LA ROCHELLE: While it has been a fact of life for doc-makers for years, this year at Sunny Side of The Doc, the impact of the digital revolution on documentaries was a focal point. While providing traditional broadcasters with serious competition, it is also pushing some of them to creatively experiment in an attempt to reach new and younger audiences with factual content.
At the panel dubbed “Science: The Great Narrative Experiment”, representatives from PBS and CBC’s respective science strands, ‘Nova’ and ‘The Nature of Things’, shared their experiments with new narratives and forms, including history-science hybrids, pop science, and social science.
Both strands still draw audiences. Melanie Wallace, senior series producer for ‘Nova,’ remarked that the 45-year-old science strand “is probably the longest running series in the world, certainly in the U.S.,” causing Sue Dando, head of the CBC’s flagship science strand ‘The Nature of Things,’ to remark: “We are 59!”
Why then, asked panel moderator and First Act Films producer Ruth Berry, bother with experimentation?
“We need to build more as a science brand than a television series,” summed up Wallace.
For example, the six-part science doc series Nova Wonders, in which three scientists tackle the biggest unsolved questions about life and cosmos, led to a major social media campaign, said Wallace, including live Facebook components that made scientists available to interact with.
“Audiences are changing and we also want to bring new ones. As long as the science is really solid, hybrids work really well,” added Dando.
On the hybrid front, CBC had an impact with The Great Wild Indoors, introduced by Berry as “fabulous macro blue chip mixed with reality.” The special examined how many different species live in the average household. “It was not our biggest budget [production], but it got more media than everything else,” said Dando.
An area ‘Nova’ wants to continue exploring is “history meets science” with an eye towards subjects that resonate today, added Wallace.
That trend was spotted elsewhere at Sunny Side this year. In a similar approach, ARTE was showing the first clips to its upcoming international copro Sacred Spaces, a 4 x 90-minute primetime series which decodes the architecture of various churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, while addressing the history of human belief. “Sacred Spaces required four years in the making, was shot in 16 countries and pre-bought by 12,” stressed Hélène Coldefy, ARTE’s head of science and factual department.
Producer Christine le Goff of Zed called it “probably the most ambitious project I ever made,” adding that the series needed “four different directors, working together and establishing dialogue between the various religions.”
Dialogue between communities was also a driver for a key project discussed in the “Blue Chip Culture: Dead or Alive?” panel – PBS’ ambitious Native America series. Producer Gary Glassman of Providence Pictures said the project aimed to somehow represent a culture with 10,000 years of knowledge, spirituality and science as part of its history, as well as the claim to the first democracy.
“We worked very closely with native communities, and that changed everything,” he told the Sunny Side audience. “The trust that we developed enabled us to film ceremony and rituals that never had been seen before, so we decided to abandon recreations, as we felt ceremony and ritual on camera were truly the authentic portal to the past.”
The project had a long gestation. Glassman recalled that he first pitched it at Sunny Side back in 2001, when Sunny Side founder and CEO Yves Jeanneau was still head of docs for France 2. For the record, Jeanneau encouraged him to go ahead with it. “Only pubcasters can support this kind of project,” Glassman said.
However, as reflected by the current situation in France, pubcasters are also threatened by digital developments, in ways that are both predictable and unexpected.
At Sunny Side this year, the contrast was high between vivid international business for French independents, and the threatening clouds accumulating on the domestic market horizon.
Producers are concerned that the public service reforms currently in the works significantly disrupt the model of one of the country’s main doc supporters, France Télévisions. The French government wants to advance the move of the pubcaster into the digital space, while also calling for cost-cutting which is reportedly massive, and there are major fears that the political decisions being taken disregard the mission of a public broadcaster or market considerations.
Plans are afoot to reduce France Télévisions’ linear terrestrial offer by axing its two smaller channels — kids channel France 4, along with France Ô, which was more of a factual outlet promoting French overseas territories content as well as international docs. The government is proposing that some of that content can be accommodated through strands on more “mainstream” channels, and that other channels should become digital-only offerings.
Among the concerns raised by such a move is how this will impact exposure and airtime for documentaries, given the possibility of two less channels and the domino effect of fewer strands available on mainstream channels. As for OTT-only transmission and digital originals, both France Télévisions and producers union USPA stressed that that can’t be achieved easily overnight, as broadcasters’ commissioned-work rights as well as all funding schemes are based on terrestrial broadcast.
More worries arose during the week following the rumor, confirmed during the event by the CNC (Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée), that the funding body will invest less money in independent production next year due to its current flat income, which for the most part comes from a tax on French terrestrial broadcaster revenues, and a less than favorable forecast.
With public TV being the primary supporter of docs on television worldwide, the French situation resonated with international producers in the Sunny Side corridors, as abrupt political winds of change can result in decisions that greatly impact the fragile funding for the genre. So while some may call it a Golden Age for Documentary, it’s not an era that is immune from disruption.