Making serious TV for large audiences
Kangliang Zhou writes:
In a time of entertainment, infotainment, new media, McDonaldization and tabloidization, how can serious TV reach a large audience? Roger Graef, writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and criminologist, answered this question by drawing on his huge range of television work over the last three decades.
'I like to remember Kafka’s comment on writing novels', he explained. 'Kafka said 'a book must be an ice-pick to break the seas frozen inside our soul'. I want to start a conversation about an issue, without necessarily giving the audience an easy answer.' To illustrate his point, he showed that people were still tweeting about his documentary on the collapse of the car industry in Detroit over a year after it was first broadcast.
His production company, Films of Record, provides documentaries for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 in the UK and many media outlets across the world. They carry out long-format documentaries which is a television format falling in popularity. "Too often these sorts of programmes are scheduled to be transmitted in a slot on a Friday night, 11pm or 11:30 pm, when it is too late for an audience after a drink at the weekend," he said.
Graef showed some really arresting clips from several documentaries they have made in recent years. They have covered different fields including international issues like Somali pirates, social problems such as children in care, a history of Amnesty International and the medical treatment of very ill children at Great Ormond Street hospital in London.
He is very successful in getting access to difficult places and subjects and his approach is unusual in that he doesn't set out to supply answers or a resolution at the end of each film. The results that he showed were dramatic. 'Sometimes we will do a more tabloid treatment' he said, 'in order to attract audiences in the first two minutes.' For example The millionaire and murder mansion, first shown on 9th April, 2009, was watched by 2.3 million people.
He said there was a future for serious TV documentaries, but they needed to have a 'long tail' meaning that people had to continue to discuss and watch long after a first broadcast through traditional outlets.
Further reading and watching: