Year in review, pt. 2: Trans tales on TV; self-shot series

Realscreen presents the second part of our Year in Review, which recounts the trends and stories that made a mark in 2015, and will resonate in the year to come. (Pictured: E!'s I Am Cait)
January 4, 2016

As we embark on a new year, realscreen presents the second part of our Year in Review, recounting the trends and news stories that made a mark in 2015, and will resonate in the year to come. Read the first part of our report here.

Unease in the UK

The production landscape in the UK saw the beginnings of a potential major shift with the announcement of the formation of BBC Studios, an independent production division proposed for the BBC that would allow in-house producers to create programming for rival and international networks, and possibly reduce production quotas.

Peter Salmon , former BBC England director, was named director of the Studios division, and in mid-December, the Beeb and British indie producer association Pact arrived at an agreement for a policy framework that includes the tender of 40% of in-house programming to external producers by 2018.

The BBC saw an executive shake-up in October, with director of television Danny Cohen announcing his departure from the UK pubcaster to pursue a “new leadership challenge.” Mark Linsey, previously controller of entertainment commissioning, moved into the role on an interim basis.

More feathers ruffled in September when UK culture secretary John Whittingdale, during a keynote speech at the RTS Cambridge Convention, casually mentioned that broadcast regulator Ofcom would be conducting “a health-check of the Terms of Trade regulations.” Pact argued that such a move could create instability “which can only damage investment and growth.”

Added to the mix was news that broke in September via a leaked government document, which posited options for a potential sale of Channel 4. Speculation in the British press has such companies as Discovery Communications and BT potentially in the buyer’s ring. Barry Walsh

Doc shorts scale up

Whether you’re a novice director looking to make a calling card project, a seasoned filmmaker testing the waters for a feature, or a media organization exploring digital video, few mediums are as useful as the documentary short.

Within the non-fiction realm, outlets such as The New York Times‘ ‘Op-Docs’ division have expanded the boundaries of short storytelling with such award-winning commissions as Notes on Blindness, while The Guardian‘s documentary arm has made a concerted push into international shorts with initiatives such as Sheffield Doc/Fest’s ‘The Guardian Documentaries Pitch’ this past June.

The greatest boon to the doc short, however, might just be the Laura Poitras-helmed digital documentary unit, Field of Vision. Launched in October with co-creators Charlotte Cook and AJ Schnack, the filmmaker-driven project pairs veteran and emerging doc makers with ongoing news stories. Formed in collaboration with news site The Intercept and First Look Media, Field of Vision aims to produce 40 to 50 original episodic and individual films per year, specializing in visual journalism.

In December, the unit launched a four-part docuseries titled #ThisIsACoup, on the 2015 confrontation between Greece and the European Union, and two FOV-produced shorts – Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s Peace in the Valley and AJ Schnack’s Speaking is Difficult – will this month premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

“[We're interested in] seeing filmmakers and artists play with ideas that maybe don’t fit a feature or the other work that they’re doing, but they’re really interested in,” Cook told realscreen last September. “Every filmmaker I’ve ever spoken to has always said, ‘I’m really interested in this but it’s not something I’d do as a feature.’”

In 2016, keep an eye on Sheffield Doc/ Fest and the Just So Film Fund’s online ‘Postcards’ platform, which aims to be a dedicated home for online doc shorts. Manori Ravindran

Unscripted takes on trans stories

In North America, the LGBT community scored a significant win in the political sphere with the wider recognition of marriage equality, but television programs also helped thrust a diverse agenda forward. Leading the push for transgender visibility was Bunim/Murray Productions’ I Am Cait (pictured), which follows Caitlyn Jenner as she settles into transgender life.

The series premiered to an audience of 2.7 million live-plus-same-day viewers, according to Nielsen. Despite declining numbers that eventually fell to 1.26 million viewers on its season finale, E! renewed the series for a second season in October, which has been widely lauded for the role it’s played in educating the public on trans issues through continued exposure in 153 countries and 24 languages.

The year’s surge in trans-centric ob-docs arose in the midst of activism campaigns aimed at exposing violence and discrimination. April saw Discovery Life launch the five-part series New Girls on the Block, offering a transformative look into the lives of a group of trans women as they navigate daily struggles and successes in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sister net TLC, meanwhile, entered into the fold with I Am Jazz from This Is Just A Test. The 11-episode series, which premiered in July to fair ratings (1.36 million), chronicles the life of 15-year-old Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen activist and YouTube personality, as she entered high school and grappled with health issues. The Discovery Communications-owned net in December signed on for an eight-episode sophomore season of the series.

ABC Family, which has since rebranded to Freeform as part of an overall plan to double the amount of original programming the network commissions over the next four years, attempted to set itself apart from the aforementioned networks with Becoming Us, which followed 17-year-old Ben Lehwald’s experiences as his father transitioned from Charlie to Carly. However, the network has yet to make an official announcement on the possibility of a return for the Ryan Seacrest Productions-made series. Daniele Alcinii

More scripted on cable

Despite the sentiment put forward by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf that “there’s too much television” vying for eyeballs, cable nets predominantly known for non-fiction and unscripted continued making bids in the space.

A+E Networks announced plans to develop and produce, through A+E Studios, two scripted takes on literary and television classics slated to air across the A&E, History and Lifetime networks in 2016, including a four-part, eight-hour remake of the iconic 1977 miniseries Roots with The Wolper Organization. A+E also took on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, produced in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Cymru Wales and BBC Worldwide/Lookout Point. The four-week event is to begin airing on January 18.

National Geographic Channel, meanwhile, remained committed to its scripted efforts by appointing Carolyn Bernstein as executive VP and head of global scripted development and production. Its Saints and Strangers, aired over American Thanksgiving, depicted early encounters between European pilgrims and Native Americans. For 2016, Nat Geo, who first ventured into the scripted space in 2013 through its Killing franchise, has Last Men Out from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson on the way, as well as In Harm’s Way with Mark Gordon and ABC Signature Studios.

A few networks that recently tested the scripted waters waded deeper. After seeing The Royals premiere to an average of 2.19 million viewers in March, entertainment channel E! picked up its second scripted commission in The Arrangement from Mad Men producer Jonathan Abrahams, while sister NBCU cable net Bravo announced three scripted series in April – My So-Called Wife, White Collar Wives and the miniseries All that Glitters.

TruTV renewed its comedy series Those Who Can’t for a second season ahead of its February 11 premiere. The net also ordered three additional pilot series, including Shady Neighbors from Dean Lorey and 3 Arts Entertainment; an untitled medical comedy from comedian Tom Segura; and a dark comedy vigilante series from YouTube celeb Melissa Hunter.

Meanwhile, making a rare move back into unscripted, AMC picked up the motorcycle travelogue Ride with Norman Reedus, featuring the Walking Deadstar. The commission doesn’t signal a full move back into factual for AMC, however, with a spokesperson telling realscreen that it was simply “looking for unscripted programs that compliment our scripted shows.” DA

Self-shot successes

Equipped with GoPros and tripods of their own, the unscripted stars of 2015 took reality television into their own hands. Production units weren’t suddenly out of the picture, nor were these programs cheaper to make; producers’ roles were simply redefined – with a focus on pre- and post-production support – in a bid to boost authenticity for viewers.

History’s Alone, produced by Leftfield Pictures, found 10 survivalists filming their isolated experiences on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The program debuted in June to high ratings and in August was greenlit for a second season airing this year.

Other adventure-themed shows – a genre popular for self-shot methods – included the Bear Grylls-fronted The Island from Endemol Shine and Bear Grylls Ventures for NBC, which was 95% self-shot by its 14-member cast, and 100 Miles from Nowhere from Renegade 83 for Animal Planet, in which three adventurers filmed their 100-mile journeys to destinations in North, South and Central America. In December, Animal Planet also premiered the self-shot special Melting: Last Race to the Pole from High Noon Entertainment, which followed two explorers traveling 480 miles to reach the North Pole in 48 days.

Outside of the adventure space, March saw the debut of AOL’s first long-form docuseries, Connected, while June marked the premiere of Pivot’s critically acclaimed The Secret Lives of Americans, which has been greenlit for a 20-episode second season airing next year.

While the U.S. adaptation of the Armoza Formats-produced Connected found six New Yorkers documenting their lives using hand-held camcorders, the tactic was also used in Pivot’s The Secret Lives of Americans, which featured participants using camcorders, phones and laptops to film themselves revealing their biggest secrets to loved ones. MR

About The Author