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.

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