The lying game

Should docusoaps tell the truth or simply entertain us?
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The Independent Culture
Television documentary makers might be forgiven for thinking that the docusoap must soon fall into decline. Practically every subject seems to have been covered. Shops, ships, vets, doctors, nurses - all have been heavily docusoaped already.

Yet Paul Hamann, the BBC's head of documentaries, recently revealed that he has managed to commission 12 new docusoaps, which will make up nearly half of the corporation's total new documentary output. Clearly, broadcasters' appetite for docusoaps remains as voracious as ever, and they are still generating high ratings.

There is, however, a problem with moving into the next stage of the genre's development. It seems that programmers have still not worked out what the journalistic rules are: they have not decided whether the docusoap must have the same respect for truth as is required of serious documentaries.

The question was discussed with animation and occasional animosity at a recent seminar on "truth in factual programmes", hosted by the BBC, but attracting luminaries from throughout the industry.

The participants fell into two camps, with the first arguing that the docusoap, unlike the serious documentary, is essentially entertainment, and can therefore be more relaxed about what it presents as "truth". Much of the debate focused on a single scene in the BBC's Driving School series. Programme-makers had asked its heroine, Maureen, to re-enact her habit of waking up at 4am to demand that her husband test her on the Highway Code.

The "entertainment" school argues that such re-enactment is fine. The logic behind the argument says the scene was typical of Maureen's real behaviour, and audiences are sophisticated enough to realise that a television camera crew would not have camped out in her bedroom night after night on the off-chance of her waking up early for one of her Highway Code sessions.

This justification relies heavily on the assertion that audiences know that, to some degree, all of television is a trick. They recognise that vast amounts of raw material are edited into a "version of reality".

The second camp, the "purist" school, says that that once programme- makers start concocting or re-enacting a scene, they are in danger of misleading the audience. Viewers are entitled to believe that what is seen on the screen is real.

So how do audiences judge the "facts" presented in a docusoap? Dr Annette Hill, a media academic, is in the final stages of an research project commissioned by the British Film Institute. Five hundred people were asked to keep diaries over a five-year period, recording their views on reality programming which included the early precursors of the docusoap, such as 999 and Children's Hospital.

Although the research does not provide clear answers to the programme- makers' dilemma, it does reveal some relevant themes. Audiences, it seems, are not a homogeneous group that responds to a programme in a given way. So, with the Maureen-in-bed scene, it seems likely that while some viewers were aware of the camera crew, others did not think about it.

Although the research suggests that audiences are sophisticated in recognising the amount of editing that is involved in a programme, it also reveals that most viewers put a high level of trust in the programme-maker. They trust the BBC not to offend. And it is therefore quite possible that they would also trust the BBC not to play fast and loose with the truth.

Steve Hewlett, the new director of programmes at Carlton, and original commissioner of Children's Hospital, says that even if audiences recognise what is going on, concocted scenes are damaging to the whole of factual programming.

Audience questioning of the reality of scenes in docusoaps would inevitably spread into their attitude towards more serious documentaries, he argues. The contract between producer and audience that factual programmes are factual would gradually be broken down.

Also, an industry acceptance of contrived scenes in docusoaps would, over time, put serious documentary makers at a disadvantage. They would be put under pressure to produce more exciting scenes more readily, but it takes a much greater investment of time, research and money to produce the authentic "magic moment" than it does to invent one.

The BBC is in the process of updating its guidelines on such issues and currently seems inclined to take the Hewlett view, that tampering with the truth in anything but the margins of television is not acceptable. The Director General, Sir John Birt, appears to be firmly in the "purist" school of factual programming. But the BBC is only one part of the broadcasting market; producers expect that the real test may come at ITV, where the pressure to improve ratings is unrelenting.