Docusoap? Wash your mouth out

Once a ratings winner, now it's a dirty word... LWT's Joe Houlihan fears his new fly-on-the-wall offering could make him a social pariah
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A mild depression settled over me this week after I had consulted the television listings magazines. Not that I was reading them to plan my week's viewing. I was doing so in that peculiar manner reserved for television producers - a hasty flick through the pages to find out if my new series had earned any "pick of the day" laurels. The series in question, School Days, started on Sunday night. It is a documentary filmed over a year at a comprehensive school in Luton.

A mild depression settled over me this week after I had consulted the television listings magazines. Not that I was reading them to plan my week's viewing. I was doing so in that peculiar manner reserved for television producers - a hasty flick through the pages to find out if my new series had earned any "pick of the day" laurels. The series in question, School Days, started on Sunday night. It is a documentary filmed over a year at a comprehensive school in Luton.

At first my spirits rose: several had indeed picked it out. Melancholy only set in when I read their descriptions of the series. Most were flattering in their own way, but many used the dreaded D-word to describe it. School Days, they said, was "a new docusoap". No, surely not a "docusoap"... anything but that. Rarely can a word have passed so quickly from celebrity to notoriety as that little word "docusoap".

Barely two years ago the word was a proud banner to hang on your documentary series. It had friends in high places and great prospects ahead of it. With successes such as Driving School, Airline and The Cruise, it was hailed as the saviour of flagging peak-time schedules and a shot in the arm for factual programmes - a genre which had long been in retreat.

Now look at it. Even its erstwhile friends will not be seen in its company and every producer knows that to offer a commissioning editor any new programme proposal labelled "docusoap" is a form of televisual hara-kiri. "Docusoap", in short, has become a dirty word. But why, and with whom?

Certainly some newspaper journalists who write the television listings have had it in for docusoap for a long time now. They seem unable to use the word without the prefix "yet another". Every new observational documentary series is "yet another docusoap", the words inseparably linked rather in the way that the Sussex town of Hove is now known as "Hove Actually" because so many people say: "I live in Brighton, well, Hove actually."

The listings seldom, if ever, refer to "yet another period drama" or "yet another current affairs investigation", but perhaps that's the price docusoap pays for its success. But there is a problem with the "yet another" approach. If the critics' view of a new programme is coloured at the outset by a prejudice against its genre rather than an assessment of its content, the effect is a tendency to lump the good in with the bad and damn the lot of them.

What's more, there seems to be a general sense of confusion about what exactly that genre is, with the result that any observational series is now automatically deemed to be a docusoap. By this token, past documentaries such as The Family, Sylvania Waters, Fighter Pilot and Roger Graef's series about the Thames Valley Police would all be called docusoaps if they were screened now. What we need is a clearer and tighter definition of what exactly is and is not a docusoap.

This is a conundrum which seems beyond most producers and commentators, but there is one group of people which is completely on top of the problem - the viewers. When a focus group of so-called ordinary people was asked what they thought about the words "soap" and "documentary" in a television context they were very clear-minded in their responses. The words they associated with documentary were "real, true, revelations," while they associated "accessible, people, relationships and drama" with soap. Put them together and you have a fair summary of what the viewing public thinks of as docusoap: accessible, people-orientated drama in a real-life context.

There was also an assumption that this drama would often take place in an environment defined by a particular profession or workplace and that a core of identifiable "characters" should feature regularly. By this definition Airline, Airport, Hotel and The Cruise are all unarguably docusoaps. But the viewers' group also appeared to have a more sophisticated understanding of different types of observational documentary than many in the media give them credit for. While television professionals seem to treat the terms "docusoap", "fly-on-the-wall" and "observational" as almost interchangeable, the viewers were at pains to draw a distinction between docusoaps and series which they preferred to call "fly-on-the-wall". The former, they believe, are there primarily to entertain (although they could be informative along the way), the latter aim to educate and inform (although they could be entertaining as well).

Series deemed to have fitted the fly-on-the-wall definition included Jail Birds (filmed in a women's prison) and Shanghai Vice. Viewers believed fly-on-the-wall series had a greater emphasis on the darker, grittier side of life and had subjects more directly connected with public and social policy. By this token, it follows that School Days is fly-on-the-wall rather than docusoap. Certainly the series producer and director, Rukhsana Mosam, is keen to draw that distinction. Probably rightly, she sees a series based in a school and covering issues such as bullying, sex, exclusions, admission policy and the national teacher shortage as being in a different category from life on a cruise liner.

But what about other, completely different series which have also been labelled docusoaps? Both Castaway and 1900 House have had the D-word hung around their necks, as have popular factual series such as Neighbours From Hell. What they have in common is that the docusoap technique - the establishment of central characters with developing narratives and use of interview in opportunistic bites rather than constructed set-ups - has been used to a greater or lesser degree. But really Castaway and 1900 House are format documentaries and Neighbours from Hell is old-fashioned documentary storytelling, albeit in a more emotionally charged area.

So it seems many alleged docusoaps can be let off the hook: they are not really docusoaps after all. But where does that leave the Airports and Airlines, still saddled with that unfashionable label? If you're a viewer, it leaves them still on your top 10 list. There have been some dire attempts at docusoap which have rightly disappeared without trace, but the best ones continue to thrive because they are made with skill and commitment.

Anyone who writes that docusoap is "cheap and cheerful television" is telling you they have either never worked in TV or have not worked in factual programmes for very long. I have worked on many types of documentary, including extremely difficult undercover inquiries, and I have no doubt that long-term observational programmes are the hardest to get right. Some producers and directors have criticised them for offering no insight or analysis but, at their best, they are social observation as effective as Henry Mayhew's pen portraits of London or the paintings of Pieter Breugel and LS Lowry - reliable records of the moods and mores of their times.

It's worth having one other last word from the viewers in that focus group. One of the things they most valued about docusoaps was the lack of a patronising authorial voice trying to tell them what to think about the people they were watching.

The writer is the head of documentaries at London Weekend Television. 'School Days' continues on ITV next Sunday at 7pm

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