“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.

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