In a world of 24/7 news cycles and citizen journalists documenting historic events online as they unfold, the fast-turnaround documentary is gaining more importance on network schedules internationally. Pioneer Productions managing director Kirstie McLure (pictured) details the ingredients needed to turn quality around quickly, while asking an important question – how fast is too fast?
Over the last decade, the hunger for immediacy has dominated our everyday viewing. We now live in a world where we can increasingly choose to watch content on-demand, on a variety of platforms, 24/7. Inevitably, this change in viewer habits has seen the decline of certain genres, but coming out on top of the survivors’ podium is the fast-turnaround documentary – it’s a perfect fit for today’s audience, blessed with much choice and little patience.
I clearly recall the SARS outbreak of 2002 for being more than just a little-known deadly virus that was spreading with haste: my stronger memory is of our promise to Channel 4 to make a scientifically accurate documentary, ready-to-air in just 20 days.
A shot of adrenaline hit Pioneer Towers that day. Staff were deployed to remote China and beyond, and multiple edit suites were opened. The 50-minute film, SARS: Killer Bug, was duly delivered on time, to length and – miraculously – without the use of any black holes, in under three weeks.
The award-winning film made in those 20 hectic days created the blueprint we largely still follow today. It’s a demanding discipline that requires all involved to put their lives entirely on hold for two weeks (three, if you include the essential recovery week). The production time frame has been shaved to 14 or even 12 days; any less puts you firmly in the danger zone.
The exception to this rule is a UK fast-turnaround program based on news footage and interviews, which can be done in a week. The increasing number of channels now commissioning in-depth, fast-turnaround documentaries risks creating an unhealthy ‘race to air.’ This over-promising of how fast it can be done – some are promising delivery in five days – is certain to affect the quality of these shows, and undoubtedly at some point results in a failure to deliver.
We usually deliver fast-turnaround docs the morning of transmission, but the jury is still out as to whether the first show to air wins substantially more viewers than those that appear a few days later. However, we have noticed that the audience appetite significantly wanes if the docs transmission three or four weeks later than this.
The team is the key to success on a fast-turnaround film and the most critical member of all is the lead producer – a producer with a strong journalistic background coupled with nerves of steel and a strong constitution is essential. Our executive producer, Bob Strange, has landed many of these shows safely and skillfully, and maintains that his first response is always the same: “Book a helicopter… right now.”
This, he declares, is not an over-enthusiastic attempt to spend every penny of the editorial budget, but is a philosophy driven from experience: “With a helicopter and an articulate scientist on board, we have an immediate structural backbone – or at least one good sequence – around which an exciting and informative program can be built,” he says.
Bob also maintains that whatever the subject of the show, there is no substitute for ‘boots on the ground’ research to find the critical human interest stories which fascinate viewers and bring an event to life.
A decade since SARS and more than 20 fast turnarounds later, the fabric of Pioneer has subtly altered. The possibility of scrambling a production team to a disaster zone is never more than a news item away. Thus, there is always a palpable sense of anticipation in the corridors that shows no signs of leaving the building in the near future. And while we don’t wish for natural disasters, we know they will come.
- This article first appeared in the current September/October 2014 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.