Fact-Finding Mission

Round table guests:
January 1, 2006

Round table guests:
Jo Clinton Davis, UKTV, head of commissioning
Stephen Lambert, RDF Media chief creative officer
Camilla Lewis, Talkback Thames, head of factual features
Richard Life, Channel 4 International, head of programming
Jeremy Mills, Lion Television, managing director
Louise Pedersen, All3Media, managing director
Maxine Watson, BBC, commissioning executive, factual television

What is factual entertainment? Is there a standard definition?
Lambert: It’s very odd the way the term factual entertainment has come to the fore. It’s a very uncomfortable term. The corollary of factual entertainment is fictional entertainment… Isn’t all entertainment factual in the sense that if it’s not scripted then it’s factual?
Mills: That’s the differentiation: scripted and non-scripted.
Lambert: Exactly. In America the distinction is between scripted and what they call alternative. No American would understand what we are talking about when we say factual entertainment.
Lewis: It should all be entertaining, and in our area, it’s often factual. History and wildlife can be factual entertainment. It’s about the treatment of the subject matter: does it divulge information and entertain? All of us think we make and/or commission entertaining programs all the time, even if they’re serious and entertaining or hard-hitting and entertaining.
Davis: Factual entertainment connotes a formatted approach. It doesn’t always have to be the case. But factual entertainment has become a kind of shorthand for shows with an element of construction.

A contrived situation?
Mills: Constructed is better. Contrived is a loaded word.

Can you label shows unscripted when there is a constructed world?
Lambert: There are clearly situations where the activity would happen regardless of whether or not we are there to film them. Whether the act of filming changes behavior is another matter, but both approaches are non-scripted.
Lewis: You’d construct it though, wouldn’t you? You’d construct how you portray that activity. You’d never just say: ‘I know this is going to happen in a hospital, so I’ll just go out and film it and those rushes will make it to air.’
Lambert: You construct it in the editing. But there are lots of events which would take place whether you were there or not.
Lewis: Are they both factual entertainment?
Lambert: Absolutely. I find it a very uncomfortable terminology. The BBC was originally set up to educate, inform and entertain – and it was meant to be all three at once.
Life: Channel 4 has a factual entertainment department which it defines very broadly. That department covers everything from Big Brother to late-night pop docs. But the confusion lies in the fact that a factual entertainment commission can come through any number of departments.

Why the need for a dedicated factual entertainment department?
Life: Possibly, it came out of the idea that there are certain documentaries where the educational element has been dialed down and the entertainment element is dialed up. It’s uncomfortable defining the output in a way that doesn’t necessarily do it justice.
Lewis: You’re talking about viewer perception. One thing the bbc does really well is try to focus on the audience the whole time. What really interests me is what the audience thinks when they watch factual entertainment. I’m more interested in their definitions than ours.
Pedersen: It might have been invented as a sales tool – a term to help you establish which slot it can play in.

Is the term just a way of distinguishing it from more traditional content?
Davis: There is a difference between a doc that is purely observational where there is no construct other than editing and a construct that may involve a blend of genres. It has become a way of describing an approach to factual which has actually been around since Iron Age Fort and beyond. Was Seven UP factual entertainment? The best factual, like Wife Swap, allows you to observe what happens within this lightly-worn corset. Out of this spills all this content.

Factual has always been around in one form or another, but is there more of it now?
Lewis: People talk more about formats now. A lot of commissioners are obsessed with the word. But when you start scratching beneath the surface, what they really mean by it is they want a narrative that is repeatable week after week. Sometimes they don’t even mean that. Sometimes you can offer them something as a format when it could also easily be called a documentary.
Lambert: TV is more competitive than ever before, so people like to know what they’re going to get. From the point of view of the viewer, if they’re going to commit to watching a program, they’re more likely to go for something if they know what it’s going to deliver.
Look at strands over the years. They were never able to bring consistency to their audience. It was always determined by subject matter. If you look at long-running strands like ‘Horizon’ or ’40 Minutes,’ their audiences vary in a way that no other brand on tv does – the branding of that strand isn’t doing much work. What’s interesting is this: to what extent are viewers looking for familiarity when they watch television and to what extent do they want something new?
Lewis: You’re thinking about what can I do that’s repeatable, that might sell internationally in a way that maybe they didn’t think ten years ago. I think companies like Lion were some of the first to think that way.
Mills: Our generation of indies certainly.

Does the space between ‘factual’ and ‘docs’ still exist?
Mills: In our company, we deliberately keep a distinction. But there is an overlap. The audience wants a mixture of styles. If everything was the same it would be so boring.
Lewis: But you see that kind of merging of styles in areas like specialist factual and high-end landmark shows.
Davis: If you look at shows like Pompeii or Big Cat Diary you see new approaches to those traditional genres. Who Do You Think You Are? and 1900 House are examples of serious core genres which have had new applications. Sometimes it looks like there is a schizophrenic attitude. Maybe it’s that viewers want good, core content, mediated in quite a tabloid way – like The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off. You see that trend happening in docs. But behind it there is a real hunger for reality and content because they’re sophisticated and they see through the more obvious formats. That’s why factual entertainment has to stay ahead of the game all the time. The hunger for realism and…
Lambert: …Authenticity. It’s what we all admire and what viewers will go to in numbers are those programs – whether they’re serious observational documentary or cleverly worked-out reality formats. What they are seeing is authentic experience. You can have a very authentic experience in a reality show.
Mills: The Monastery was a very good example of that. It was absolutely real and yet it was completely a reality show. It had real power to it because it dealt with real experiences.
Lambert: Lots of good reality programs have authentic experiences. The best formats create a situation and then let it go. I’m always amazed at how real the effect on people of going to live in another home for 10 days is (i.e. Wife Swap). Why does that have such a big effect on them?

So where does the genre go from here?
Lewis: The new big thing that I’m seeing is a drive to get as much content in a show as possible, as well as emotional transformations. We had a big development meeting at Fremantle across all the genres and you could see everyone putting content into everything. Maybe entertainment used to be more purist in the past.

What do you mean by ‘content’?
Lewis: More take-home. What am I going to learn about myself through this process?
Davis: I definitely think there is an appetite for layers, but I’ve always felt that being content-rich is incredibly important. You want audiences to take what you offer them at different levels. Shows like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor are bloody fantastic and have emotional jeopardy for the contributors, but don’t have take-out as such.

Factual entertainment has been incredibly successful, but has anything gone missing editorially?
Lambert: On the whole, [its success is] a good thing. The emphasis on narrative being delivered to the audience is greater than ever. That becomes constraining on the kind of observational doc, where in the past you were trying to find the narrative out of the real world.
Davis: I do think authorship has been lost though. That construct, combined with international sales and the churn, means you’re not getting authored directors. I do think there’s scope for greater authorship in factual entertainment, with producers bringing an editorial vision, sensibility and interpretation to a show as a traditional documentary maker would have done, rather than simply sticking to the format that’s been laid down. With the very best formats you can feel an authorship, a richness.
Watson: It’s really interesting what formats and factual entertainment have done to traditional documentary. Not just in terms of audience expectation, but also your own expectation when you go into an edit suite. You’re looking for the crunch moment, you’re looking for those things to happen naturally, and often you don’t get them. You think, ‘Oh, Good God, I’ve got this fantastic documentary; it’s real life, but it’s not good enough.’ Now you can barely get away with doing a traditional documentary without thinking ‘What am I going to add to this?’ It raises the pressure. I think it’s sad because there are great stories out there which can be told in a straight way, but the audience has lost the patience to engage with that.
Lambert: Why is it a sad thing that we used to make programs that were so dull that people didn’t really want to watch them but they didn’t have much choice?
Watson: They don’t have to be dull. We’ve got Ship Mates coming up; that’s a series about the navy. It’s a window on that world.

Do any of you ever look at any of your shows with a sense of disquiet?
Lambert: You try to make your programming as appealing as you can, regardless of the subject matter. In the end it’s the subject matter which will determine the audience it gets… I don’t feel uncomfortable that we are pushing something to get an audience. But with any program you are attempting to marshal material to make it as appealing as possible.
Lewis: But you have to balance that with integrity. I know the cheap tricks I can play, and sometimes I play them because there’s a reason to. But I feel quite strongly that my programs have a level of integrity.
Lambert: Audiences spot cheap tricks. It’s hard to do them without being discovered.

What is selling internationally?
Pedersen: What’s selling differs depending on the genre. But, by labeling this area ‘factual entertainment’ and presenting clearly formatted shows, it allows you to widen the choice of who you can sell it to. It takes a show outside the history, science and current affairs slots and allows you to move it into daytime or a late-night slot – and onto a much wider range of channels.
Life: Obviously, hits help. The real commercial sweet spot is a show like Supernanny or Wife Swap where you can make local versions and then sell them around the world as well. That’s the holy grail for distributors and for producers, too.
Pedersen: We’re finding that the British shows feed the format. A buyer will take a completed show, then buy the format – but that doesn’t happen with every single factual entertainment format.
Lewis: It’s a one-way market isn’t it – with shows coming from Britain out.
Lambert: The Apprentice?
Lewis: That’s a rare exception to the rule.
Pedersen: It’s something for the uk industry to be really proud of. I think the stats say that 45% of the international formats market is controlled by the UK, which is absolutely fantastic when you compare it to finished program sales, which is around 10%.

How hard is it to control these ideas internationally and generate real returns?
Pedersen: It’s a total nightmare. From the moment you even mention something, chances are that someone is going to be doing it somewhere else. That’s why, from our point of view, you have to be extremely clear about when you launch something. You can’t launch it until you have a uk show, some ratings, and some evidence that it is a formatted show to protect it.
Life: But, by their nature, these are softer formats. They’re harder to protect because they are less obviously format-able elements. Our experience with Supernanny and RDF’s experience with Wife Swap shows, in the end, it’s difficult.
Lambert: RDF are suing Fox over Trading Spouses and we’re going to do very well.
Pedersen: That’s a key case. Everyone is waiting to see what happens.

Will factual eventually lose audiences? Or is it part of the fabric of TV now?
Lewis: Ten years ago you couldn’t have imagined there’d be a program about a wife in Bradford and how she lives her life. It’s still about stories, but the difference is we’re applying cleverer, more sophisticated techniques. I’m sure in 10 years we’ll look back at Wife Swap and think it’s extremely dated.
Mills: It’s a process of evolution, of looking for clever twists that move things on a bit. But then you find things come round full circle. It already has in some ways – we’re seeing more old-fashioned documentaries back on the screen getting good audiences.
Lambert: And there are lots more channels, desperate for all kinds of factual programming.
Life: I can’t see that reality is going to disappear and documentary strands are going to come back again. At the moment we’re seeing broadcasters like Channel 4 commissioning longer runs because they’re looking for security over a great part of the schedule.
Lambert: The big mistake is thinking that all this stuff is taking the place of documentary. It’s not. It’s taking the place of situation comedy. Sitcoms have died. It’s sitcoms that no one can write anymore; it’s sitcoms that don’t feel authentic or attract audiences. A new kind of sitcom has emerged, which is factual entertainment. Documentary is still there.

Do the same people who watch docs watch factual?
Lambert: The big audiences didn’t watch docs in the past, so it looks more as though it’s the sitcom audience watching factual entertainment. People who like serious documentary will come to the more populist formats if they see something that, as Jo says, is layered and complicated and revealing of human character.

Are you ever surprised by audience numbers?
Mills: You never know what’s going to work. Look at Coast on the BBC. No one thought that would do anything and it’s a huge success.

Do high ratings matter for the BBC?
Lewis: Ratings always matter. If your show doesn’t rate well someone might be nice to you and say it doesn’t matter – but it does.
Pedersen: It probably matters more to an indie than an in-house producer when it comes to getting the next commission.
Watson: [Audience numbers] are important within the BBC. If people have watched it and liked it a lot, then that matters.

Are you exploring branded content?
Davis: You can’t do product placement [in the UK], but we do advertiser-funded programming. That’s really interesting for us because it can lead to good programming for us, but is also the holy grail for marketers. You need specialists to navigate this area, but it can be really interesting. As you see an injection of revenues into channels and real content coming out as a result, I think the market will start to develop.

Where are the ideas coming from?
Davis: The best scenario is where an advertiser comes in and says, ‘I’d like a program that does this for my brand.’ It’s more complicated when they come in with a small producer already attached that maybe hasn’t got the right experience. If they leave it to you to create the marriage, then that works best for us.

Are advertisers looking at this area?
Mills: Lots of advertisers are talking to all the big indie companies all the time. There are lots of interesting conversations. It’s going to happen. It’s got to change. We’re all just waiting for it to happen.

How is digital transforming things?
Lewis: It’s an interesting area for us. There’s such a shortage of good talent in the factual arena that producers who can deliver are well-placed.

There’s a shortage of talent?
Davis: There is a premier league.
Lewis: It’s no surprise that Alison Sharman has gone from the bbc to ITV to take up a factual role because there just aren’t that many people around with that level of experience.
Pedersen: How many people have started up a successful indie that haven’t come from a broadcaster? It can’t be many. If you leave the bbc, you’re known and you get a shot to make a go of it as an indie. How many have broken into the industry without that background?

Presumably this is something that will change as indies get more powerful?
Life: I’ve seen that happen with series producers who feel their ideas are being exploited by a company and they’re not incentivized, so they go off and set up on their own.
Davis: When there are splinter groups, they cleverly colonize a niche and get known for their ability to deliver a particular franchise and you don’t have difficulty commissioning them.

What about the use of digital media for engaging audiences? Is that coming from producers or broadcasters?
Lambert: If producers are financially incentivized, then they’ll do it. If it’s clear that you will benefit, you’ll do it. Interactivity is exciting for an independent if there is a financial upside – if there isn’t, it’s probably going to be a lot of hassle for them.
Davis: There are indies with dedicated departments in this area. But it has tended to be marketing-driven so far. It’s more to do with the broadcaster’s relationship with the audience than the role of the creator.

What is the right balance of power?
Pedersen: Indies, through trade body PACT, are discussing this issue with Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan. [Editor's Note: C4 wants to allow consumers to access programs online for up to 30 days after initial transmission. If it doesn't get its way, it plans to lobby media regulator ofcom for a major change in its remit - allowing it to make its own programs, rather than just commissioning them from indies.]
Lewis: Program-makers have to realize how much power they have. When they’re making the content, they should be deciding how the technology matches that content, but we’ve been slightly also-rans in interactive.

How do you make these kind of demands without jeopardizing your relationship with the buying community?
Pedersen: Through trade bodies.
Lambert: Or, in the US, it’s agents who can represent a block of sellers.
Lewis: We’re not a cross-section of the production community, but the bigger players tend to go in feeling they are in an equal relationship when selling ideas.
Lambert: But there are very few buyers and a lot of sellers. As long as you have a ridiculously large number of sellers, you have a problem in getting a level playing field.
Lambert: Here’s a question: why is a publicly funded body like the BBC still guaranteeing so much of its program spend – billions of pounds – to one supplier (i.e. in-house production) regardless of the quality of their ideas?
Watson: That’s difficult to comment on, really. The BBC as an organization is committed to training people who eventually become producers like you.
Lambert: And that costs billions? The BBC wants to guarantee 50% of spend in-house, which is such a large amount of money there has to be an extraordinary upside to justify it.
Davis: There are upsides to it in terms of continuity of staff. It’s not just about the quality of ideas, but the execution. Most of that in-house production base knows how to execute an idea. And an organization which fosters this kind of production base is not just about producing factual programming, it’s about producing radio and running orchestras.
Mills: But I’d argue that an indie like ours is more stable when it comes to holding onto their staff.
Lewis: Having just left the BBC and come outside I’d say two things: one, it doesn’t feel that cozy inside the BBC. It felt like we pitched just as hard; the other is that indies will never be big enough to take on the level of training done by the bbc which creates the talent base.
Mills: I share some of Stephen’s overall concerns about the level playing field. But I think there are roles for the BBC in the UK in addition to being purely a broadcaster. I think the BBC has come a huge way in recent years and the change in contractual terms of trade has been fantastic for all of us. But when it comes down to it, a lot of how you feel about a broadcaster depends on your personal relationship with commissioners.

Is the UK still a creative hothouse?
Life: Yes. There are a few signs of a creative back drift with shows like Dragon’s Den (from Japan) and US shows. At the moment, they’re the exceptions rather than the rule in factual. But as UK producers introduce more of these shows to the US, I think we’ll see US companies absorb the necessary skills and start exporting factual back around the world. For now, though, the UK has a window of creative opportunity.

How do you all see 2006 shaping up?
Lambert: I think we’ll see more consolidation.

What about program trends?
Mills: It’s impossible to say. And if we knew, we’d keep it to ourselves.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.