Working on the Global 100 – this month’s list of the most influential production companies in the world – I was once again struck by the divergent nature of our industry. I’m not speaking strictly of content, per se, but rather regionality.
An overwhelming majority (95%) of the companies who made our list from France, Germany and the other major European territories are producing what could be termed ‘traditional documentary.’ (Save for exceptions such as Endemol or Zodiak.) While there is noticeable hybridization – the blending of history and science, or art, for example – and heavy use of dramatic elements, for the most part these markets still turn to a doc form that is becoming increasingly rare in English-speaking markets.
When it comes to North America and the UK, it’s a different world. In the UK, an overwhelming majority of producers (76%) are working on factual entertainment. In the us, that number sits around 65%. (Canada sits at 50%, but then it’s always been a gateway to Europe, so that’s to be expected.)
While some in Europe argue the difference between the English and non-English markets is in the sophistication of the viewers, that strikes me as glib simplification. Instead, I think the difference comes down to the amount of competition in the markets and, in the us at least, the reliance of non-fiction on cable for the majority of its distribution.
As HGTV VP of program development Mary Ellen Iwata pointed out at the Factual Entertainment Forum, cable doesn’t generally enjoy appointment viewing – a loyal and guaranteed audience turn-out for a particular show. So, it’s her goal that hgtv ends up in the ‘surfing selection zone’ – a band of cable channels to which a particular viewer tends to turn when looking for something to watch.
It doesn’t take a programming genius to foretell the impact of that sort of competition on programming’s style, pacing and subject matter. I think, however, many Europeans mistake that to mean a lack of content – or, as one producer I interviewed termed it, a reliance on ‘more style than substance.’ Is that a fair observation? Honestly, it’s hard to tell, and there is more than enough evidence for both sides to prove their case. English-speaking markets are certainly very demanding, with a preference for storytelling techniques that lend themselves to quick pay-offs and sometimes cheap emotional connections that border on voyeurism.
But the greater issue is what sort of impact the progression of this divergence will have on the industry and trade. What will become of the interaction of markets if they fail to understand each other’s film vocabulary more so than even their language and cultural iconitry? Hopefully, we’re not heading towards a form of cultural isolationism, as that will not serve any market well.
Please note: this issue comes with a changing of the guard, as we lose managing editor Kimberley Brown to a commercial title. Kimberley was with us for more than six years, and was the backbone of the mag, guiding it through some incredible highs and lows. She’ll be missed – but watch this space next issue for some exciting additions to the team.