Bjørn Erichsen, Director of Television at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and former television director for DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), finds public service TV in good shape and resilient to the commercial channels.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).
Bjørn Erichsen

How do you view the role of the documentary – artistic and journalistic documentaries alike – in the programming of public service channels?

“I believe we’re witnessing a turn-around now as documentaries are having a renaissance on TV. We see good productions from France, such as FR3 which broadcasts some fantastic documentaries, and on the BBC, which has started showing documentaries in prime time again. Documentary programmes are having success in Germany, too. So the fact that the documentary is being reconsidered for prime-time slots is good international news. On the other hand, I believe that if you want a large documentary audience, you have to lean towards documentaries dealing with contemporary, complicated topics that people want to know more about and that have an emotional dimension. The quality, artistic documentary appealing to a limited audience still leads a troubled existence.”

Do you think there is a risk of relegating artistic documentaries to a ‘ghetto’ as sometimes happens on DR2 (Danish cultural channel – ed.)?

“No, I did that myself for six years, so I don’t think so. DR2, which can soon be seen by 90% of the Danish population, is designed for presenting the more selective and specific programmes and as long as 90% of the population can see the channel, I don’t think there’s any problem.”

How about BBC4, which is also a digital channel…

“…and a cultural channel not targeted on a large audience. The British promote it as the Danes promote DR2 – only the British are five years behind.”

What is your opinion of working with independent producers compared to doing in-house productions?

“It’s very positive because it would be completely insane not to profit from the creative ideas of colleagues working in the private sector and to expect that the public service station is the only one capable of coming up with good ideas. It’s all about networking with production companies that are interested in producing documentary programmes. As far as I remember from DR, half of our documentary programmes were produced by independents.”

Even if they’re more costly?

“Yes, it all depends on how you do the math. If you include overheads on in-house productions, then the costs are the same.”

 

What about Reality TV? Do you think that these kind of programmes can edge out documentary programs?

“Not on public service stations. We don’t see these kind of programmes – and maybe public service stations should actually be blamed for not being able to come up with a new form of more intelligent reality shows – but we rarely see public service stations offering such brainless programming.”

European Broadcasting Union. TV dramas

But do you see them coming?

“No, I don’t think so. The huge number of commercial stations all over Europe falling over each other to broadcast this type of show undermines the public service motivation to meet the challenge.”

How do you see the future role of the EBU?

“We’re holding a session at the Sunny Side in Marseilles involving 85 colleagues from forty or fifty TV channels, who will meet to discuss co-productions and cooperate on international co-productions of documentaries. So there’s a vital, strong wish to cooperate and there are several topics that make co-productions meaningful.”

Local topics, too?

“No. It doesn’t make sense to co-produce a completely local subject. But when it comes to football, or rather the economics and corruption of international football in Europe, these are ideal co-production subjects – and are already being produced, by the way – and have the interest of every European country. So clearly it has to be produced as an international option that appeals to all European countries.  Take subjects like people smuggling, transactions, pollution problems, the new political Europe, lifestyles, etc.: they appeal to many European countries.”

But isn’t there a risk of ending up with euro pudding?

“That’s always a risk you have to be aware of. But there are numerous examples of strong programmes with enormous appeal in every European country, and they are not euro pudding. Euro pudding is the result of joint financing that produces some artificial offspring. Whenever you require that there *has to be a French photographer, a German director, a British scriptwriter, etc, it just won’t work. But if you have a strong proposal that other countries want to co-produce and finance, then you have to respect that it will be produced outside of your particular country.”

Does the public service concept still make sense in a multi-channel system?

“It makes sense in the fact that forty to fifty per cent of television audiences are watching public service programming. In other words, half the people in Europe are sitting in front of their TV sets watching public service TV, which is preferable to being entertained by the likes of Berlusconi or Murdoch. So in spite of the fact that the market has opened up for competition over the last twenty years, public service has a strong position.”

And in future?

“A cultural showdown is approaching. The commercial channels want to corner the entire market. And tougher laws to close down public service channels are being passed in Brussels and national capitals, not least in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the public service stations defend their positions at the EBU and try to persuade politicians that if commercial TV becomes the only choice, then there will be no public education, political campaigns or cultural programmes, etc. And most politicians understand that. The British want the BBC, but they also want competition. In Germany they want to preserve the two major public TV stations and likewise in France, Spain and parts of Eastern Europe.”

But it means producing better TV or at least offering something different?

“Yes, it does.”


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