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F Word Podcast Feature
  • The F Word: Formats

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    Posted on: 28/04/2016

    Traditionalists may be outraged, but it is possible to create quality, popular factual content that is later formatted and sold to broadcasters around the world.

    “The creative documentary made for major terrestrial television has virtually died in Britain, assaulted and left for dead by an industry that has jettisoned any serious interest in the world around it in an unsustainable chase after ratings.” Edward Milner, Vertigo Magazine.

    Back in 2002, UK documentary and news director Edward Milner wrote about the evolution of the documentary form, saying:

    “At its best, through the creative combination of images and sounds, words and music, the television documentary can explore complex ideas by working at more than one level.”

    He claimed that this form of documentary began to wither with the arrival of ‘fly on the wall’ observational documentary, becoming “almost lost in the clouded waters of factual programming.”

    But was he right? Did television documentary suffer irreversible damage with the growth of ‘factual TV’ or merely reinvent itself – absorbing and utilising the extraordinary range of technology increasingly available to filmmakers and made at a pace more appropriate to contemporary television audiences?

    Certainly the latest incarnation involves terminology and concepts that traditional documentary makers would never have dreamed of. Consider, for example, the use of one hundred remote cameras over one day (literally 24 hours) of filming for one project – with no director or camera crews immersed in the action, shaping and influencing the story with a shooting script at the ready.

    What’s more, the expertise and knowledge needed to create such an enormously complicated documentary project is bundled up into a Production Bible and sold to other producers or broadcasters around the world, as a Format.

    Documenting the stories of emergency departments, prisons and neonatal units (for example), has become a profitable business – rather than just the preserve of a one-off filmmaker eking out a living from their craft.

    The term “format” was first used in entertainment television – quiz shows, in particular.  The format would include titles, music, questions, set design, show rundowns etc.  Most importantly, it would include twists and turns that were unique to that show – elements that made it distinctive.  Think of the turning chair on The Voice.

    It moved into the factual television world when, in the 1980s, Sir Peter Bazalgette (now Chairman of ITV) pioneered so-called lifestyle shows like Changing Rooms where neighbours were invited to revamp a room in each other’s homes.  Guaranteed tension, tears and laughter. Sometimes tantrums.

    It was Who Do You Think You Are?, premiering on the BBC in 2004, which arguably turned more traditional documentary story-telling into a true ‘documentary format’ for the first time. Its success has resulted in versions being made in more than 15 countries, from Canada to Portugal.

    More recently, two British men – former documentary makers Magnus

    Temple and Nick Curnow – have become incredibly successful at creating long-form documentary series able to be turned into formats. All thanks to evolving camera technology and the ability to negotiate difficult access.

    They pioneered what’s become known as the ‘fixed-rig genre’, where large numbers of cameras are fitted into walls and left to capture the action without crews, resulting in a far less intrusive and more natural filming environment.  Their first ventures were The Family (the Australian version showed on SBS) and One Born Every Minute.

    They now run The Garden (owned by ITV Studios) - a prolific supplier of acclaimed long form documentary series, including 24 Hours in A&E and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

    Formats, generally, are contentious.  At their heart lies an idea – which isn’t likely to be original (none really are) – cloaked in clearly articulated rules about how that idea will made. Usually, but not always, the format will have already been successful, which gives producers expertise to avoid expensive mistakes and broadcasters comfort that it will rate.

    But the copyright law in most countries is well behind play in this area and expensive battles have been fought – and mainly lost – as format owners try to protect their Intellectual Property.

    Courts generally rule that an idea alone can’t be protected under law and throw the cases out.

    In factual, formats often bring with them the technical expertise, research templates and guidance on how to secure permission – all of which cost money when you start from scratch.

    As successful format producers will tell you, it’s not about the idea; it’s all about the execution.

    It’s also about getting sales in a crowded marketplace, earning your format fee and letting go of your programme as it is made in another territory and getting the best deal you can for your work.

    - Denise Eriksen, Executive Producer, Eriksen Media

    This podcast, recorded at AIDC 2016 and hosted by Denise Eriksen, examines all of these issues with three experienced practitioners:

    Julie Christie ONZM, is a former producer and highly successful businesswoman who sold formats in more than 30 countries and is now on the TV3 New Zealand board.

    Lyndal Marks is Executive Producer, Factual Programmes at Channel 7 – responsible for a raft of successful shows, including Border Security.

    Magnus Temple is co-founder and Chief Executive of UK production company The Garden, and is a pioneer of fixed-rig factual formats.

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