Culture club

Docuseries that immerse audiences in other cultures are generating big buzz, major controversies and, in some cases, record-breaking audiences for networks around the world. (Pictured: All-American Muslim)
January 1, 2012

Two of the biggest factual series of the past several years were cultural studies of a sort, following gypsies in the UK in one instance, and Italian-Americans sharing a house in a U.S. beach town in the other. Channel 4′s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and MTV’s Jersey Shore, respectively, were both wildly popular and hugely controversial, as they captured communities not often represented on television.

The numbers seem to indicate that audiences are keen to learn more about other cultures via factual television, especially if those cultures are colorful and somewhat outside of what’s considered mainstream. Jersey Shore is MTV’s highest-rated series to date, with an episode in January of this year racking up 8.9 million viewers and the premiere episode for season four, in which the cast was set loose in Italy, attracting 8.8 million total viewers.

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, meanwhile, is Channel 4′s highest-rated documentary series to date, averaging a whopping nine million viewers in its debut season. December’s My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas was a gift for C4, bringing in more than five million viewers.

Firecracker Films is the London-based prodco behind Weddings, which has spawned a second season for C4 airing this year. The buzz has carried across the pond to TLC, which aired the original UK series and has commissioned Firecracker to produce a U.S. version.

“I think the British public had all of these misconceptions of what the gypsies are actually like,” says Mark Soldinger, the Santa Monica-based CEO for Firecracker. “They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t take drugs, [there's] no sex before marriage and divorce is unheard of. I think maybe that’s why, as well as all the bling and the big dresses, it’s become the phenomenon that it has.”

The upcoming U.S. version for TLC also aims to change people’s perceptions about gypsy and traveler culture.

“Bringing the show here, the main thing I keep coming across is that most people here have no idea there are gypsies in America. That’s been the overriding reaction when we tell people we’re doing this: ‘What? There are gypsies here?’” he says.

Soldinger says it’s important to note that beyond the series’ entertainment quotient, ramped up by the coverage of the extravagant weddings thrown by the participants, it aims to provide serious takeaway.

“We’re documentary filmmakers at the end of the day and we’ve happened to make a show that is very entertaining because of the visual feast that it offers,” he says. “At the same time there are social conditions and questions raised about the culture that we like to answer.

“It’s not just about the dresses for us; it’s about how they celebrate life, birth, death [and] how they settle their own disputes. I like to think that we’ve changed people’s conceptions of what they thought gypsies were about.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that TLC picked up the UK and U.S. versions of Gypsy Weddings considering that the line-up for the U.S. network has featured subculture and outside- of-the-mainstream subject matter since the days of Jon & Kate Plus 8 in 2008 and even earlier, with Little People, Big World in 2006.

“Here’s a family much like every other kind of family where we have the same sort of trials and tribulations, life moments and milestones,” says TLC general manager Amy Winter of the latter series. The story of the Roloff family – in which parents Matt and Amy and one son, Zach, are little people while three other children, Jeremy, Molly and Jacob, are of average height – captivated audiences for six seasons. The Roloffs still appear on the network via specials, and Winter says the unique dynamic within the family makes for “really striking” TV.

The network continues to generate buzz with subculture series ranging from this year’s The Virgin Diaries and All-American Muslim to the upcoming Irish Dancing Tweens (w/t).

The key challenge across all of these series, says Winter, is to always be respectful of traditions and to let the characters tell their stories.

“What’s really important with our storytelling is we are documenting their lives and sharing without judgment,” says Winter. “It’s not our job to tell people what to think or how to feel about the people on our air but to share a really honest look at their lives.”

Winter says that with such programming, the network strives to take a family or group that seems to be somehow outside of mainstream culture, and show just how relatable it actually is.

All American Muslim is a great example of that – to let people into a subculture that, as an outsider, you only perceive the differences, and then once you get that inside look, you get to see the differences, but also the really relatable qualities [between] our lives,” she adds.

Despite the good intentions, All American Muslim has made headlines after a conservative group called the Florida Family Association pressured advertisers to pull their spots from the show, with Lowe’s Home Improvement being one of the defectors. For its part, Lowe’s has denied that pressure from the Florida Family Association influenced its decision to pull its advertising.

“I think it was very clear what the series was, so it was surprising,” says Bravo SVP of production Shari Levine of the controversy.

Bravo is yet another American network moving into the subculture space with the upcoming Shahs of Sunset from Ryan Seacrest Productions. The reality series follows a group of wealthy Persian-Americans living in Los Angeles.

But Levine maintains that Shahs isn’t the first foray into the genre for the network, citing the Real Housewives franchise as such.

“People think those are alien cultures that they’re watching on the screen,” says Levine of the assorted collections of Housewives on Bravo’s air. “I think Shahs takes it a bit further than where we have before.”

She finds that the most difficult part of documenting a subculture is translating people’s shared history.

“You behave with people from your own culture with a shorthand,” she explains. “To a mass audience, you have to translate some of the deep history that people don’t know, in a way that fills them in enough that they can follow along and understand what the dynamic is that they’re watching.”

Meanwhile, back in the UK, KEO films has been actively documenting other societies, but through the lens of cultural exchange.

Most recently, KEO produced Living with the Amish, a documentary series that aired in December on Channel 4. In the six-episode series, a British cast of eight teenagers joined Amish and Mennonite families in the States to live in their world of gas lamps, horses and carts, manual labor and daily communal hymn-singing.

“We very much believe that this type of cultural exchange is creating a new genre which we call reverse anthropology – using another culture as a way of reflecting back on our own,” says KEO films’ head of development and series EP Katie Buchanan.

This is the third “reverse anthropology” program from the prodco after 2007′s Meet the Natives, where tribesman from the South Pacific stayed with British families. That series was also adapted for the U.S. In 2010, KEO produced Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers, also for Channel 4, in which Amish teenagers resided with British families.

“[This is the] first to immerse British teenagers in other cultures,” says Buchanan of the most recent series. “Rather than simply trying to engineer conflict, we are also asking questions about our values and the way we live.”

This cultural exchange, however, faced the same primary challenge that all other subculture programming faces – gaining access to a typically closed community.

Relationships with the participants were built up over months, and the premise of the series was explained to them in detail. In total, the KEO team spent a year gaining access.

“Before filming we showed people the cameras so they were familiar with them,” says Buchanan of the non-obtrusive production methods employed. “The production team was kept to a minimum at all times and filmed from a distance. We used radio mics and table mics rather than overhead booms. The series was shot with overhead light on the Canon 305, a small HDV camera.”

She adds that it helped that the main focus of the program was the British teenagers and what they were taking from the experience; thus, the vast majority of filming was done observationally, or through testimony from the teenagers. Interviews with the Amish were kept to a bare minimum, and focused on discussion of their beliefs and their responses to the teens.

Still, an interesting condition had to be met before the Amish agreed to take part in the show: it couldn’t air in the U.S.

“[With] the Amish, sometimes if you do things that are a little bit under the radar, people don’t mind so much,” says Buchanan of the agreement. “If [they] feel like you’re rubbing everyone’s noses in it, that becomes a bit more of an issue.

“They really felt quite bruised by films in the past that have looked at Rumspringa [the period in adolescence in which some Amish youth may enter into a wider social world prior to deciding whether to join the church through baptism] and ‘teenagers running wild.’ What appealed to them was that this was about helping our young people and that our young people could learn from them. I think it was a very positive reflection of their values,” she adds.

Like other subculture series producers, Buchanan feels that Living with the Amish helped its audience reflect on its own values by juxtaposing them with those belonging to another culture.

“[We're] reflecting back on our values when we’re questioning a lot of things because of the current economic situation of this country,” she says. “The time is quite right to look at the Amish values and lack of materialism and consumerism, rather than just on the individual.”

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