Viewpoint: The hunt for the next big thing

Consolidate or innovate? This is the dilemma facing networks and producers in 2015, argues Arrow Media creative director John Smithson (pictured).
January 26, 2015

It’s been a year most of the U.S. factual networks will want to forget.

There’s been huge pressure on ratings. Hit shows continue to deliver but with shrinking numbers. The “big new things” such as bold live events and ambitious scripted series were down from the astronomic heights of 2013. The everyday shows that fill out the schedules are getting pummeled.

Do you consolidate or innovate? Networks can batten down the hatches, continue doing what they do well and hope for some improvement. Those lucky to have big international operations can breathe more easily, as here there is still real growth.

But the big hop is that they will find a new breakout hit from some unexpected quarter. Gallingly, the breakouts seem to come from elsewhere. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me about Serial, which is essentially a high-quality radio program. Yet this crime-based podcast has been a global hit, topping the iTunes charts for weeks.

Sadly, there’s nothing that’s bucked the trend in the UK. A few of the really big shows continue to do brilliantly well, but then there is a sea of indifferent or disappointing ratings performances.

Not only does it seem that it has been a year of so-so ratings, but it has also been relatively lackluster creatively. In “What’s the Buzz?”, a session produced by my Arrow Media colleagues for the last edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Hong Kong, a global survey of the innovative and groundbreaking brought up a not very “buzzy” collection. Reassuringly, there was some high-quality stuff with some clever little twists, but nothing that truly had the “wow” factor.

At least the last-minute switch of venue from Beijing to Hong Kong and the dark cloud hanging over factual TV in China did not diminish the success of the Congress.

Despite its full name, the Congress is in truth a gathering of the world’s specialist factual producers. Specialist factual is a funny old phrase, originating from my homeland, and it feels a little anachronistic in these days of hybrid genres and blurred creative boundaries. Yet it does claim some of the most innovative shows around – shows that, encouragingly in these harsh times, audiences actually want to watch.

Perhaps it’s because the genre has a rich seam of compelling stories. It’s no coincidence that Academy Award winners The King’s Speech and Argo, and this year’s nominees The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, all have specialist factual DNA. It’s something I look forward to pursuing further on a panel exploring new trends in the genre at the Realscreen Summit in Washington DC on Wednesday (January 28).

And on the topic of features, it’s that time of the year when theatrical documentaries become highly visible. In part, it’s the run-up to the big film awards – especially the Oscars and the BAFTAs – where feature docs get their moment in the spotlight, lining up alongside the big, flashy narrative films. Also it’s when the next wave of docs emerges as the festivals, especially Sundance, begin to premiere their doc picks.

It’s a genre I’ve always loved. If they work, they can be rewarding creatively and, occasionally, even commercially. I’ve had to put them on the backburner while we focus on growing our company, but I’m delighted to be back in the game with a film soon to emerge from the cutting room.

It’s a mixed blessing that there are so many feature docs around. A long-list for the BAFTA best feature doc honor revealed lots of titles I’d never heard of. I’m sure there will be some real gems, but there remains an endemic problem of quality control and over-supply.

It does rather burst the feel-good bubble about the genre when you know most of these films could probably sink without a trace.

  • John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Media, an indie he co-founded in 2011. Previously he was chief executive at Darlow Smithson Productions.
  • This viewpoint first appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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