In the (good) old days, factual genre categories were simple: there were docos and that was that. Factual programming had its primary function; the job on the schedule was to primarily inform rather than entertain. With some broadcasters, heaven forbid the show actually 'over-entertained.' It would make them blanche and look away.
April 1, 2007

In the (good) old days, factual genre categories were simple: there were docos and that was that. Factual programming had its primary function; the job on the schedule was to primarily inform rather than entertain. With some broadcasters, heaven forbid the show actually ‘over-entertained.’ It would make them blanche and look away.

An ex-colleague of mine, Stephen Hunter, referred to our company’s output at one time as ‘science you can dance to,’ a clever way to encapsulate a subgenre.

It seems to me that one of the reasons we adhere to the genre game is because people like order, and we need to manage this compartmentalization since we have to divide the workload somehow.

So, let’s see what we currently have at hand in terms of what calls itself ‘factual.’ Firstly, there’s everything that sits under the ‘factual entertainment’ umbrella, that is, fact-based programming with the premise to entertain rather than inform. However, the degrees by which we are entertained by certain factual entertainment shows can vary wildly. We are not always talking formats here, but there are more often than not certain inserted hooks to give the show its unique appeal to contrive a resolution.

Here we can also count ‘reality,’ where there are big differences between one property and another, but we mainly mean constructed reality – a big focus for formats of these ideas that are bought and sold all over the world.

The original ‘docusoap’ usually implies long-running series in a more controlled environment, with recurring characters. (This, however, to the US market is ‘reality.’) Then ‘observational documentary,’ where the overall situation is at the center, and the focus is not so much on the characters, and which doesn’t necessarily have to be a series.

Then there is ‘specialist factual,’ taking in the more traditional concept of the documentary; and ‘natural history’ – fairly self explanatory.

Within all of the above, there are a myriad of subgenres to allow us to make order of what we ourselves make, what others produce, or what we can acquire or commission for our platform: docudrama, docufiction, lifestyle, infotainment and – my current favorite – disastertainment.

So what does this all mean to our day-to-day businesses, and how has this genre bending changed the business opportunities available to us? Are we hoodwinking the buyer and presenting the same thing in a different package to suit their own specific labelling?

Every medium or large indie has a show that can be pitched as one subgenre to one network and a different one to another. We have a 15 x 30-minute show called Psychic Investigators - a crime show to some networks, but one that fits the paranormal genre for others. To others, it will fill a slot simply because it rates.

As a rights creator or exploiter, the key issue here is obviously not to hoodwink the buyer. We all know there is only short-term gain and long-term pain when that client loses their trust in you. That said, channels market their shows in different ways to fit the epg or audience expectation. In their case, not hoodwinking, just framing the product correctly to allow the viewer to want to consume, works. So why shouldn’t the rights holder do the same?

A show will often have a number of attractive points, so you highlight those to the broadcaster, given your knowledge of their needs. Those needs, though, are as likely to be affected by the latest imported us drama success than by a hard and fast scheduling mantra.

There are still, of course, specific wildlife slots, docusoap slots, format slots and factual entertainment slots. As a result of the plethora of crossovers or hybrids, a scheduler can promote a show within a slot even if it isn’t the usual fare. There are now more slots to fill as our factual definitions have broadened to encompass the entertaining end of factual, which previously would have been considered light entertainment. Reality shows, among other things, have changed this.

These days, global brands like Discovery and Nat Geo have many, many more key factual entertainment signature shows than specialist factual. Hosts are now ‘immersed’ or even ‘embedded.’ Docudramas still succeed, but only those on broad enough subjects with a keen eye on the ratings.

So, why are the hybrids taking over? Without wishing to sound like a gardening column, there is a lot of cross-pollination going on: indies often have execs working across many different genres. At Cineflix, for example, we have five exec producers working across 16 series on our production side. These people will have to be able to switch from factual entertainment to factual and back. The market dictates that everyone works across everything, therefore cross-pollination of ideas occurs.

I see this as a clear benefit for the rising quality and success of content as genres get freshened up and new approaches to an old subject come through all the time. All content now has to work harder to earn its keep, the platforms have even less fat than they used to, and everything has to have revenue-earning potential, whatever you call it.

You will often hear people say ‘The product speaks for itself.’ This is still possible in tv, but the advent of tighter definitions and a profusion of new categories helps add a few extra decibels when it’s time to speak up.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.