'Welcome to the world of real-life soap'
Is factual programming becoming an extended arm of TV entertainment? asks Richard Kilborn
The charge is a familiar one: that in these ratings-obsessed times we are witnessing a worrying decline in the quality of factual programming on UK terrestrial channels. Hard-hitting, thought-provoking documentaries are allegedly becoming a comparative rarity and the whole factual domain is being usurped by various forms of reality programming and by the omnipresent docusoap.
What substance is there to these charges? Is it an open-and-shut case of dumbing down? Ask the broadcasters themselves and most will tell you that factual programming has never been in a healthier state. They will remind you that, just a few short years ago, documentary or factual programming was regarded as a distinct scheduling liability. Now, they proudly proclaim, it has become one of the main weapons in the scheduler's armoury, to the extent that at key points in the early evening schedule a relatively low-cost docusoap can frequently command larger audiences than the more expensive sitcoms and drama series on which the mainstream channels had hitherto relied.
Quite understandably - given the ultra-competitive times in which we live - the popularity of the new factual formats has led to frenetic commissioning activity, as broadcasters attempt to cash in on the pulling power of these programmes. Cloning has also become a widespread phenomenon as rival channels seek to steal a march on their competitors.
Concern is already being expressed in many quarters about the consequences of this factual renaissance. TV executives fear that over-commissioning will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. How long will it be before audience fatigue sets in? Can viewers really want to hear any more about the shenanigans of upper-class chalet girls in Swiss ski-resorts?
Broadcasting critics, on the other hand, are more concerned about what they see as a worrying decline in standards of factual/documentary provision, particularly the growing tendency to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. Does the intensely competitive broadcasting environment make it more likely, for instance, that programme makers will be driven to the sorts of fabrication into which the makers of the Carlton production The Connection were tempted? Likewise, should we be not a little concerned that participants in docusoaps are often singled out for their performance potential, or that there is often complicity between filmmaker and subject in setting up situations? In short, aren't many of these developments living proof that factual programming is fast becoming the extended arm of TV entertainment?
The picture is perhaps not quite so gloomy as some would make out. Factual provision in the UK still holds up well compared with other European countries. Nobody is complacent, however, about the threats posed as broadcasting priorities change. Firstly there is the fear that, in an increasingly commercialised climate, the very currency of documentary will be progressively devalued. Secondly, there is the concern that, as the public service ethos in broadcasting becomes steadily eroded, so it will become more and more difficult to find space in the schedules for programme material which demands the viewers' more concentrated attention. Thirdly, if the various 'softer' forms of documentary become the norm, then marketplace laws will dictate that the younger generation of programme makers will find it difficult to acquire the skills necessary for producing those cutting-edge documentaries, which often rely on extensive investigative research.
Though we would do well to heed some of the warning signs, it would be foolhardy to suggest that UK factual programming was in some kind of crisis. The BBC (for all its current over-reliance on docusoaps) still provides a wide range of factual material, including what are labelled as 'serious' or 'creative' documentaries. Likewise Channel 4 (in spite of occasional doubts expressed about popularising tendencies since it began to sell its own airtime) has remained faithful to its promise, enshrined in its original remit, to maintain a strong documentary portfolio.
The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for ITV, whose factual/documentary provision - in spite of all protestations to the contrary - has in recent years undergone a qualitative decline. In the words of a report produced by the broadcasters' lobby group the Campaign for Quality Television: 'For more than 20 years ITV earned a worldwide reputation for producing major documentary films...Now that tradition is under threat. What the Independent Television Commission describes as "serious documentary coverage" has been cut back to the point where it is barely viable to produce...And having been allowed to wither by ITV itself, serious documentaries are now sown so thinly - randomly - throughout the network schedules that it is all but impossible for the audiences which used to watch them to know when they might appear.'
Looking to the future, the pessimists foresee a further squeeze on the more serious or challenging form of documentary/factual programming with a concomitant rise in the number of lightweight lifestyle and reality programmes. The optimists take the line that programme makers will be given the opportunity to add to the existing range of factual formats and to experiment with other delivery modes (for example, the internet, which will allow viewers to access material not included in the broadcast package).
Whatever else happens, of one thing we can be sure: the process of commodification will proceed apace. The crucial question is likely to be: can television in the first decade of the new millennium still retain at least some space in its schedules for those programmes which address viewers principally as knowledge-seeking citizens, as distinct from entertainment-hungry consumers?
Richard Kilborn is a senior lecturer in film and media studies at the University of Stirling, and co-author (with John Izod) of An Introduction to Television Documentary (Manchester University Press, 1997)
Paddington Green: BBC1's latest stop for the docusoap
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999