TV execs want safe docs while their audience goes YouTube

Michael Graef, British documentary filmmaker gave his thoughts on the impact of the web and sites like YouTube on filmmaking in this weeks Media Guardian(registration required). Graef seems to a loss as to why large numbers of viewers are choosing to watch grainy amateur footage on YouTube over TV. He reckons independent documentary makers have on the one hand lots of opportunities, but laments the conservatism of broadcast commisioning.

Much of the current improvised style goes back to the 60s, when lightweight equipment provided mobility undreamt of by previous documentary-makers. Portable cameras were able to follow action as it happened, rather than stage it as so many of the masters did. Smaller cameras made possible both the best and worst of observational film-making.This also changed the language: once controversial grainy handheld images are now commonplace to convey action and immediacy. Big Brother draws millions. It is descended from innovative film-makers such as Dziga Vertov and Andy Warhol setting up a fixed camera on the street. Now we can peer into bedrooms and sitting rooms or watch streets all over the world. Surprising numbers choose this over whatever is on telly. Go figure.

The launch of Channel 4, Five and the opening of the BBC to independent producers have created scores of opportunties for independent producers he says. And today there are even more digital channels and another window of opportunity at the BBC offering a further 25% of their output to indies. But Roger ain’t happy:

Because the speed of change has caused a shift in commissioning policy and audience targets, pulling programme-makers in conflicting directions. Even as channels ask for innovation, they are retreating to safer, more controllable formats. TV executives exhort the creative community to “think big”, “out of the box”, to come up with “landmark ideas that will punch through the schedules”. They want to be surprised. But they want surprise in predictable forms.Although reality shows are history, they want “constructed documentaries” on lighter subjects, fronted by a celebrity or at least a presenter. They should be fast-moving, appealing to younger viewers. And whatever anyone says to Ofcom, success is still measured by ratings. So too is the decision to commission.

Just as the audiences fragment or leaves Telly for YouTube, broadcasters want to play it safe.

But creative film-making requires the opposite ethos: no formulas, no guaranteed number of viewers, and no imitation of other successful programmes. It needs a willingness to take risks, to fund and stay with projects that may not bear fruit for years. We set out on each journey without knowing how it will end – the opposite of the current requirement for a full outline of the film to be part of the initial contract.

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