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Ian Burrell: Is reality television really on the way out?

Media Studies

This might be wishful thinking on my part - especially after a week in which Richard Desmond’s Channel 5 re-launched “Big Brother” - but reality television finally seems to be on the way out as viewers tell broadcasters they’d rather watch something that’s actually real.

Instead of crude stunts that tend to reveal people at their worst, programme makers are being permitted to show a truer picture.

Documentaries are consistently rating in the “Most Popular” category on the BBC iPlayer and channel controllers are being forced to respond to audience demand.

“Three years ago when I started this job it was incredibly hard to get observational documentaries on television,” says Charlotte Moore, who heads documentary making across the BBC. “I think we have seen a massive change and ‘obdocs’ are suddenly back in vogue. That’s because of trends in television. We went through a ‘Big Brother’, reality, constructed phase and I think audiences are very savvy and spot when you are manipulating them.”

The annual Sheffield Documentary Festival, (known as “Doc/Fest”), begins on Wednesday with a rare optimism. “In the old days the television network was so in control and the scheduler decided but now people are demonstrating their hunger for documentary by watching it on catch up. The audience demand for documentary is driving the increased opportunities for commissioning,” says Heather Croall, the festival director. She credits Sky with “really ramping up feature length documentary making”, especially on Sky Arts. And the presence of former BBC1 chief Peter Fincham as director of television at ITV and Shirani Sabaratnam as commissioning editor at UKTV is transforming a market place previously dominated by the BBC and Channel 4.

Filmmakers are also benefiting from increased access to organisations resulting from the realisation by communications chiefs that pulling down the shutters is not necessarily the most modern approach to public relations. According to Moore “it’s not just the comms people, I think it’s literally the CEOs, the MDs” who are allowing in the cameras.

The BBC is planning an ambitious eight-part series on the National Health Service. We’ve had many health documentaries before (“Great Ormond Street”, “Junior Doctors” etc) but this is a wide-ranging examination of the fourth largest employer in the world. “Pound Wars” will be a BBC1 series that shows the growth of discount stores on the High Streets of downturn Britain.

For all the renewed interest in documentary, its best British exponents are still largely unknown. The biggest names we have are the likes of Nick Broomfield and Morgan Matthews, who won a Bafta for “The Fallen” – a three-hour piece on those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Matthews has been commissioned by Moore to make “Britain in a Day”, which he’ll compile from 13,000 submissions filmed by the public one day last November.

We still don’t have star documentary makers like America’s Ken Burns or his brother Ric, whose landmark series on New York is currently compelling viewing on PBS. Britain talks of its documentaries in terms of the people in front of the camera. “In America it’s the cult of the director – ‘A film by’ - but here it’s more the presenter cult of Louis Theroux and David Attenborough,” says Croall. Indeed, I hear Theroux has been given a new three year contract by the BBC.

There’s a more pressing problem facing documentary makers – the attention spans of younger viewers raised on YouTube clips. Networks that want their factual programmes with a long shelf life and an appeal beyond the traditional middle aged audience – such as the History Channel – are realising the need to commission documentaries that include an interactive gaming element. Croall believes that the two sectors need a close relationship if longer form factual shows are to remain relevant in the coming era of internet-based television. “It’s something we are going to see more of - people from the games industry with experience of interactivity will be working with documentary makers.”