With the success – and controversy – generated by Channel 4′s ob-doc series Benefits Street, international broadcasters and prodcos are crafting gritty programs that shine the spotlight on social issues. But are some topics too real for TV?
Benefits Street has been called many things, but a bankable format is perhaps the most surprising.
The Channel 4 documentary series, produced by Love Productions, was widely derided in the British media as “poverty porn” when it first aired nearly two years ago. Filmed on James Turner Street in Birmingham, England, the show focused on local residents who live on social assistance – or benefits.
Critics and politicians called it exploitative, vilifying and counterproductive to the debate around welfare. While UK broadcast regulator Ofcom received hundreds of complaints throughout the five-episode run, as did the network, a subsequent investigation determined the series did not breach broadcasting rules.
Meanwhile, as controversy raged in the op-ed pages, in political circles and on social media, millions of Britons tuned in with episode three attracting a peak audience of 5.2 million. In response to the polarized reactions, Channel 4 ordered a live debate show, Benefits Street: The Last Word, and a second (less watched) season.
By that point, the acquisitions team for the global distributor FremantleMedia International was re-thinking the show’s global format potential after initially waffling.
“The ratings were phenomenal. That really made me go, ‘We need to take this seriously,’” explains Vasha Wallace, Fremantle’s executive VP of global acquisitions and development.
“When Love pitched it to me before the show aired my initial feeling was, ‘Can this travel? Is it for us?’” she adds. “It’s about a group of British people living in a street where a high percentage of those people live on benefits. ‘Benefits’ isn’t even an international term.”
‘Benefits’ is now a reality TV subgenre unto itself. Channel 5 has ordered several Benefits-themed programs, such as Benefits by the Sea, Undercover Benefits and Benefits Britain: Me and My 14 Kids.
In Australia, Keo Films’ Struggle Street for SBS kicked up a similar uproar in that country, with garbage trucks from the Western Sydney neighborhood where the series was shot blockading the pubcaster’s offices to signify local residents’ feelings toward the show.
FremantleMedia debuted the Benefits Street format at MIPCOM last October and has since sold the show to Dutch commercial broadcaster RTL (which has greenlit a second season), as well as the British version of the series to networks in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Portugal and Israel.
The company will announce more format deals soon and is in “active discussions” with broadcasters about a formatted version of Immigration Street, Love and Channel 4′s one-off doc sequel to Benefits Street. Love Productions’ creative director Richard McKerrow describes the show’s evolution into a format as fortuitous.
“Benefits Street is a format in the sense that it is a concept but it’s an observational documentary series,” he explains. “I suppose the notion that it’s a street gives it a frame and a concept and the success of that allows you to take it to other countries.”
Rather than harm international marketability, the controversy and press attention in the UK gives Fremantle and potential international producers talking points around local versions.
The company spent a lot of time speaking with McKerrow and Kieran Smith, Love’s creative director for factual programming, to firm up the format. Centered on one street, each episode focuses on a clear theme such as love and relationships, immigration and parenting. The series also needs to be filmed in summer months when residents of a street are more likely to be outside.
Each version is tailored to the regional market in which it will air. In the Netherlands, the series put a greater emphasis on the characters attempting to improve their lives whereas the British version took a more observational approach. Although an ob-doc series in style, Wallace describes Benefits Street as part of a new wave of “social reality” series.
For Channel 4, it was important to deal with the uproar directly and defend the series. The network is no stranger to controversy or delicate subject matter, having in recent years ordered docs such as The Paedophile Hunter and The Paedophile Next Door. Still, execs were not expecting Benefits Street to blow up.
“I’d underestimated the degree to which the word ‘benefit’ – and the actual concept of benefits – was explosive,” says Channel 4′s head of documentaries Nick Mirsky. “There were such strong feelings about benefi ts on both sides; people thought benefits were being paid out too generously and others thought the strategies of successive governments have been too tight.”
Rather than avoid the controversy, network execs and producers from Love gave press interviews, penned articles and participated in the debate – a proactive stance bolstered by internal research that found the level of positivity among Benefits Street viewers was greater than what was being reflected in negative media coverage.
Building the trust of a specific community is key to a social reality format, but that became diffi cult when Love tried to produce a spin-off.
Channel 4 ordered six episodes of Immigration Street but the series was thwarted by residents in Southampton who became suspicious of production crews once word began to spread the makers of Benefits Street were in town. Channel 4 later issued a statement explaining that the series had to be scaled back because the crew began experiencing intimidation, verbal abuse and threats of violence that led to a highly charged public meeting during which Love’s Smith was shouted down.
“In a lot of these communities what you have are people who are happy and want to be filmed and understand the project,” offers McKerrow. “And then what you often have is behind the street, there is an element of criminality that is nervous about cameras being down there so you have to work around that.”
Multiculturalism will form the basis of the next spin-off, New Britain Street. Another ob-doc series, it is being shot in the north of England in an ethnically diverse neighborhood.
“When you shine the bright light of television on something difficult like poverty, it produces an extraordinary reaction,” says McKerrow. “Any subject like this, you have to approach very carefully and journalistically. You’ve got to speak to all the organizations that are the experts in it. We’re also trying to say something new as well and make groundbreaking television so it’s a careful combination between the two.”
No matter how carefully a producer vets a prospective documentary subject, if the series becomes a hit, everyone involved must contend with celebrity culture, which was less prevalent in the past. Some of the people who appeared in Benefits Street have become well-known in the UK (and now Holland), which has prompted further criticism that the series is exploitative.
“What’s happened is the world has changed now in the sense that people that are in very high-rating series become stars and get agents, whereas that wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago,” adds McKerrow.
As FremantleMedia continues rolling out the format globally, Love and Channel 4 are taking a break from benefits-related programming to focus on ob-docs such as New Britain Street that center around immigration and multiculturalism – now a timely subject as the plight of refugees coming from war-torn Syria has become a massive issue politically across Europe.
“We’d have to feel we had something new to say if we were to go back into benefits,” says Mirsky. “It’s absolutely right that Channel 4 should be making programs about poverty but we have to keep our eyes out for how to do that in a different way.”
- This article first appeared in the current September/October 2015 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.