In his own words, Tom Porter, series producer for Ten Alps company Blakeway Productions, details the challenges and benefits of turning around a program for Channel 4′s ‘Dispatches’ strand.
Towards the end of a Wednesday afternoon last month, we got a call from C4′s head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, asking whether we could turn around a ‘Dispatches’ about breakfast cereals and health claims in five weeks. Of course, we answered – “no problem.” “You must be mad, agreeing to that schedule,” someone from the development team piped up after overhearing the conversation. But five weeks later it was on air and earning the highest audience for ‘Dispatches’ so far this series – peaking at 1.9m.
With a relatively speedy turnaround, the biggest challenge for us, as always, was doing our utmost to make sure the detail of what we said was accurate. From a standing start, our team became experts in sugar and salt levels, EU labeling law and advertising regulations. To do that you need expert help, but the experts we use, both on and off-screen, are not just chosen for their academic prowess; we investigate their backgrounds and any corporate links they might have. Ultimately, links between corporations and certain academics in the field became part of the film’s story.
In ‘Dispatches’ terms, the breakfast film was, in fact, not a “fast turnaround.” Blakeway has made around six of the 40 or so ‘Dispatches’ broadcast in each of the last two years. Our quickest, on the media coverage of the Gaza conflict earlier this year, was made in just ten days. The challenge there was logistical – breaking Jon Snow out of the news studio and getting him and a crew on the ground in Israel within 48 hours of the commission and filming nine interviews in a weekend.
Sometimes it takes much longer to get to air. The film we produced with journalist Stephen Grey about the war in Afghanistan was predicated on access to Britain’s top generals. But it took the MoD six months to let us interview them, during which time the team was in a permanent state of readiness to ‘go.’ If we got the interviews, we needed to get the film on air in a hurry before events overtook us, but without them, there was no film.
These practical challenges come from Channel 4′s central concern about all ‘Dispatches’: can they ‘own’ the subject and bring something totally new to the screen? ‘Dispatches’ is not very often in the business of doing ‘pull togethers’ of news stories and that’s what makes it tough to make but unique. In the world of diminishing budgets and truncated viewer attention-spans, we hope it continues that way, however fast the turnarounds.