“What does it mean to commission documentaries in a modern world?” The question was asked by BBC’s documentary commissioning editor Richard Klein at the recent TV Festival in Copenhagen. Klein and Meredith Chambers (his colleague from Channel 4) subsequently answered the question themselves, accompanied by eye-catching clips from the docs screened on their respective channels.

The short answer seems to be: to lure audiences into watching something serious. Both commissioning editors are concerned about getting people to watch serious issues about contemporary British society. And though public service is still a valuable concept at their channels, they are constantly confronted with the ‘ratings’, ‘share’ and ‘reach’ of each of their programmes. Chambers put it this way: “We must be deliberately popular and deliberately matter.”

This road they take to achieve this is to pick serious issues and put them into entertaining formats, either provocative or sensational or by using celebrities. Indeed, the clips presented were innovative when it came to creating new documentary formats and mixing genres. Klein stated that one way to be popular is to embrace other forms. One form both channels seem fond of embracing is reality TV.

“The Verdict” is a popular four-part BBC programme. The idea is to explore the jury system, on which the British legal system is largely based. They wanted to get people interested in thinking about the potential problems of this system-by exposing them to how jury members’ prejudices shape the decisions they make. The formula of the programme is to assemble a jury comprising twelve celebrities and then set up a fictional case, about rape, for example. The victim and the accused are played by actors, while the barristers and the judge are real. They perform a regular court case and we follow the jury’s deliberations.

Another BBC example is “The Baby Borrowers”, a programme designed to address teenage pregnancy, which is rampant in Britain. Young couples aged 16 to 19 get a house to stay in and are lent a baby, a toddler or a teenager for a period of time, while a camera crew films what happens.

Richard Klein described this format as “observational in the way that we create a shape for them and then observe what happens – pull the trigger and see what happens,” a method he considers legitimate documentary.

This method also goes well with Channel 4. The concept for their popular series “The Secret Millionaire” is that a multi-millionaire goes undercover for ten days to live in a tough environment (among the homeless or asylum-seekers, for instance), concealing his identity. During that time he has to choose one person to whom he will eventually give thousands of pounds of his own money, enabling the person to get a chance for a better life. Chambers says that if one has to play tricks to make people watch things they normally wouldn’t, then he thinks it is great because “If three million people see a lovely asylum-seeker, then maybe it will change things-change their prejudices.”

He adds that this kind of formatted docs is a way to make sure that the 9 o’clock slot still shows ordinary Britain.

Other popular tricks include getting the filmmaker to be part of the subject he is depicting, like BBC’s series “Tribe”, where explorer Bruce Parry takes part in the life of a tribe rather than just observing them. He does it to the extent of participating in a ritual where he is injected with frog poison that makes him sick, instead of filming the tribe performing the ritual. And in “Under the Knife”, filmmaker Louis Theroux undergoes cosmetic surgery himself instead of filming others doing it.

The various tricks work, the programmes are successful: they lure people into watching serious subjects and generate debate in the media.

Both commissioning editors are proud of their popular doc formats, though they are equally proud of the one-off docs still included in both channels’ programmes. After showing clips from more traditional documentary films, Klein said that sometimes his job was also to avoid thinking about ratings. He sees it as his duty as commissioning editor to find new voices, to take risks, and says this is difficult because the room for failure is narrowing. Regarding the forthcoming budget cuts on BBC (where sources talk about a 60% cut on Storyville), he stresses that his biggest worry is not being able to cover a full range of docs, which he finds is most important when commissioning docs in a modern world. He says: “I’m passionate about one-off docs but I also love making docs watched by five or six million.”


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Ulla Jacobsen

Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.