This essay was completed for Unit 27 (Factual Programming) for TV and Film.
A factual programme must document actual people and events to tell a true story. Factual programmes are amongst the most popular forms of television, certainly the most popular non-fiction form of visual entertainment. Television channels such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic are known for airing documentaries, mostly environmental, cultural and wildlife related whilst Channel 4 are known for producing documentary films as well as content for their TV channel. Documentaries, like feature films, use certain conventions. A primary documentary convention is ‘cutaways’. Cutaways are shots relating to the narrative without showing the action or the speaker. An example of a cutaway is if an interviewee is talking about smoking, a shot of them smoking or lighting a cigarette may be shown over the subject’s voice. These help the filmmaker to portray a subject in a positive or negative way.
Sub-Categories of Factual Programming
Factual programmes are split into sub-categories, the most popular being documentaries (programmes that provide a factual report on a subject). Docudrama is a sub-category that features historical events, usually re-enacted. However, these documentaries may use archive footage (footage found or recorded from an external source). Some docudrama productions re-enact historical events in their actual location of where the events originally happened and employ actors to voice over the film or TV programme as their character. An example of this is the TV programme ‘United 93’, a docudrama about the tragic 9/11 events in New York. This programme portrays exactly what happened using dramatised re-enactments. Quite a lot of the re-enactments in this TV show are filmed with handheld equipment. By doing this, the documentary has an amateur and personal quality, making it more relatable to the viewer rather than having a cinematic quality.
Reality TV, also a sub-category of factual programming, is known for its unscripted, spontaneous and humorous situations. All documented events are situated in reality in that they are not acted. Reality TV over the years has begun to evolve around pop and youth culture. Two of the biggest reality TV shows include ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ and ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, their unique selling point is the fact that their subjects are always infamous celebrities. Having famous people such as these on screen also promotes the programme in some way as the subjects can have large fan-bases or quite the opposite in that they cause media interest. Celebrities appear on these shows to promote themselves too.
A docu soap is a sub-category that follows a group, family or single person on their life’s journey whether it is day to day or otherwise. Although this may seem identical to reality TV, docu soaps can be based on the subject’s daily routine rather than placing them in certain awkward situations such as a bush tucker trial on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. Like reality TV, the subjects can be famous people and do not use scripts. In doing so, the audience is able to see the celebrity as a real person, with real emotions. This enables the viewer to connect and empathise with the celebrity. ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ is a typical example of a docu soap. This programme focuses on the stereotypical wedding traditions of the traveler community. Although the TV show may seem a little controversial and biased in places, many viewers tune in as it is a different form of British culture. This show particularly uses the factual programming convention vox pops (unorganised spontaneous interviews). These vox pops are habitually of the travellers themselves commenting on the everything that happens within the wedding process. This is all unscripted. Vox pops are a useful convention in that they provide a informal viewpoint often shared with the viewer themselves.
Infotainment factual programs are based around entertaining the viewers as well as educating them. These programmes usually contain a presenter who is knowledgeable about the subject covered. For example, ex football players present ‘Soccer AM’. The Discovery Channel’s programmes focus on naturalistic and cultural happenings within the world itself. These programmes rely on fact and professional opinion, using certain procedures such as montages to engage the viewer’s interest. Montages are a key example of a factual programme technique involving clips of the subject alongside a musical interlude. These documentaries also rely on archive footage and graphics made in post production. For example, whilst talking about global warming, an animation could be seen of the world rather than footage of the narrator speaking to the camera.
Wildlife documentaries are another sub-category of factual programming. These natural history programmes are educational and contain narration throughout describing for example the animal’s habitat or antics. ‘Deadly 60’ is a TV show created by presenter Steve Backshall focusing on certain dangerous animals. Modern graphics are used throughout episodes to display facts. This makes it more modern and eye catching as the programme is aimed at children. These conventions enable the programme to display facts in an interesting manner, making the programme always have something interesting on screen, instead of just Steve Backshall talking.
Educational television programmes are designed solely to educate the viewer. Children’s educational television programmes are created so that children can acquire knowledge whilst being entertained by a story. The animated television show ‘Dora the Explorer’ often has a plot that the audience is able to participate in by asking rhetorical questions. Dora breaks the fourth wall throughout the show, asking the children watching what she should do next whilst teaching them a new language.
Along side music and fictional films, documentaries too have sub-genres. Poetic documentaries, a popular sub-genre, first appeared in the 1920s. The director of a poetic documentary would take the chosen subject and turn it into a story to create a full narrative. An example of this is David Attenborough’s work. In his documentaries, he gives animals human characteristics through narration to accentuate and embellish the story. Although poetic documentaries are factual and realistic, they use cinematic techniques such as colour correction to improve the film’s overall appearance. Cinematic music is often employed to make the action that is going on in a scene seem more exciting. For example, if two lions are fighting in a wildlife poetic documentary, intense music will play just like an action film to emphasise the seriousness of the happenings.
Expository documentaries speak to the audience often in the form of a commentary or narration to highlight an opinion. They usually propose a song point. In expository documentaries, the narrator and/or filmmaker is shown often in front of the camera and gives their point of view. A good example of this is found within Louis Theroux’s documentaries. A sub-genre in contrast is observational documentaries. These factual programmes always included spontaneous life with almost no filmmaker involvement or intervention altogether. The works of John Grierson are mainly expository.
Performative documentaries acknowledge the subjective and emotional aspects of documentaries and use hypothetical reenactments to emphasise and dramatise scenes. Dramatisation (a key factual programming convention) is used in performative documentaries in order to excite the subject. Some of these effects include dramatic music, cliff hangers and enhanced graphics. An example of a performative documentary is Marlon Riggs’s ‘Tongues United’. The 1991 film constantly switches between confessions, poems, archive footage and interviews to enhance the viewer’s experience and boost the emotionality of a scene. Another convention of performative documentaries are sound effects. If someone were to throw a punch, foley sound would most likely be used just like a feature fictional film to call attention to the seriousness of the action.
Reflexive documentaries are truthful but not a perfect representation of the subject. Commonly known as the most ‘self aware’ sub-genre, reflexive documentaries present the chosen subject as in their own way. Rather than being a window on the world, they can sometimes appear untruthful. Example here Special interest documentaries are a genre that differs from the rest and revolves solely around their target audience. Televisions such as Top Gear focus completely on motor vehicles, appealing strongly to lovers of cars, primarily men.
Research and Respect
As factual productions tend to be based upon accuracy and nonfictional in approach, extensive research needs to be performed in order for the production to be acceptably informative and precise. Before researching the topic and creating a pre-production folder, a producer/filmmaker would need to perform primary and secondary research. Primary research consists of previously uncollected newly discovered data. For example, filmmakers would need to create a public questionnaire and head out into busy locations to ask their target audience on their opinion of the subject. Online questionnaires held on internet platforms such as Survey Monkey are becoming increasingly popular. With just the click of a few buttons, potential viewers are able to fill in information and answer questions online. After this process, the filmmaker can select individual data and figure out which age groups answered what to select a primary target audience. Secondary research includes gathering data that has already been researched. For example, a filmmaker would need to search online for already made documentaries of the subject (if they do indeed exist) and plan a shot list of cutaways that they would need to create.
Qualitative research is the art of understanding a phenomenon from a closer perspective. Interviews are a key documentary convention and a fantastic example of qualitative research as they include gathering information from an interviewee (usually someone that knows a lot about the subject and/or is involved with it) and asking them for more information on the subject. In contrast, quantitative research tends to be mainly exploring a subject from a distance using methods such as surveys and gathering large amounts of information. Although the information gathered would not be as detailed as within a personal interview, they allow generalisation and can be more relatable as most of the public answering the survey will not know much, if not nothing at all about the subject.
In documentaries, professionalism should be shown if the information given is meant to be taken seriously. During an interview with Jimmy Saville, documentary filmmaker and interviewer at the time Louis Theroux asked open questions and did not pressure Saville despite Saville’s attempts to undermine Theroux. This left the audience to form their own reaction about this infamous celebrity. Louis Theroux is a primary example of a filmmaker who respects the art of factual programming. He is professional, and reserved in uncomfortable interview situations. By constantly remaining relaxed, Theroux lures the interviewee into a relaxed and comfortable state enabling them to reveal their true personality often to the detriment of their career.
Stacy Dooley portrays a bad example of interviewer professionalism. During what was supposed to be an interview with Muslim extremists, she begins to argue with them as she disagrees with their opinion, damaging her reputation. Although her documentary would have meant to be controversial, the argument felt defensive, personal and portrayed little factual content. A muslim protester was interrupted by her whilst explaining why they’re protesting and then made this remark: “I think you look naked on the street.” Stacy immediately replies with an angry tone “Do I look naked, do I?” Throughout that interview, it was clear that she had not planned her questions correctly and figured out the best method of getting a good answer from someone without offending them. For example: Confirmatory questions, like suggestive questions, guide the interviewee into saying the preferred answer, leading on answers to support a point.
A good documentary filmmaker should always plan their questions before an interview and ask the subjects to sign a release form (a document giving the filmmaker the rights to use them in their film) to avoid copyright issues. Copyright issues occur when the filmmaker does not ask permission to use footage or takes archive footage without permission. For example, if one were to create a film about video games, they would need to make sure that the game’s developers allow their product to be displayed in the documentary, as although it could promote the game, the product could be controversially represented.
So what is the purpose of a factual programme? Filmmakers that have respect for their craft would plan out how they want the audience to react and what they want the audience to learn. A documentary would be made in a certain way and have a certain style/sub-genre depending on the way a filmmaker would like to represent the subject. For example, poetic documentaries turn a happening into a narrative and use conventions such as colour correction to make the scene look more appealing. No matter what or how a subject is portrayed in a documentary, the priority purpose of a factual programme will always be to inform the audience.