I don’t know where documentary is going, but at the moment it is fast becoming a soap opera in order to keep it’s place in the schedules’ Molly Dinton. Dinton believes that the documentary genre is changing in order to survive. This evolution of the genre could be justified, and enables the ‘diverse genre’ to still be able to attain fixtures on the British television broadcasting stations. The statement of the documentary ‘fast becoming a soap opera’, can to some extent be supported.
Currently on British television, there has been a swarm of reality TV programmes and Docu- soaps, which can be seen as a polluted hybrid of the documentary genre. These programmes are noted as successful in attracting an audience, therefore, the TV institutions are more likely to exploit these wining formulas of the genre and schedule the newer, more popular American format of documentary rather than the traditional documentary formula that aims to construct a social criticism and catalyse change, which often has a stigma of smelling ‘of dust and boredom’ (Alberto Cavalcanti).
Institutions are able to have a minimal risk of financial failure with docu- soaps and reality TV programmes, because as well having a high rating of audience consumption, the programmes are financially very cheap to produce. This is because the hybrid forms do not generally have professional actors but consist of ‘real’ people. Also the programmes are often filmed in cheap locations over a relatively short period of time compared with Nick Broomfield’s ‘Aileen- The Life and Death of a Serial Killer’. In this recent documentary (2003) Broomfield worked in America for multiple months, which would have been extremely costly.
Paul Hanmann, head of BBC Documentary features, says that a reality programme is three times cheaper as comparable light entertainment. Or take for example, Martin Bashir’s ‘The Michael Jackson Story’, where by Bashir followed Michael Jackson from country to country over a period of a year, making a very costly production for ITV. In this investigative documentary, it too can also be noted as conforming to the new ‘soap opera’ style of documentary, as Bashir chose to present to the nation the version that sensationalised the Jackson story in a negative light creating a spin off of conversation for a duration after.
Bashir, like a soap opera director, chose to present the narrative version of the documentary that would create the most dramatic effect or shock for the audience. TV executives are more keen on scheduling the popular forms of the documentary genre and make the values of the programme centre on entertainment, as they feel entertainment is more appealing to the audience than a documentary that exits on a moral and ethical dimension. The intertextuality of the Docu- Soaps such as ‘Vet School’, ‘The Cruise’ and ‘Driving school’, attract huge viewing ratings.
For example ‘Driving school’ had a 12. 5 million audience. The Docu- soap resembles the conventional ‘fly on the wall’ antecedents, but like a Soap Opera, the genre prioritises audience entertainment over social commentary, and focuses on characters and their personalities, rather than on their social roles or professions. Characters are ‘picked’ for their personalities, to ensure interesting viewing and strike a parallel with the Soap Operas, in that the characters are known on a first name basis to build up a relationship between audience and screen characters.
Likewise, the episodes are strongly based on the drive of the narrative structure, to make more entertaining, simplistic and more story- like for the audience to follow and enjoy. Yet another demonstration of documentaries becoming a soap opera is with channel 4’s ‘That’ll teach them’. In this series, teenagers of today were seemingly sent back in time to be educated in the 1950’s. The programme is then followed up, several months later with, ‘That taught ’em’, making the series like a soap opera because the channel are adding to the original narrative, in order to get a greater knowledge of the teenagers.
Reality TV combines the commercial success of tabloid content with a public service mode of address. The genre includes ‘The Salon’, ‘Big Brother’, ‘Police Camera Action’ and ‘Wife Swap’, which are all hugely popular. Big Brother had a staggering 45, 000 people audition to be on the programme. These programmes are essentially very alike in comparison to Soap Operas. Often in reality TV, contrasting personalities are deliberately selected or an arisen conflict sensationalised; also many of the programmes are edited in order to capture comedy moments.
Moreover in the Docu- Soap ‘Driving School’, there is evidence to suggest that many of the sequences, or body language/ facial expressions in the programme were faked in order to create further dramatic effect. Through sensationalising episodes, these programmes are able to compete with the story lines of many soaps, and attract viewers who enjoy much of the dramatisation that occurs in the soap operas. It also serves to entertain the audience. Reality TV is very much like many soaps. This is achieved by using editing.
The Directors are able to create a persona or character of the participants, that the audience will either love or loathe, through selecting which footage to air and which to discard. With CCTV footage in ‘Police Camera Action’ and 24/7 ‘actuality footage’ of the constructed documentary, ‘Big Brother’, the audience is able to involve themselves in dramatic irony and acquire a greater knowledge of the characters and their situations, like we are also able to do through watching soaps. As McCann states it often ‘turns… …
us into Peeping Toms’, which obviously appeals to a sector of society. There is however, evidence to suggest that many documentaries, which adopt the objective of catalysing change in the law or the dominant ideology and use film verite, are also still scheduled on British TV. For example, during November of each year, war documentaries will be broadcasted for Remembrance Day, and in the month of August, documentaries on Princess Diana and her death will be documented, to heighten the audience’s level of awareness surrounding her suspicious death.
These documentaries try to offer several new pieces of information discovered that are ‘based on fact and not fiction’. Experts, eyewitnesses, and official civil servants provide the evidence for the programme, giving it credibility. The documentary serves to criticise, the way in which the investigation was run, but also to cause the audience to change their previously held opinion on the subject, and to take on and believe the message given by the text.
Occasionally other documentaries by famous documentarians are scheduled, such as Nick Broomfield’s ‘Biggie and Tupac’, (channel 4 2003), where Broomfield exposes the maze of obstacles and corruption complicating the investigation of the unsolved murders of the rap stars. Also, it is evident that many nature documentaries are shown on channel five, but not at peak times, which docu- soaps and reality TV are aired. In addition to this there is evidence to suggest that not all documentaries have to become ‘soap operas in order to keep its place in the soap operas’.
This point can be clearly illustrated with the co- production by the BBC and Discovery Channel in their creation of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’. The documentary achieved huge success and was stated as being ‘the biggest thing on TV in 160 million years’. With the aid of computer graphics, the programme portrayed to the audience at peak times of scheduling, a factual account of how dinosaurs lived, adapted into the different time periods, and eventually became extinct.
There are also niche channels on Digital or Sky channels, such as Discovery, History, and the Learning channel, all of which schedule films solely from the documentary genre. These channels have high ratings and status, but are not available to everyone. In conclusion, I feel that Molly Dinton was justified in stating that the documentary is ‘fast becoming a soap opera in order to keep it’s place in the schedules. This is mainly because the mass audience prefer docu- soaps and reality TV, which are closely related to soap operas.
This is because these factions of the documentary genre entertain, and cause diversion and escapism for the audience, who are easily able to relax in their leisure time and watch the light- entertainment programmes. They are not presented with a programme that requires the mind to work too hard after a draining day. The broadcasting institutions generally broadcast, what is demanded from the public and what is financially better for their business, making the way clear for further reality shows that resemble the soaps to be produced.
Perhaps the film verite documentaries are not as popular as the hybrid genres because in general they require a higher intellect/ socio- economic group to follow the programme or be interested in the issues investigated. This form of documentary perhaps has ‘ outlived its usefulness and no longer has a very clear significance. ‘ The vast docu- soaps and reality television programmes are scheduled at peak times, because they appeal to a wider audience where as the occasional documentary is scheduled mainly in the late eve. Therefore it is true that documentaries are ‘fast becoming soap operas in order to survive.