Since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 – an event marking the first live multinational television transmission – much of the news and sports pictured on European screens has passed through the European Broadcast Union (EBU). Headquartered in Geneva, the non-profit organization works on behalf of its core members – 69 public broadcasters in the European area – to defend the position of public broadcasting. The EBU’s primary functions include: negotiating broadcasting rights for major sporting events; organizing news exchanges between broadcasters; transmitting footage to members through its 30-channel digital satellite network (Eurovision); and offering operational, commercial, technical, legal and strategic assistance. But above all, the EBU provides a place for its members to connect. Nowhere is this goal more pronounced than with the Documentary Experts Group, a network of commissioning editors from the doc departments of member broadcasters. Axel Arno of Sweden’s SVT is the Group’s elected chairman: ‘The EBU is extremely valuable to us as broadcasters, because it brings us together. We must cooperate if we are to succeed in the competitive documentary market.’
The Documentary Group was established in 1996. Since then, the union has resulted in over 57 coproductions between member broadcasters. The Group coordinates two pitching sessions each year, coinciding with the AIDC in Amsterdam and Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseilles, to save editors making a second trip. ‘Our forums are like regular pitching sessions, except ideas are pitched by commissioning editors, instead of producers. Our sessions are the only ones I know of where broadcasters pitch in-house produced documentaries to each other,’ explains Arno. For each session, the Group’s committee – consisting of Arno (head of news/current affairs docs at SVT), Olaf Grunert (commissioning editor at ZDF/ARTE), Kevin Dawson (commissioning editor for Ireland’s RTE), Marijke Rawie (head of arts and documentary at Avro in the Netherlands), Patricia Boutinard-Rouelle (head of culture and knowledge at France 3), and Barbara Pietkiewich (program expert at TVP Poland) – selects the proposals to be pitched.
The Goldrush – a 3 x 52-minute series examining the financial side of professional sports – was pitched by SVT in 1998, and resulted in a seven-member copro contract involving Germany’s ZDF, ARTE in France, YLE in Finland, Belgium’s VRT, Denmark’s DR TV, and NRK in Norway. The EBU handled the US$660,000 project’s contracts. ‘The EBU provides a good resource when it comes to contractual work, since they have a lot of in-house experience with such things,’ notes Arno. The series was distributed by ZDF to an additional 20 outlets around the world. ‘This kind of networking is necessary to bring European documentaries to audiences, because the competition with America is so great. Only the BBC and the big German and French broadcasters can survive doing big-budget documentaries by themselves.’
Although the first priority of the Group is to facilitate coproductions, it serves its members on other scores, as well. Katharina von Flotow, head of the music and documentary department, explains, ‘Besides pitching sessions, we compile reports for our members, according to what they request information on.’ The EBU’s strategic services department has compiled several doc reference guides including a coproduction treatise guide; a companion report to the European Documentary Network’s new doc channels guide which covers African, South American and Asian territories; and a directory of public archives in Europe.
According to Arno, when the research was compiled for the archive guide, the Group learned that several public archives are in the midst of deteriorating. This is just the sort of issue he says ‘might give us reason to react as a public interest organization.’ Arno sees the Group eventually having a stronger political presence and being more involved in strategic activities. ‘We don’t do much of that yet, but I think we can make a difference… Our main concern right now, however, is to put great docs on the screen, docs that would not otherwise get financed.’