The allegation by TV executives that no one cares to watch documentaries is invalid and unnecessary.

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.

Documentaries are no longer seen only out of duty; like feature films, documentaries are watched for pleasure. They are also finding their way to the most coveted target group – younger audiences. DOX has discovered two newly-opened documentary strands airing quality docs that get very good ratings in return. Examples that TV execs should be forced to study before cutting budgets for doc slots and pushing them to later and later in the evening and night when all the potential viewers are sound asleep. ULLA JACOBSEN talked to the commissioning editors of these two doc strands, Siven Maslamoney in South Africa and Mette Hoffmann Meyer in Denmark.

A documentary about AIDS in southern Africa beat Ally McBeal in the ratings. This is a true story. The new SABC1 documentary strand outperformed all the other programmes available on some nights and got the highest ratings, even though it competed with Ally McBeal and movies running on competing channels simultaneously. Over a five-month period, the average ratings of all three programme types were almost equal.

Steps for the Future

So the new management at South Africa’s public service channel SABC1 made a sound decision by establishing a new – and first – documentary strand in April 2002. Though an unconventional choice for a channel based mainly on soaps with a target audience of 16-34 year-olds, it was part of their strategy to “create value in the channel.” The strand started by airing the documentary series Steps for the Future, co-produced internationally in southern Africa. The series marks a new approach to the topic of AIDS and from the outset, the strand got excellent ratings of 4.1% for all adults and audience shares on some nights of 30%. Compared to the magazine programme that had previously occupied the slot, the ratings more than doubled.

The strand is aired weekly on Monday evenings at 10 p.m., can accommodate thirty-minute and sixty-minute docs and in exceptional circumstances broadcasts feature length docs. The ‘Steps’ series includes 26 local stories produced by independent producers from southern Africa and 26 foreign stories. The ambition of the strand is to offer “docs with a popular appeal that remain intelligent and engaging,” and they hope their audiences will develop a taste for factual storytelling in order to build up a core audience for the genre over time.

A widespread TV-executive preconception is that docs are important for the public service image and for cultural purposes, but not for mass audiences. Then why is the SABC1 strand so popular? Are only a special type of docs successful? Siven Maslamoney defines the docs that fit the strand as docs that have good, strong stories to tell, are told in the voice of a youthful audience and never in the voice of an authority. That applies well to the *Steps for the Future series that deals with AIDS in a new way, not only the sad stories, but all kinds of stories told in different ways. This seemed to work for the audience. In general, Siven Maslamoney states that local stories do better than foreign ones. People identify with local stories.

SABC1 is so pleased with the strand’s success that they have programmed a new doc strand in 2003 with biogs of musicians and heroes. And they have started to commission a series celebrating ten years of freedom for 2004. Again they base their programming on local content.

Denmark TV2 – foreign docs

Does this mean that local content is the recipe for success? Not necessarily.

A slot featuring foreign docs has become very popular in Denmark. During the past two summer seasons, the TV2/Denmark public service channel (partly financed by advertising) has broadcast high quality, feature length docs. The strand “Hotdoks” has been a great success. Aired at 10.45 p.m. on Monday evenings, the docs got an average of 6% ratings and 33% audience shares. One doc (Startup.com, by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim) even got a share of 48%.

Jehane Noujaim & Chris Hegedus during Sundance 2001 – Startup.com

What is the recipe for this success? Commissioning editor Mette Hoffmann Meyer defines the profile of the strand as no less than ’the best docs in the world’. More specifically they are feature length docs telling a good story, with focus on contemporary issues. They can be politically important issues, but not art. Many of the docs – but not all – are British or American, which she stresses is not a deliberate choice. Docs from all countries are welcome. However, she believes that the reason it has turned out this way is that Brits and Americans are inspired by fiction films in their storytelling to a greater degree, which the audience like.

Mette HOFFMANN MEYER

Interestingly enough for Hotdoks, the subject is not the attraction. It is widely assumed that viewers base their choice of whether to watch a documentary on the subject. But Hotdoks includes subjects as different as Monica Lewinsky, the EU’s agricultural policy, women wrestlers of Japan and Henry Kissinger. What they do have in common are a strong narrative and many festival awards. As Mette Hoffmann Meyer points out, however, most films were bought before they got the awards. One might say they represent a general quality. None are experimental or arty to be sure, nor are they totally alike either.

Another element of the ’recipe for success’ is the choice to programme docs during summer. As summer is a relatively quiet television season, they got a lot of press coverage and room for trailing the films. The 10.45 p.m. slot proved to be prime time for a summer slot, when people come in and stay up late.

The strand got good press coverage and good ratings – and was even considered quite commercially attractive as the share of the 20 to 50 demographic age group was high. Naturally, TV executives now want to not only keep the strand next summer, but also expand it with six shows in January and February. The strand is relatively cheap for them, as all docs are purchased. One might argue that this doesn’t add much in terms of production money and risk-taking, yet it does contribute to building up an audience for documentaries and making documentaries seen, thereby giving docs a sexier image. The regular TV2/Denmark doc strand Monday evening, after the late news, also includes co-productions and has an average rating of 6% and a share of 34%.

The SABC1 and TV2/Denmark strands are good news, but it’s too early to call them a new trend. It is interesting to observe, however, that there is a new audience out there who perceive documentaries as ’films’ or ’stories’ and watch them simply because they find them relevant and interesting.


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