In a report entitled ‘Serious Documentaries on ITV’, U.K. lobby group, The Campaign for Quality Television (cqt), has blasted commercial broadcaster itv for reducing its commitment to serious documentaries. The cqt also criticized industry regulator, Independent Television Commission (itc), for failing to find a solution.
The cqt’s chairman, documentary-maker Ray Fitzwalter, says that itv’s worldwide reputation for producing major documentaries is ‘coming apart at the seams.’ He points out that between 1994 and 1997, itv’s flagship documentary strand Network First was reduced from 34 hours to 18 hours a year. Under the new commissioning team at itv, the strand has now been scrapped altogether.
The cqt report claims that serious documentary coverage has been cut back to the point where it is barely viable to produce. With the loss of Network First, it says that ‘serious documentaries have been sown so thinly – so randomly – throughout the network schedule that it is all but impossible for the audience which used to watch them to know when they might appear.’ Fitzwalter also claims that the range of films has narrowed dramatically.
itv disputes the cqt’s claims, saying that it is still committed to broadcasting serious docs – as stand-alone films rather than as part of a strand. However, Fitzwalter describes this as ‘a nonsense which is a complete reversal of the previous policy.’
The cqt reserves a lot of its criticism for the itc, which itself condemned itv’s performance at the start of last year. At that time, the regulator said, ‘Overall documentary output fell short of the license commitments of the majority of itv companies.’ Since then, however, the itc has not used its legislative powers to make the itv comply with its concerns.
‘The itc could do something if it wanted,’ says Fitzwalter. ‘Instead, we have seen an incredibly feeble response from a reluctant policeman.’
Ironically, itv has recently revealed plans to put factual programming back at the heart of the schedule after the great success of its rival bbc1 with documentary soaps. However, most critics fear that commercial pressures will drive most of itv’s remaining highbrow factual programming to the margins.
Aside from the loss of Network First, itv is preparing the way to move News at Ten from its current slot in order to ease the scheduling of drama and movies. The last time it tried to do so, it caused a political storm. In addition, rumors of plans to commission a new current-affairs series have raised speculation that the position of long-running Granada strand World in Action may be under review.
According to Fitzwalter, the itc needs to insist now that itv reinstate its commitment to serious factual programs. He says, ‘There is a considerable ground swell of dissatisfaction in the British documentary-making community, and it’s not surprising.’
One suggestion, according to the cqt report, is that the ITV Network Centre allocate single strands of serious documentaries to companies either within or outside the itv system. This would have the dual benefit of broadening the commissioning vision and allowing the companies in question to staff up to a level which would enable them to produce regular high-quality films.
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