How Wife Swap helped to save an endangered genre

A couple of years ago current affairs was regarded as an endangered species in the world of television.

The
odd investigative journalist would be spotted in the undergrowth around
White City and from time to time the unmistakable sounds of analysis
could be heard in the distance, but it was generally assumed that
serious long-form journalism on television was slowly dying off. It
appeared unable to survive in the cut-throat commercial world of modern
TV.

That prediction has turned out to be completely wrong.

Last
week, in order to prepare for a session at the BBC’s annual News
Festival, I watched around thirty hours of current affairs programming
shown across all the main TV channels over the past six months.

Based
on what I saw and the discussions which followed I would say current
affairs isn’t dying. In fact, I’d say it’s thriving and 2005 looks like
being a bumper year for it.

The two main providers of long-form
journalism on British TV have both committed to increase their current
affairs output this year.

Mark Thompson at the BBC pledged “more
money and slots” for Panorama , and Kevin Lygo at Channel 4 promised to
more than double the run of their flagship current affairs vehicle
Dispatches .

Both companies may be cynically polishing up their
public service credentials – one to justify the license fee, the other
to make the case for public subsidy in the future – but, whatever the
motive, current affairs is the winner.

Of course, it does
slightly depend on your definition of current affairs. Even if you
restrict your definition to programmes like Panorama , Dispatches ,
Tonight and Real Story, you would still find it hard to sustain the
argument that it is a dying genre.

These shows have been busy
reinventing themselves over the past couple of years, placing a new
emphasis on production values, dramatic reconstruction and narrative
drive.

They may not occupy the most attractive slots in our
prime-time schedules, but they are still hanging in there and doing
pretty decent numbers given what they are scheduled against.

Outside
of these major current affairs strands, other journalistic
documentaries have been grabbing the commercial and critical headlines
with their journalism and journalistic endeavour. Take Adam Curtis’s
essay on terrorism and liberalism, The Power of Nightmares, or Simon
Ford’s undercover expose of racism in the police force in The Secret
Policeman .

Neither of these shows came from the news and current
affairs directorate of the BBC, yet they were both excellent works of
journalism about very contemporary issues.

I would argue that
current affairs has benefited indirectly from the major creative trend
in British television – namely the rise of factual entertainment.

This covers everything from Wife Swap to 101 Most Shocking Moments in Hollywood.

Factual
entertainment places a special emphasis on format and production
values, whether by manipulating apparently real-life situations or
structuring information, as in countdowns or list programmes.

Essentially,
factual entertainment is about conveying informative content in the
most attractive, engaging and amusing manner possible.

The
invention and originality of factual entertainment has forced TV
journalists from oldschool current affairs to look to their laurels.

The production techniques now employed on shows like Panorama and Dispatches have been transformed.

Take
Panorama ‘s amazing reconstruction of the Brighton bomb – the BBC spent
£28,000 recreating the moment when a gigantic chimney stack crashed
through seven floors of the Grand Hotel.

The effect was cinematic and extremely powerful.

The
mix of journalism, showmanship and ever-more sophisticated production
techniques has also produced another phenomenon – the rise of the
theatrical release documentary.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11
and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me have both been surprise box office
hits in the States and over here in the past year.

Some would
claim that polemical essays of this sort can’t possibly count as
current affairs, yet both the examples I mentioned deal with issues of
great topical concern. They analyse and evaluate their subjects and
they certainly engage the intellect of those who watch them.

Authorship
has a long and noble tradition in current affairs and a personal
approach can make a dry subject come to life. You don’t have to share
the views of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock or even our own John
Sweeney to appreciate their enterprise and persuasive showmanship.

Some
of the most insightful programmes I’ve watched recently on television
have been dramas with a documentary style, such as the painstakingly
researched Channel 4 film The Hamburg Cell. I found this much more
informative than any other programme I’ve watched about Al Quaeda.

The
huge diversification of journalistic content on television is a great
development. The more ideas on content and delivery the better it will
get, but there are a few downsides.

Occasionally style and content can clash, and a jazzy package is no substitute for proper journalism.

Some
subjects clearly deserve a deadly serious treatment. No one, I suspect,
would be comfortable watching 101 Most Shocking Images from Africa.

One
of my own commissions, MacIntyre’s Big Sting, which combined elements
of candid camera entrapment with more conventional analysis of criminal
justice, was considered by some to be too flippant for such a serious
subject.

The recent experimental ITV show Vote For Me , a
political version of Pop Idol, was also dismissed by many critics as a
hybrid gimmick which didn’t really work as either entertainment or
current affairs.

Whatever your view, there’s no doubt that current affairs is going places after several years in the doldrums.

In
the recent past, serious TV journalism has laboured under a double
burden – namely the elitist and snooty reputation of the people who
make it and poor ratings of the programmes they produce.

It’s
great that current affairs is coming down from its ivory tower, but for
the time being there’s no need for it to jump into the jacuzzi with the
Big Brother crowd.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five.

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