Current affairs still reeling from 'School Dinners' effect

A stroll through the back streets of London that encircle the Soho media village evokes a glimpse of what Fleet Street must have been like in its heyday.

While the audiovisual community's stomping ground may have seen the pub replaced by the coffee shop, and the journalists may be pacing around in Converse trainers instead of battered brogues, the sense of a place humming with the trading and developing of creative ideas is, I imagine, somewhat similar.

At the centre of this is Mentorn, the independent television production company which has produced programmes for BBC's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches and Unreported Worlds.

"The current affairs tradition at Mentorn goes back 15 years," says Sam Collyns, head of current affairs at the company.

"What we've done since then is to try and keep that tradition going though strong executive producers who are able to pick up the baton."

Mentorn's strength in current affairs was enhanced by its merger in the mid-'90s with Barraclough Carey, the production company founded in 1985 by George Carey, the founding editor of Newsnight, who also edited Panorama, and Jenny Barraclough, former head of the BBC1 documentaries, who began her career as the only woman reporter on the ITV News team.

Collyns joined the company two years ago after almost 20 years at the BBC, when he was headhunted by Carey. Prior to leaving the corporation he was the deputy editor at Panorama and is thus in a unique position when it comes to viewing the changes that current affairs and the independent sector in particular are facing.

From speaking to Collyns, it appears the genre is still reeling from the "school dinners" effect. The success of programmes like Jamie's School Dinners, produced by Fresh One Productions, which was the highest rated new series of 2005, and Wife Swap, which launched a successful spin-off in the US, have raised questions about what actually constitutes current affairs.

"Jamie's School Dinners is the classic example," says Collyns.

"It wasn't commissioned by current affairs at Channel 4 and yet arguably it has had as great an impact as any other current affairs programme in the year that it was made.

"It did absolutely all of those things that traditionally current affairs had tried to do and it succeeded. Now, is the fact that it was made out of factual entertainment a problem? I'm not sure that it is."

According to Collyns: "It speaks to the continuing need for current affairs as a genre. It's just that we shouldn't be too buttoned up or take the high ground on what constitutes current affairs.

"The mistake would be to be dismissive and say ‘oh yes, but it wasn't serious because it wasn't made by current affairs'. That would be mad. The truth is that we should be thinking ‘why didn't we think of doing it that way first'."

The Windows of Creative Competition [WoCC] initiative, launched by Mark Thomson in 2004, took giant steps towards opening up many more programmes to indies.

A minimum of 25 per cent of the corporation's output is to be produced outside the BBC, with an additional 25 per cent up for grabs between in-house producers, indies and other producers like Granada.

Collyns confesses that while he was at the BBC there was a suspicion of indies and it felt like only lip-service was being paid to the idea that programmes had to be commissioned from outside. Now he says, the penny has dropped.

"You have no choice but to commission from outside — and more than that, not just the element of compulsion," he says. "I genuinely think that they are embracing that change."

This is exemplified by the fact that in the past three months, at least four senior figures have left the Current Affairs department — including executive producers Fiona Stourton and Farah Durrani — to join indies.

According to Collyns, the main challenge facing current affairs now is attracting the next generation of aspiring television journalists to make Panorama rather than Wife Swap.

He says: "One of the challenges in the way for any current affairs producer or executive producer now is to find talent and encourage the talent to try out current affairs, and not to lose them entirely to documentaries and factual entertainment.

"I think that's a real challenge because in the end all these programmes, whatever the genre, it's the old cliché that they are only as good as the people who are making them."

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