Is this a golden age for documentaries?

Agenda-setting, powerful and remarkably cheap to make, current affairs programmes are having an unexpected renaissance, discovers Ed Howker

So, it's carnage out there. ITV analysts are predicting a 12 per cent decline in advertising revenue in 2009, which equals a £100m decline in profits. Channel 4 is trimming 150 jobs, which will be quite a saving, but perhaps not enough to fill their £150m funding gap.

Meanwhile the BBC, inured to market vicissitudes, is struggling to convince the other players in what Channel 4's chief executive Andy Duncan calls the "public service ecology" that its plan to share iPlayer and other services will help them address the predicted £235m funding crisis in public service broadcasting.

While this debate over medium-term funding rages, the terrestrial broadcasters have a more immediate dilemma: how to continue delivering original content with even fewer resources. The solution may usher in a new period of creativity and insight from British programme makers – by sparking a renaissance in current affairs and documentary programme making. There are several reasons why broadcasters are looking with renewed enthusiasm at documentary making, but one stands out: it's cheap.

The average prime-time current affairs documentary can be made for as little as £150,000 per hour and many are made for less. Drama costs around £100,000 more, with a typical costume drama requiring at least £500,000 per hour of screened footage. It's easy to see that there is a substantial saving to be made by airing documentary factual programming instead of drama, and goes some way to explaining why the award-winning current-affairs department at Channel 4 was left untouched by the first round of cuts made by executives there. Indeed, the success of Sky Real Lives' broadcast of Right to Die?, made by Oscar-winning Canadian director John Zaritsky, which garnered blanket press coverage, demonstrated that even broadcasters little used to creating agenda-setting current affairs programming can still harness the medium with an emotive subject.

Audience shares for current affairs programming have struggled in the past few years. Peak-time broadcasts of Channel 4's Dispatches and the BBC's Panorama (which, when it was relaunched, was unhelpfully scheduled at the same time as the C4 programme) have remained at around one and three million viewers respectively. However, the continued emphasis on fast-turnaround zeitgeist-y special editions are boosting viewing figures. Panorama's examination of the high-profile kidnapping of Shannon Matthews pulled in the programme's highest audience of the year, with 5.7m viewers earlier this month. ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald is well placed to offer this kind of programming and Dispatches has established some fast-turnaround teams, so it seems inevitable that all three flagship current-affairs programmes will be paying more attention to these shows in future.

Another growth area is so-called "immersion television" of which the most famous proponent is Louis Theroux. His programmes have grown increasingly hard-hitting in the past few years, swapping B-list celebrity subjects for prisons, gangs and Nazis, but they are not the only factual documentaries that are crossing into current-affairs territory. Examine the BBC 3 series Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, broadcast in May 2008, which followed six fashion addicts from Britain's high streets to India's cotton fields and clothes factories. Viewers watched as the protagonists attitudes to throwaway fashion changed. The "immersion" format which, rather than providing polemical narrative, invites the viewer to form their own conclusions, will almost certainly become a more regular feature in television schedules.

Having said that, broadcasters ignore agenda-setting original programming at their own cost. Programmes such as The Secret Policeman and Dispatches: Undercover Mosque demonstrate the enormous power of public service broadcasting for running investigations and breaking exclusives. These stories are difficult, expensive and time-consuming to obtain, film and bring to air, but they reward channels by providing output that serves not just "the public interest" but the interests of society and democracy as well.

In the coming years, it is very possible that viewing figures for these programmes will improve too, because viewers tend to respond better to current affairs programming at times of uncertainty. In the months following 9/11, it was Panorama that grew its audience most dramatically in the UK by providing context for the destruction of the twin towers. So too, as our banking sector and then our economy falter, will current affairs programming be sought out by viewers to provide context and insight. As Mary Ewert, whose husband's death Sky broadcast, wrote in The Independent last week: "He was keen to have it shown, because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it. They don't acknowledge that it is going to happen, they don't reflect on it, they don't want to face it."

The very best factual and current-affairs programming does just that: forcing society to confront truths that are too often ignored. And if it saves some money in the meantime, that can only be a good thing.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

DBA

£40000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: DBA, London,...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game