A provincial attitude to programming is currently dominating public broadcasting in Europe. The constant search for high ratings has turned the focus to domestic topics when it comes to the documentary interpretation of the world. Locally produced docs in the local language about a local (mostly lifestyle) topic sell better than an international coproduction about a global issue – despite whatever strong universal appeal it might have.
Yes, I know public channels acquire finished documentaries and broadcast them. Some take big numbers, like the Nordic channels, and even buy them in languages other than their own or the dominant English. They buy and subtitle, as do the Dutch, Belgians, Catalans, Estonians and many other channels in small countries. But they buy for pretty low prices, and they air the films late at night or after midnight.
When it comes to international coproductions, the situation is different; there is an increased hesitation towards taking risks on an international level. Even a pre-buy is often seen as a courageous action by TV executives.
This observation is the conclusion of numerous forums, such as those arranged at the EDN, as well as the bigger IDFA and Hot Docs forums. The CEs who attend want international collaboration and try their best, but in the long corridors back home they are met with hard facts about budgets and ratings. I’m sure many commissioners have encountered this stance: ‘We, as public broadcasters, have no obligation towards the development of the international creative documentary.’
But they do. They have an obligation to give us the best; to deliver quality. There’s a smaller but still considerable audience that likes creative documentaries. It is not enough to watch the world from a journalistic point of view. News, factual and current affairs programs have their natural place in public television, but if there is not an interpretation of the world – if there aren’t other voices and languages; if there aren’t personally told stories – public television will end up being formatted, boring and predictable when reporting on matters of the world. Many already think it is. Same menu, different channel… Flip through the TV channels the next time you’re in a hotel room and you’ll understand what I mean.
Is there space for creative, personally motivated, ambitious docs that have been researched for a long time and developed into a filmic frame? Is there space for the intelligent, emotionally involving film with many layers that tells us something about the world we live in? That makes us more clever?
As a pubcaster you might lean back and say, ‘Well, these films will be made anyway, through public funding. We can buy them afterwards and still live up to our obligation as public service providers.’ That’s true for countries with a rich public funding system, but for most countries it’s not the case. In Eastern Europe, public funding is relatively low, and in many other countries producers need the public broadcaster onboard in the financing phase as a distribution guarantee. In other words, it’s a Catch-22.
For almost 10 years I have been close to the European documentary community, not only through the edn but also via EU-supported training programs like Discovery Campus, Eurodoc and Ex Oriente. I have seen wonderful documentary projects that struggle to get money together – or simply give up and make a much smaller, less ambitious film.
With the help of the MEDIA Programme of the EU, valuable financial support for development, distribution and training has contributed to an increasingly professional industry for making international coproductions of creative documentaries. This documentary environment is more than ready to break down borders. At the same time, public broadcasters are cutting down on the production of international documentaries. What a waste of talent!
The times are good for docs. They are being shown in cinemas more than ever before, and they have a growing audience in festivals around the world. A young, globally curious audience exists that might have given up on TV long ago, and thematic channels exist where mainstream, well-crafted documentaries constitute an important part of the programming. And, docs are written about as never before.
Unfortunately, as public television looks for popularity, it has stopped looking for innovative solutions.