Letter from America: the key trends in factual TV
BrightSpark Films creative director Nick Godwin on the key trends and talking points in factual TV to emerge at the Realscreen Summit.
As our cabbie pulled into Realscreen’s new venue, the vast bunker like Washington Hilton, he told us that it was here in 1981 that John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan.
There was plenty of drama inside the huge delegates’ area too as the year’s biggest conference for non-scripted telly kicked off. Despite the sub zero temperatures outside there was a palpable buzz inside, a sense that the recession is well and truly over and broadcasters are buying. Moreover, American and Canadian execs really are interested in what we Brits have in our development files.
I don’t think it’s just because Realscreen is set in the nation’s capital that you feel as if you’re at the heart of American non fiction television. Like a more benign House of Cards, the power brokers are all here and there are deals being done. One thing that strikes me as I do the umpteenth meeting is what good manners most North American commissioning execs have. Even if they don’t want what you’re selling, they invariably do it with good grace and no hint of condescension. British commissioners take note!
Last year all the talk was about Duck Dynasty and comedic reality shows being the next big thing. This year DD is reaping stellar audiences and the bearded duck hunters with their questionable views have become one of the most recognizable brands in America.
However, a slew of “me too” reality shows have failed to make the grade. One exec told me they no longer want characters who are missing teeth. For BriteSpark, part of the Argonon group based in North London, this is something of a relief. Tracking down off grid hillbillies with a sense of humour in America’s deep south is a challenge. No one knows what the next breakout hit will be but it’s unlikely to be set in Louisiana.
There’s also a strong sense that bringing in script writers to shape your reality show is so last year. Too much American factual TV has become contrived and predictable of late. If viewers want real drama they’re spoilt for choice as the renaissance in American scripted continues. But most viewers come to factual television looking for authenticity as well as entertainment. And those viewers, and us sellers, have more and more choice than ever as to where to go as new channels spring up almost every week attempting to carve out a unique niche.
Alongside the major players, Esquire, Pivot and the rebranded A and E channels LMN and FYI amongst others are all looking for new factual shows.
And then the there’s the growing power of new media commissioners such as NetFlix. At one session – Amping Up Unscripted – Al Jazeera showed clips from a powerful new documentary series following migrants heading for America. A network based in Qatar might not be the first place you’d think of to place a big blue chip documentary series but they’re very much in the game.
After three days in a frigid Washington it seems to me that how we deliver authenticity in a fresh and compelling way will be this year’s challenge. That and finding strong characters with a good set of teeth.
Nick Godwin is Creative Director of BriteSpark Films, part of the Argonon group