Suds or substance? 

1 December 2004

Documentary producer Eddie Mirzoeff earlier this year criticised television in general for creating a cultural ‘ghetto’ when it comes to commissioning and showing traditional-style documentaries, but is television any poorer for largely ignoring the traditional documentary format? Can ‘docusoaps’ – a much derided term in itself – successfully replace the so-called ‘traditional documentary’ with a format that is more accessible to the general public whilst sidestepping criticisms of ‘dumbing-down’?

The rise and rise of the ‘docusoap’ has been well documented over the last few years: it’s a format which has been made possible in recent times through the availability of cheap and small video cameras, and its low cost and high ‘ratings appeal’ has made it popular with cash-strapped broadcasters worldwide. And given the choice between a cheap ‘docusoap’ and a more expensive ‘serious documentary’, it’s easy to see that the former is more likely to be commissioned than the latter.

Docusoaps provide an easy-to-produce and relatively cheap form of factual programming, which also serves as entertainment and can be popular with many viewers, so all things considered it’s no wonder that they are very popular with broadcasters in general. And a relative lack of UK commercial sector regulation in recent years has encouraged this trend still further: it’s entirely arguable that this shift towards the docusoap has been partly responsible for some of the subjective ‘dumbing down’ that has occurred in recent years.

But is the docusoap format really that ‘dumb’? The problem with such a format is that it inevitably tends to put human interest stories centre stage as opposed to a factual presentation, so they naturally restrict the scope for exploring the issues beyond the events that the cameras are covering. That alone can often lead to a very one-sided exploration of a particular subject, since the process of ‘storytelling’ can often reduce the time (and the means) available for factual coverage.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that most docusoaps inevitably turn into a PR exercise for the company (and individuals) concerned, as unless the cameras are hidden (and footage obtained without consent – but this requires a good reason for doing so) the documentary makers have to obtain the blessing of the organisation that they are dealing with. So inevitably the organisation under the spotlight is going to portray itself in the best possible way whilst the cameras are present, which in turn could lead to a distortion of the ‘reality’ experienced by workers, customers or whomever.

Broadcasters may counter any criticism of ‘change for the worse’ by saying that the audience figures for traditional documentaries have declined in recent years, but there are other reasons why the figures have declined which have nothing to do with a lack of interest in traditional documentaries. Some of the remaining documentary-style programmes that still exist on BBC channels have become co-productions with commercial broadcasters, for example, and as a result they are sometimes compromised by the requirements of those partners – such as having to recap points at various intervals after the spot where commercial breaks would have been inserted, which in turn disrupts the flow of the production. In addition, today’s multichannel world means lower ratings for everyone.

When it comes to producing factual programming for the major channels, broadcasters – including the BBC – seem to be under the impression that anything mass-market has to avoid using long words or special terms in order to put a point across, and as a result programmes often have to resort to excessively long-winded yet simplistic explanations. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that anything that could be possibly interpreted as being complicated will have viewers switching channels in their droves, though it is equally the case that anything that is too simplistic or patronising can often have exactly the same effect. The latter reason, however, often seems to be ignored in deference to the perceived ‘mass-market’ audience.

As far as the BBC’s digital TV strategy is concerned, one could argue that criticising BBC One for a lack of documentaries is a bit like criticising CBeebies for a lack of sports programming, when you consider the fact that BBC One has been recently (and subtly) repositioned as being more of a ‘mass market’ channel. This repositioning has often resulted in the traditional ‘long form’ documentary being assigned to other channels – particularly BBC Two or BBC Four – with the mass-market docusoap taking precedence on BBC One. Combine this with the ‘mass appeal’ remit of BBC One and it’s easy to see why they have become more commonplace as a result.

In recent times the BBC has been under intense pressure to slash costs, yet at the same time fund and promote additional digital channels, so when it comes to cutting costs it’s no wonder that the cheaper docusoap format has been commissioned more often than traditional documentaries that risk having ‘limited appeal’. This pressure to cut costs has also resulted in the jobs of many full time research staff being eliminated, with the emphasis now being placed on cheaper visual effects and storytelling in order to save even more money; as a result there are now fewer people readily available to perform the extensive in-house research required for many factual documentaries.

Although not a documentary, a good example of how BBC One and Two are treated nowadays in terms of target audience and ‘intellectual content’ is Mastermind. This quiz used to be shown peak time on BBC1, but nowadays Mastermind ‘proper’ is shown on BBC Two with Celebrity Mastermind being reserved for post-watershed BBC One. This illustrates the current approach adopted when scheduling programmes across different channels aimed at different audiences.

The docusoap format may have its virtues, but the traditional documentary is still by far the best way of dealing with a specific subject in great depth. A good documentary is relatively difficult to produce, however, and consequently they often end up being more expensive compared with the majority of docusoaps. And the latter are naturally most popular with commercial broadcasters, who always have one eye on the ratings figures – unless they are either deliberately targeting perceived niche markets, or feel they have no choice but to do so (as is the case whilst EastEnders is on, for example).

Despite the commercial sector having some form of excuse for relying heavily on docusoaps, the BBC has unfortunately been equally guilty of relying heavily on this particular format. The introduction of BBC Four enables the BBC to claim, correctly, that it still produces ‘highbrow’ programming, even if the audience for it is very often much lower than if the same programme ran on BBC Two, but as a public service broadcaster the BBC really ought to rethink the logic behind doing this, since ruthlessly maximising ratings on mainstream channels should ideally be left to the commercial sector.

Indeed this is my one and only criticism of BBC Four as a channel. Its very existence enables the BBC to ‘sweep’ most of what demands an attention span of more than five minutes (if it isn’t sport) on to a ‘minority’ channel, leaving BBC One to compete head-on with the trash of ITV1, while BBC Two deals with Channel 4 – thus creating the so-called ‘ghetto’ to which documentary producer Eddie Mirzoeff alluded. Not that many viewers deliberately choose to watch a whole evening of highbrow culture – even though a large number of people might actually enjoy most of the programmes if they bothered to watch them – but the same audience would be much more likely to tune in if they were mixed in with more populist programming, as is the case with BBC Two.

In 2004 ex-BBC Four controller Roly Keating was given the job of BBC Two controller. His appointment is in itself an interesting change in strategy, though whether or not this will signal a major change in the BBC’s overall treatment of factual programming still remains to be seen. However the recent ratings success of ‘celebrity genealogy’ series Who Do You Think You Are? may actively encourage broadcasters to reassess the potential of a more traditional documentary format, since this proves that a straightforward factual approach – even if it apparently inevitably, these days, involves famous people – can still be very successful.

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