Where do we draw the line between social issue ob-docs that touch a nerve and programming that inspires national outrage? And to what extent can the media impact a series’ local reception and international prospects? These were just some of the topics discussed at the Realscreen London panel “Too Real for Reality TV?” which honed in on the controversy around such programs as Channel 4′s Benefits Street, BBC2′s forthcoming format The Factory and RTL5′s The Bully Project.
The Thursday (October 1) session – moderated by realscreen editor and content director Barry Walsh - featured Julian Curtis, founder and joint-CEO of Lineup Industries, which distributes The Bully Project; Tom McDonald, head of commissioning for natural history and specialist factual formats at the BBC; and Richard McKerrow, chief executive and CCO at Benefits Street shop Love Productions.
Since a January press release first announced the commission, BBC2′s newly titled, Twenty Twenty-produced program The Factory (previously labelled Britain’s Hardest Worker) has generated considerable media attention for putting low-wage workers through a series of occupational challenges to find the country’s most effective blue collar worker – despite not having yet aired.
“We have been in conversation for some time internally about the low-wage economy,” said McDonald. “We knew we wanted to do something that had a sense of scale about it, that wasn’t a straight current affairs piece. It emerged from there and it was still in advance pre-production development when the noise about it started.”
On top of coverage in outlets such as The Guardian and The Telegraph, a Change.org petition currently has more than 27,000 signatures demanding the pubcaster “abandon its plans” to broadcast the program.
“I think the controversy was a displacement on to the BBC when in fact what people feel angry about is the possibility that people are being treated unjustly in the world,” said McDonald, adding that he was particularly surprised by the controversy because the program had yet to be even filmed.
Asked if the negative media response has had any impact on what The Factory is going to look like, McDonald said it didn’t “change anything substantially” because the show has a competitive structure to it, and the team was not thinking about the editorial basis of the program, but rather how the mechanics of the program would reflect the real world.
Love Productions’ McKerrow similarly received his share of the media spotlight with C4′s Benefits Street, as was covered in a recent feature by realscreen.
“You worry in Britain today with any program because the level of tabloid press interest and especially the word ‘benefits’ or indeed ‘immigrant’ are very powerful words in a rather negative fashion I’m afraid,” said McKerrow.
“And you always worry in factual programs, if you’ve got a documentary sensibility, about the welfare of your contributors, but it never occurred to us – and I can say that hand on heart – that it would get five million viewers,” the exec continued.
In the case of Benefits Street, which inspired a number of spin-offs and also debuted as a format at MIPCOM 2014, much of the tumult around the program was prompted by British tabloids, which according to McKerrow, portrayed the show as a “completely different series” than the actual program.
Elsewhere, Lineup Industries’ Curtis spoke about the Sky High-produced format The Bully Project, which originated in the Netherlands on RTL5, and finds bullied students going to school with hidden cameras in their backpacks in order to document and expose their bullies.
The exec said the press went “absolutely nuts” in Holland before the show even went on air, with the threat of an injunction placed on one of the episodes prior to broadcast, though it didn’t materialize.
“In Holland, the audience and generally the culture tends to be quite outspoken and open to looking at things that are difficult subject matters, so exporting them is difficult,” admitted Curtis. “People tend to want to tone down some of the elements of the formats that are particularly controversial.”
So far, the format has travelled to the UK, U.S., Norway and Denmark, but an ongoing issue with The Bully Project, the exec says, is that people want to change the format away from what makes it successful, such as not using the hidden cameras in the rucksack.
“If [international producers and broadcasters] start having those doubts at a very early stage of having a discussion, then this is not the show for them, because this show in particular needs 100% commitment from the network and the producer,” said Curtis.