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
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
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

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Graduate Consultant - Sales Recruitment - £35k ote

£18000 - £25000 per annum + £35k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: Looking for your first s...

Recruitment Genius: Advertising Media Sales - Print, Online & Mobile

£19000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing house has been ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Award winning Peterborough base...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?