This past November, I was invited by John Farren, creative director of 360 Production, to take part in a session he was master-minding at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Paris. The session was titled “Reasons to be Cheerful,” and the gist of it was to bypass the moaning, groaning and bellyaching one sometimes hears at conferences and to instead celebrate what’s right in the world of non-fiction content production. Some of us who suggested some reasons to be cheerful via email were then asked to make short two-minute presentations regarding said cheer.
When I’d finished reading John’s initial email asking for contributions and feedback, admittedly, it didn’t take me long to come up with a reason to be cheerful, or at least, hopeful. See, what’s really getting me jazzed when it comes to the immediate future of non-fiction programming is the new era of engagement we find ourselves at the early and exciting stages of.
The happy marriage between social media and factual content is no longer simply the domain of game shows or reality programming. We’ve seen it in the super-effective outreach programs employed by such production companies as Participant Media with films such as The Cove and Food Inc., and now we’re seeing it work for factual content with a social conscience – witness two examples from KEO films, namely, the Hugh’s Fish Fight and Chicken Out campaigns, spearheaded by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The campaigns mobilized viewers to take action, stand up and be counted in support of sustainable farming and fishing practices. Check out fishfight.net for a look.
The smart thing with these efforts is that they put into practice one of the greatest truths about the Web – the Internet is “forever.” In a long-tail world, a campaign based on programming doesn’t need to evaporate once the premiere’s closing credits wrap. These particular campaigns continue to gather momentum as we speak, keeping the issues and the programming itself front of mind. A lesson to learn: if you kill an audience engagement campaign that you’ve spent considerable resources building shortly after your program’s airdate, you do the show, your brand and your audience a great disservice.
Here’s a key bit of takeaway from KEO’s Zam Baring, quoted from a session at Banff: “Programs drive people online [and get them] engaged, and if you’re lucky, [you can] use their engagement to make more telly.” Baring’s work in this space with KEO was seen by us at realscreen as such a cause for cheeriness that we named him as one of our Trailblazers for 2011.
To wrap up, let me paraphrase another quote from one of this year’s other Trailblazers regarding the potential for this new era of engagement and how the Web and non-fiction programming can and should connect. As Katerina Cizek, webdoc director extraordinaire says, “The Internet is a documentary.” It’s a network that belongs to all of us. On that network, we want to share good stories, see good stories, and tell our own good stories. The good stories that you as producers and networks bring us on television are an integral part of that mix, and the smart producers and networks behind those stories are building the bridges that will not only let us see them and share them, but also be a part of them.