocably altered the audience’s taste? And has it left room in the budget and the schedule for topical current affairs programming – in particular, the kind of expensive, long-form work that is done by filmmakers such as Sean McAllister?

Are the audiences losing interest? Are the broadcasters?

Perhaps not. On February 15, the Beeb announced a plan to increase BBC1′s primetime current affairs programming: up 10.5 hours to 48.5 hours per week, with an added investment of £3 million ($5.6 million), a doubling of current affairs and investigative specials, and what it calls an ‘increased commitment to commissions from independents.’ BBC head of current affairs Peter Horrocks says the changes will be seen across a variety of programs, from the venerable ‘Panorama’ to the half-hour, human interest-based show ‘Real Story.’ He adds that having a range of programs that suit particular audiences is now key to television current affairs.

‘Having distinct brands and different approaches to get the journalism to the audience – given that we know it finds current affairs programming quite tough to watch – is pretty important,’ notes Horrocks. ‘Programs have to make impact, they have to get noticed, and in order to do that we have to distinguish ourselves more from the news and from each other, rather than assuming that people will come to watch because they want to find out things as citizens.’

And while Horrocks says the BBC has maintained its commitment to the kind of international docs that McAllister makes – through ‘Panorama,’ ‘This World’ on BBC2 and ‘Storyville’ – he concedes that in order to reach audiences, the style of work is changing. ‘Whether that’s a reporter appearing on camera…, whether it’s about a narrative where there’s an engaging character, or whether it’s about blending doc and drama techniques, there’s a number of ways you can entice the audience and hold onto them,’ says Horrocks. ‘We definitely put more emphasis on that than we used to.’

U.K. filmmaker Brian Lapping admits he hasn’t changed his emphasis. ‘You want to appeal to sophisticates,’ he says, ‘but there are some young sophisticates who want stuff presented in a lively, modern manner: very flashy pictures, all sorts of daring things, which are beyond the tastes of my generation.’

Lapping’s TV docs, including The Death of Yugoslavia, have won numerous international awards, and he recently celebrated 15 years of work with producer Sue Temple. He, too, believes the ground is shifting away from traditional documentaries and current affairs programming.

‘As the BBC has faced increasing competition,’ he explains, ‘the proportion of docs that are really popular programs [rather than information or current affairs] has gone up. We haven’t really adapted to that; we carry on making the old-fashioned BBC public service, worthy kind of programs.’

If it seems there’s less room at the BBC for that kind of program, is there room for it somewhere else?

Canada’s CBC also scored a success at Sundance with Peter Raymont’s Shake Hands with the Devil, which won the festival’s Audience Award. The film, named for Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire’s book relating his experience as the head of the UN force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, follows Dallaire on his first return visit. The pubcaster was behind the production with enthusiasm and money from the beginning, and that meant Raymont didn’t have to mortgage his house.

‘My first call was to the CBC,’ says Raymont, adding that the commissioning editors ‘thought it was a terrific idea right from the first words out of my mouth.’ The involvement of the CBC then helped open doors to funding from the Canadian Television Fund and other private grant agencies.

The CBC further demonstrated its commitment through the prominence and respect it gave to the finished film. A 56-minute cut of the doc ran without ads on both the CBC and CBC Newsworld’s ‘The Passionate Eye.’

There are other promising signs for TV doc-makers in Canada. The CTF now makes its money available over the course of the year, rather than granting it entirely over two weeks in the early spring, which gives broadcasters the flexibility to pursue timely stories. And Canadian private broadcasters CTV and Global continue to commission documentaries as well, in addition to investigative shows such as CTV’s W5, though Raymont suggests they are of a different type. ‘[Private broadcasters] wouldn’t want Shake Hands with the Devil, despite its success,’ he says. ‘They prefer something safer.’

U.S. cable news outlet cnn, on the other hand, is spending time and money to produce more investigative and current affairs docs. Sid Bedingfield, CNN’s senior VP of programming, says when it comes to this type of work, CNN is ‘in growth mode.’

Bedingfield notes that his unit produces the long-form profile show People In The News, as well as an investigative show and the weekly, hour-long CNN Presents, which airs about 25 docs a year, approximately 60% of which are produced in-house and 40% by outside filmmakers. ‘We’re actively looking for filmmakers in the doc world who can do news documentaries on topical subjects,’ he says. ‘Our goal is to be distinctive, and not feel like we’re rehashing news and information that’s already out there.’

Bedingfield says that type of programming is what advertisers expect of CNN, and that audiences are responding to it. But a glance over the broadcast landscape raises the question of whether this kind of current affairs programming is destined to be found more and more on the specialty channels and less and less on the big broadcasters, both public and private.

One of those specialty channels is Discovery Times in the U.S. Like Bedingfield, senior vp and gm Vivian Schiller sees an expanding market for long-form current affairs documentaries, not a shrinking one.

‘There’s a huge appetite among viewers and advertisers for topical, long-form programs,’ says Schiller, pointing to the success of Discovery Times, as well as CNN and strands like ‘Frontline’ and ‘Wide Angle’ on PBS. ‘Obviously there’s an appetite for talk programs and headlines,’ she adds. ‘But that leaves a big, gaping hole that we’ve come in to fill, because people do crave depth. For all sorts of market reasons, the news divisions have ceded that space. It has become more of a niche market.’

Brian Lapping contends the model will change even more in the near future, and that maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. He points to the advent of TiVo in North America and SkyPlus in the U.K., arguing that the technology is making the old mode of TV funding obsolete. He concedes this may mean a smaller audience for doc and current affairs programs, but that good work will find viewers.

‘I think come PPV, we’ll sustain our kind of output,’ he says. ‘The people who will be out of business are the people who run channels. It’s already in decline; channels are losing their dominant position.’

In the meantime, though, the channels are home to current affairs programs, and the type of shows being funded and aired will be governed in some part by the tastes of the audience and the courage of the broadcasters.

Vivian Schiller frames the question of shifting ground this way: ‘Is there a place for an evening newscast or serious news on the broadcast networks? And if you put the broadcast networks aside for a second and look at how to redefine current affairs programming, is it The O’Reilly Factor or Crossfire or any of those sorts of programs that are talking heads, or is there place for in-depth programming?’

Clearly, Schiller and others believe there is a place. Where that place is exactly, and what it might look like in a decade – or even six months or a year – is an open question.

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