Categories
Documentary Factual Television

Life, the universe, and everything

Back on this blog after an embarassingly enormous hiatus…

The 5-part documentary series ‘Universe’ with Professor Brian Cox, started its run last night on BBC2 in the UK, with an episode called The Sun: God Star. The whole series also landed on iPlayer. You can see a trailer of it here. I watched the film, and this review by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian caught my eye.

Here’s an extract:

“Stirring music accompanies every shot, swoops in to underline Cox’s latest evocation of the ancient past, relentlessly seeking to give voice to the ineffable. Why they are so scared of putting his actual knowledge on show, I do not know. You have what is surely the rarest of beasts – a personable physicist unfazed by the idea of making his subject accessible on camera – and keep trying to use him as a poet? Why?

This time round, we have reams of riffs on “the age of starlight”. “Everyone we love, everything we value, our supreme accomplishments as a civilisation were created and crafted by stars.” And Earth “is an arcadia where a star could breathe life into dust”. In an hour filled with drone footage of shorelines, endless CGI of cosmic webs and musical crescendos, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the stuff that should actually be inspiring us with awe.”

Prof Brian Cox

I agree with a lot of what she writes. The graphic sequences are amazing, (from Lola Post), and it’s liberating to see wild and empty landscapes with Brian Cox in them after the pandemic lockdown. But is it really enough for such a vast theme?

In BBC terms, this series counts as a ‘landmark’. In the UK, we’ve long got used to such landmarks being shaped around the presenter, and in previous series Brian Cox has even been part of the title. This focus on a presenter as the only voice allowed to be heard is what gets me, making the film into a lecture with a slideshow – though a wildly expensive one.

All those other aspects of science documentary – debate, investigation, revelation, exploration, research, even education – and the people that bring those themes to life, have been sacrificed to the need for a steady flow of ‘wonder’. (It’s not confined to this series of course – most BBC ‘landmarks’ follow the same style)

Brian Cox is probably the best-known academic on science television, and has doubtless inspired a lot of people to be interested in science and the natural world through his documentaries. He even has research papers written about him as a presenter and science communicator. As Lucy Mangan notes in her review, he certainly knows his stuff, much more than he reveals in the doc.


But I realised that I might be judging his new series in the wrong way just as a science documentary for television. Seems to me that it’s precisely the beautiful images and soothing sounds that make it work for the wider market: beyond broadcast TV, maybe it’s made with the audience which shares videos of that wonder firmly front of mind.

Seeing Brian Cox filmed against the sun, perched on rocky ledges and amongst glaciers made me think of all those instagram pictures of travellers standing on the edges of lakes and canyons, the ubiquity of drone landscapes on YouTube, even those ASMR videos. So I took a closer look into the partners on the series.


It’s a coproduction by BBC Studios with the US public broadcaster PBS, where it goes out as NOVA – Universe Revealed on October 29th. But also a coproduction with Xigua Video in China, owned by Bytedance (which also owns TikTok)


Wiki tells me that the name “Xigua”, means “watermelon” and refers to the Chinese concept of “watermelon-eating crowd” (吃瓜群众), meaning “onlookers who just casually enjoy their melons and watch events unfold without wanting to get involved”.

The beautiful graphic sequences and stunning landscapes, the modern and identifiable music (the band Foals remixed their song Neptune as the title track), and the bite-sized poetic narration makes for some very ‘clippable’ sequences. Perfect for short-form viewing maybe? I’m not saying that Xigua drove the shape and style of the series. I’m sure the BBC Studios Science Unit and PBS feel that it’s a way to get science to appeal to broad audiences; and were merely aware of other markets that this style would appeal to.

Just as I was getting used to Brian Cox being Alone in the Universe, as it were, the last 5 minutes of the film goes to a caption ‘Exploring the Universe’, and features scientists explaining the NASA Parker mission referenced at the start of the film. It’s very odd, and rather different from the rest of the film – a throwback to those ‘Planet Earth (etc) Diaries’ 10 minute ‘making of’ segments that bumped up a 50 min BBC doc made for international sales, to a 59 min BBC broadcast slot. For me, it brought back a feeling of real science and technology – and the people behind it – which I’d been searching for in the rest of the film.

If you’ve seen Universe, feel free to share your thoughts!

Categories
Asia ideas Independent Production SBS Television

How Seoul’s Digital Media City matches up to Salford’s MediaCityUK

Korea has created a Digital Media City (DMC) on the outskirts of Seoul and houses nearly all its broadcasters there. Like MediaCity UK in Salford. But way bigger.

 

This is the enormous HQ for MBC, one of the three Korean public channels. Check out its OTT ‘window on  the world’ promotional video on the link above.

 

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These outfits have big in-house production staff, and layers of management that would make even the BBC blush.

 

On Friday I went to CJ E&M, which is a huge conglomerate that runs several stations, and has a mission to ‘create a new global pop culture‘. Ambitious people. I met Hwang Jin Woo, head of Formats – who I’d first met doing a talk to Korean broadcast execs three years ago, and his colleague Sun Jin Sung.

 

We talked about the big shows they do – Korean versions of the entertainment shows we all know – and the drama and features shows that are the staples of their channels. Hwang is in charge of developing formats, and adapting foreign ones.

 

He also showed me the Digital centre. This is meant to be like Maker Studios, to encourage digital creatives to experiment.  It was empty at 11am, he said that was because creatives got up late – it would be fully booked from the afternoon till into the night. There was a green screen motion capture room, and other sets to do programmes.

 

 

And this digital content is the growth area, as every Korean young and old seems to gaze at their large screen smartphones most of the time.

 

In the afternoon I went to see the national broadcaster KBS, meeting Kate Hyein Cho, who I’d seen at Asian Side of the Doc, and her boss Irene Kim. Their large building is right next to the national assembly – no chance of them moving away from government to go to the DMC. A pretty conventional public broadcaster, growing old with its audience. Posters around the building encouraged staff to come up with ideas for the 20-49 age group – the assumption was the their audience would be much older.

 

 

On Monday I’m seeing EBS, the Educational Broadcaster. They’re also moving to the DMC in 3 years time.

 

Salford Media City is built on the same model as the DMC of a ‘creative cluster’ of broadcasters, producers and studios, and was being developed at the same time in the mid-2000s. When I saw the impressive blocks over the water at Salford Quays, I remember thinking that it had been conceived in a pre-mobile, pre-Youtube age (I mean the early 2000’s, younger readers) – when progress meant big buildings full of people. Now creativity is often talked about on a smaller scale – but with bigger reach.  It’s now more about multi-purpose spaces, places that make you want to hang out and have ideas with others, places that are connected.

 

MediaCity_at_night

 

In Korea, with most production in-house, I guess the model of state subsidy for large organisations to pay expensive rents in steel and glass corporate palaces still works.  This was an urban plan all about consolidating the big state-supported production models. There is a similar state planning model for publishing – Paju Book City, close to the North Korean border, is the home to all of Korea’s publishers.

 

Salford has BBC North, ITV with Coronation St, Salford University and good & busy production companies Shine North run by Alex Connock, and drama producer Red. But maybe not as many small emerging companies as they’d like (with the honourable exception of the ones based in The Greenhouse).

 

I’m not saying this is down to the producers being resistant – in the UK, with commissioning centralised in London, the third leg of the ‘production company-freelancer-commissioner’ stool is missing and there’s no particular reason for production companies to be next to the BBC in Salford unless they make Childrens programmes.

 

Alex has written a lot about the effect of a creative cluster in the North of England – see his recent piece on the role of the BBC as a ‘creative kickstarter’ and what sort of investment the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ needs. Salford will grow – but with TV production contracting, the growth will probably come from telecoms, and content work for brands, direct-to-consumer, short-form, foreign clients, rather than British TV commissioning.

 

In DMC, the huge staff bases shunted out to work in MBC, CJ E&M, SBS (the Korean not the Aussie one!) and shortly EBS meant there were plenty of people around. The shops and cafes attracted people on the weekend, unlike Salford Media City. The transport links are good and there’s a proper station there (well, 10 minutes walk away) rather than a tram stop.

 

 

The problem of the DMC is that the ‘software’ in this model, the Korean broadcasters, don’t have a commissioning structure, and have very little idea of how to work with independents. They produce in house, pay peanuts for the occasional indie documentary, and take all the rights. Unless that changes, it’s hard to see how it would become a true creative cluster.

 

Digital Media City didn’t feel much like the digital future to me, unless that future is entirely corporate. There wasn’t even free public wifi that I could find. The idea that to make content all you need is a small camera, laptop editing, lots of coffee and wifi, and some likeminded young people, still seemed a long way away.
Categories
BBC Event ideas Multimedia Television

Peoples Broadcasting in the age of the internet

When the British electorate voted for a Conservative government, to replace the previous Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, there were a few predictions of doom for the funding of pubic services in the UK.

For the BBC, the result confirmed that their role, size and funding will be firmly in the sights of the new administration – though I imagine that would also have been the case with a Labour-led coalition. The BBC is saying it will do its own proposals on its role ‘in the internet age’, as it quaintly calls it.

Yesterday I went for the day to Digital Shoreditch, a week long series of talks, meetings, panels about this ‘internet age’. TV seemed very out of place in this online world of apps, services, sites. Friday was the ‘Live’ day, about content and there was a huge range of talks – I think I went to about a dozen in all.

The BBC’s Will Saunders showed a great clip from a year ago about the new short-form video world we were entering, made for a BBC seminar.

If that short-form is too long for you, there’s always Vine – which isn’t meant for oldies like me, I know, but is still a real mystery. One of the top Viners on this US-dominated platform is Brent Rivera. He has good hair at least.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyuFa4Ecf0Q

Will also  talked about BBC Taster, a site for users to test and rate online content – a taste of things to come?

and also showed a quick run through of the first 90 years of the BBC in its Where Next? campaign from last year. Good question.

The BBC absolutely needs to think about its role as a public service media provider (rather than broadcaster) – and in truth is probably doing more of this thinking, experimenting and planning than other PSBs. And of course that future is online, with content open for viewers/users to interact with – and make themselves. I think if we called it Peoples Broadcasting rather than Public, it might seem less forbidding.

The evening finished with a few beers and music.

The BBC might think God only knows what we’d do without it – but in a world where everybody is making their own choices online, and the license fee is ‘under review’, it’s soon going to be easy enough to opt out. I reckon it’s in all our interests to think about what to do with it.

Comments, ideas, questions all welcome, you could even send me a video…

Categories
BBC Documentary History Television

Voting for Little Britain or the wider world

The UK General Election is tomorrow, May 7th.

One of the issues in the Conservative manifesto is the pledge to hold a referendum about whether the UK stays in the European Union.

But it’s barely featured in this election campaign. The London correspondent of German paper Die Welt has noticed this, but I haven’t seen much else.

I went to the BBC yesterday and they were finishing a giant map of the UK in the courtyard. You can’t really see the rest of the world as you’re hemmed in by the walls of the courtyard…I guess we’re too attached to little Britain

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There are lots of domestic issues in this election – much the same as every election – but it’s a globalised world and Britain needs to recognise the opportunities of that. Australia has the same challenges of course.

The following day, Friday May 8th is Victory in Europe  Day – the day to commemorate the coming together of Europe after the war. So the election result will be announced on that morning. I’m not talking about commemorating war, but recognising the peace, and the Europe that was constructed out of the ruins of that war.

On the evening of May 7th, BBC is showing its commemorative season about the end of the war, starting with a series by Steve Humphries of Testimony Films, called  The Greatest Generation. About the people who built the welfare state and the society we now benefit from in Britain. Some very stirring stories here, and a trailer below.

Steve’s also co-written a book he gave me when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Bristol.

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It’s a good reminder of what we might just have said farewell to if we vote in the current government again, like  Ken Loach’s  The Spirit of 45 documentary from 2013

Just in case you were wondering which way I’m going to vote, here’s Cassettboy‘s party political broadcast not on behalf of the Conservative Party

Elections are where public broadcasters really have a role to play. The BBC’s  audience barely remembers this Greatest Generation – BBC2 channel head Kim Shillinglaw pointed out that as the average age of BBC2 audience  is in their 50’s, they grew up on punk rock. Bit of a stretch to say that all of that audience wants programmes with attitude, but I know what she’s getting at.

Speaking of attitude, ‘young person’s channel’ E4 is cleverly switching off for the day tomorrow to encourage people to go out to vote. Darren’s the man in control of the switch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pahIcUi0kns

So if you’re in the UK tomorrow and registered, don’t spend your day trying to watch E4 – please go out and vote.

See you on the other side.

 

Categories
Documentary Factual ideas Independent Production Multimedia Television

The factual shows in 2015 that I haven’t seen yet

I know It might be a bit late to do some predictions for 2015, but here they are anyway. Some thoughts on what I’m looking forward to in 2015. If they exist already, please send me a link!

Something that uses the visceral thrill of stunt bike descents and builds a proper story around it. Clips like this one

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZV7DcUvIfc

 

Something that explains modern France, Now more than ever. A version of this article would be good.

A character as good as market trader Roger Barton in the Indus series ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets‘, my fave doc series of recent months.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDHn-vaz7lE

A new title for ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets’ – I’m a bit of a title fanatic, and this one didn’t draw me in.

An Asian presenter fronting a regular international show. Australia could do with more Asian faces

For lots more programmes from Channel 4 to live up to their great Born Risky tagline

After all the war docs from 2014, and the new swathe of them in 2015, how about something equally compelling about more peaceful achievements?

A series from the Tumblr generation – like TruTV are trying to do.  Kudos to them for doing a full reboot of the channel

A way to get people who watch live sport to watch docs about sporting stories. They never seem to!

An Anime- K-Pop-factual mashup. I went to Seoul for the first time in the autumn, for Docs Port Incheon, and also met Korean producers at the ATF in December. But outside arthouse movies and kids cartoons Korean content is not well known in the West. So how about combining the two biggest genres in Korean pop culture?

And can we all think of a new word instead of ‘arts programmes’ so that programmers don’t keep saying they’re niche and cutting the slots? We all need creativity in our lives. Something to do with Going Out, or Dazzle – anything but Arts!

See you soon, so much media, so little time…

Categories
Documentary Event Independent Production Television

on indie production and public service media

Back to Copenhagen after a week in London. I spent it catching up with production companies, distributors, and going to a day at the Televisual Factual Festival. Well moderated panels on Specialist Factual, Popular Factual, and how to make docs in danger zones,  an interview with Ralph Lee of Channel 4, and a room full of remote cameras to demonstrate using a ‘rig’ set up. Quite a few people that I knew, but even more that I didn’t. Great to be reminded by everybody’s clip reels of what had been on, and working, in the past months. Peter Hamilton’s recently done a good overview of the UK non-fiction market, well worth a read (and I’d recommend subscribing, too).

While there was plenty of discussion of the difficulties of operating in the UK – particularly as a smaller company – the view from the stage was still that there was a big market for a range of UK produced content, particularly factual, that new ideas were sought and would get through, and that producers were well placed to take advantage. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five all seemed to be in the same space for factual. Internationally, British content is doing well too – there were some big winners at the International Emmys last night. I know this is a rosy view and it’s really hard to get commissions – there are so many good ideas out there.

I met some new indies who’d set up in the great indie start-up craze as Televisual called it – amongst them Andrea Miller & Jerry Foulkes of Sunnyside productions, Fenia Vardanis of Melina Media. And companies from Bristol like Testimony, the ever-expanding Icon films, and Tigress who have all carved out a healthy part of the market without having to join the London shark-pool.

And they’re competing in a market with some big players. Discovery & Viacom have bought All3Media and Channel5, Endemol, Shine & Core Media have merged, and Warner has completed a rebrand of the production companies it bought through Shed. On the horizon is the move of BBC in-house production to be a standalone independent company, able to work for other broadcasters as well as the BBC. But if it has to carry BBC overheads and staffing arrangements, I can’t see how it’s going to compete.

All public broadcasters are having to change – mostly by downsizing – and my new colleagues at SBS are facing cuts announced last week – those for the ABC are much larger. But in truth the changes now imposed on the ABC have been happening for many years in the UK sector. It’s not just about saving money, it’s driven by changes in how the creative industry wants to work, and the ways audiences want to watch. The best result would be a more balanced ecosystem of independents and inhouse, and content that people want to watch and use.

Some of that public service ecosystem is on show this week at the IDFA Forum, Festival and DocLab – public service content in all directions, and all of it coming from independent producers working with or without broadcasters. I’m not saying it’s all made for the small screen, a lot of doc films see themselves in opposition to television and see their natural home as the cinema (and good luck to them).

The challenge for Australian broadcasters is to keep a focus on this public service content, rather than chasing ratings or focussing on the now not so new platforms. SBS itself has a real challenge to keep history, arts, social documentary, international themes on the channel. The opposition in Australia has so many battles to fight – about climate change, the environment, immigration policy, cuts to Science R&D funding, that broadcasting and the creative sector maybe don’t get enough attention. But as an outsider to Australia, it needs work.

My London week was rounded off by a Saturday night party  for Anne Morrison, who’s left the BBC and is now Chair of BAFTA. She’s managed so much in her 33 years at the BBC, from 18 years running various factual departments, to driving the Nations and Regions strategy (how to move production and commissioning out of London and into the English regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I worked for Anne on). And most recently the BBC Academy, the BBC’s training organisation. (You should check out the material that’s available for free on their website, particularly the Journalism section).

It was great to see old colleagues, both from the BBC and the independent sector. The quality television programmes produced in that room really captured a lot of my past, and I felt pretty proud to be a part of it. But I couldn’t help feeling we were the lucky ones to have been able to work in such a well-supported organisation. 

Thanks for reading till the end, feel free to share, comments welcome below.