Docu-soaps take over as TV's hot property

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The Independent Online
THE TAKEOVER of television by documentary soaps passed a key marker this weekend when ITV announced that it was moving its long-running soap The Bill to make way for a new fly-on-the wall series.

Airline, a documentary which follows the passengers and crew of Britannia Airways flights at the height of the holiday season, will start on March 6 at 8pm on ITV. It has been put in the peak time slot which inherits Coronation Street's audience. The commercial network rarely puts an unknown new programme in such a slot and has never previously moved The Bill.

ITV has already poached Grant Mansfield, former managing editor of network features at the BBC who commissioned the BBC's Airport and a host of other documentaries and ITV's controller of programmes has said popular factual programmes will be used to lift the channel's ratings.

Joe Houlihan, series producer of the Airline, was delighted at ITV's decision: "This timeslot reflects ITV's commitment to promote factual programmes. It certainly makes me feel they are going to give it as much support as they can."

ITV is catching up with the BBC's "docu-soap" makers who in the last few weeks started airing series about Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Longleat and Tesco. This week the BBC will begin airing Premier Passions, about Middlesbrough football club and a series about GPs, but a backlash against the genre has started inside the corporation.

Two weeks ago BBC 1's controller, Peter Salmon, told a meeting of independent production companies that he didn't want to see any more straightforward 'soap-docs' proposals. "It was pointed out at the meeting that there was a danger of viewer fatigue," said a spokesman for the BBC. "Particularly if the programmes become more and more imitative."

Where once the fly-on-the-wall genre was a mainstay of BBC 2 and Channel 4, and tackled more highbrow subjects like The House, which studied the Royal Opera House, concerns are growing that they are a cheap form of popular TV.

Paul Watson, who made the ground-breaking fly-on-the-wall, The Family, in 1974, hit out at the new docu-soaps last week. "There is no analysis, no insight, no unexpected side to the story, no light shed," he said. "The recent programmes put out by both the BBC and ITV on quarrelling neighbours were truly wretched. Their only function seems to have been to turn the rest of us into Peeping Toms."

Television executives are planning and marketing their soap-docs like old-fashioned soaps with actors. ITV flew three of the 'stars' of Airline to Spain for a press launch last week, giving tabloid show business reporters access to them for background interviews in case they become as big as Maureen Rees, the star of Driving School. Prime candidate for fame in Airline is certain to be BJ Aldridge, a camp cabin manager with a fine line in cutting wit.