Coming soon to a screen near you - weather-porn
Digital television is poised to offer hundreds of new channels. But what will they show? By Jane Robins
Tuesday 18 August 1998
These are the core subjects of a new genre that, in practice, can include anything to do with nature that is dramatic, earth-shattering and a suitable subject for a Seventies disaster movie. "Weather-porn", as it is known, also embraces programmes on volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors and dinosaurs.
The genre is far more than the latest television fad. It is typical of the new programming that is being concocted by television bosses to fill the dozens, and, in the case of Sky, hundreds, of new channels about to be introduced on digital television.
These programmes, under the collective banner New Television, are about making television finances stretch further, and programmes cheaper, without any huge decline in programme quality - a tall order.
Already, Channel 4 has produced its Raging Planet series, and ITV, along with its prime-time Eye of the Storm programme, has come up with a set of documentaries with the titles Savage Skies, Savage Seas and Savage Earth. Channel 5 had an early success with Asteroid.
Audiences like weather documentaries, and say they want more programmes like them. When the media-buying company Western International asked people what they wanted from digital television, it discovered them to be far more hungry for new documentary and nature channels than for football, cricket or golf.
Also, they are cheap to make and ideal for "reversioning", a new programme- making technique that is taking off as fast as weather-porn itself.
Under a reversioning deal, a British television company invests in a programme along with several overseas co-production partners - each buying the rights to show the programme in their part of the world.
It differs from a traditional co-production agreement in that, in the old days, the British company would usually keep all the programme production in house, in order to maintain production values and ensure that the finished programme appeals to a UK audience.
With reversioning, though, the investor can be more arms-length. Usually, an American company will go off and make the film on tornadoes, volcanoes or whatever, and then return a rough-cut to the British editors, who will customise it. The advent of digital editing allows the UK television company to make the changes relatively cheaply.
Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor for science at Channel 4, sees a lot of potential for the expansion of reversioned weather-porn on UK channels. "Everyone is interested in volcanoes," she says. "And these films have a long shelf life. You know that if you make a dinosaur documentary now, it will still be possible to sell it to a dinosaur channel in 2020."
Most important, though, is the finance side. "In the past, companies have been prepared to put in the megabucks towards an individual programme. Now everyone pays a little bit to have a slice," says Ramsden. "In ball- park terms, we can now make a pounds 300,000 programme for about pounds 40,000 - over 10 programmes, that can save a significant sum."
Tim Gardam, head of news and current affairs at Channel 5, is a pioneer of reversioning. It is a technique that has allowed him to come up with well-received documentaries on a tight budget.
Asteroid was a good example. Gardam took possession of an essentially American programme, containing some scenes that might have appeared slightly ludicrous to a British audience - such as an elaborate reconstruction of a news bulletin about an asteroid on the point of hitting earth. "It didn't work for a British audience," he says. "So we took it out."
For just a few thousand pounds, the British editors can put a new commentary on an American programme, change the story-telling style, and slow down the pace. "It is a different approach to programme-making," says Gardam. "It is collaborative and about sharing ideas, not about possessing them."
But reversioning has its downside. In general, it is only possible for subjects such as the weather, which are culturally neutral and have a big international market. Indeed, some television executives are starting to wonder whether the technique may produce a concentration of politically safe programming.
"You only get the funding because these programmes do not offend anyone," says Sara Ramsden. "When you try to do a deal on programmes that ask difficult questions, the money is simply not there." She cites the Channel 4 programme Why Men Don't Iron, which looked at the genetic basis of gender behaviour. "There was a lot of nervousness about it, and we couldn't get co-production money."
It's a criticism that can be held at bay all the time television executives use the money they save on reversioned programmes to invest in the questioning journalism that can be done only in house. So far, both Channel 4 and Channel 5 have done exactly that, but few doubt that the pressures for wall-to-wall cheaper programming will increase once the new multi-channel systems are launched.
The BBC, too, is busy reversioning programmes for multi-channel outlets. At Tomorrow's World, for instance, a different form of the technique is being developed. Each week the half-hour programme is converted into Tomorrow's World Plus which, with commercial breaks added, manages to fill up an hour on the new UK Horizons channel.
On a tight budget, the producers of Tomorrow's World Plus add into the original programme a chunk of material from the 34-year-old archive, get a researcher with a sophisticated video-camera to do a short up-date film, and have a presenter do a little slot about viewers' letters.
The remaining question is: is this padding? A spun-out programme that has brought down the quality of the Tomorrow's World brand? Or is it simply offering the programme's fans more of what they like? The viewers will judge.
In the meantime, the main effect of reversioning is the plethora of programmes about turbulent seas and skies. The search is now on for another internationally popular subject that lends itself to the technique.
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