How To Get Investigative Documentaries On Television

I’m puzzled that I often meet fantastic journalists who believe fervently that television is set against investigations. They list wonderful stories that have been rejected, and portray a Britain of dumbed down television that has no room for journalistic sleuthing.

Of course, any TV listings guide will show they are wrong.

I think in many cases they would get their ideas accepted if they had a better understanding of the language of television, its demands and its power. It doesn’t help that sometimes journalists have a wilful disdain for understanding the language of television. They believe that the story is all, and everything else is flummery.

That makes no sense. The story is important, but these same journalists would never rage against a newspaper editor who required their scoop to be written in clear, vigorous writing in grammatically correct English.

I think that to make worthwhile television there are some rules that by and large have to be followed. To convince a commissioning editor that a film should be made, journalists need to demonstrate they understand these rules and can meet the demands they impose.

Written by Eamonn Matthews – Managing Director of Quicksilver Media.

1. Narrative

There must be a narrative, by which I mean cause and event must relentlessly follow each other, from start to finish. A documentary has to tell a story which unfolds in a compelling way, with the viewer desperate to know what happens next. Television is a hugely powerful medium but it is a limited one, and an unforgiving one. You can’t turn back a page, or click back to the previous page. There are no second chances. It is a medium that has to hold its audience every second. Viewers are holding remote controls with their fingers poised. And they’re gone if your grip on their attention falters for even half a second. Narrative is all.

From the start anyone carrying out an investigation needs to think about the range of revelation needed to construct a narrative that will drive the film forward.

2. Actuality

In television, it is rarely enough for investigative journalists to reveal wrongdoing: they need to have footage of that wrong doing. ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’

Newspaper and web journalists can write about abstract issues. Television demands to see something concrete happening. I have heard journalists deplore this as the ‘tyranny of television’. I think this is missing the entire point of the medium. Television’s greatest strength is taking viewers to places they can’t go and showing them what is actually happening. That’s its purpose.

3. Characters

Television is also about letting viewers meet other people whose experiences and suffering they can relate to through a common bond of humanity. It’s not enough to meet them as ‘talking heads’. We need to enter their lives. Television is uniquely equipped to do this, and commissioning editors will expect it to happen.

Developing characters helps hold an audience. It also makes for stronger journalism. An eminent newspaper columnist once wrote of a programme I had made that it was too emotionally powerful and would hinder politicians from making logical decisions. I instinctively distrust this plea for desiccated storytelling. The emotional response we feel to characters is also part of understanding the complexities of a situation.

4. Interviews

Documentary interviews should be filmed to capture testimony, not information.

When a print journalist interviews someone it’s often the first time they have met them and so the interview is a fishing trip, a trawl for information. A television journalist conducting an on-camera interview for a documentary should not be seeking information; they should already know what the person will say through their preliminary research.

A television interview is conducted to get first-hand testimony that corroborates or develops the actuality pictures. The reporter, like a barrister in court, is seeking to establish key points. The second purpose of interviews is to put revelations to those who should be held to account. Again, the reporter needs to be more akin to a barrister than a print journalist seeking information.

5. Script

When I watch an initial cut of a programme, I watch it without any reporter commentary.

In a programme that is working, the picture actuality and the interviews with key characters will tell much of the story; otherwise it’s a radio show with some visual wallpaper laid underneath. If that isn’t happening then either the material isn’t being edited properly or the wrong material has been filmed. ‘This is boring but it will be good when there’s script on it’ is not a statement I have ever found to be true.

6. The story

It’s vital that a substantial number of people care about your revelations. A journalist who makes a documentary is asking a television audience to watch for half an hour, or more likely an hour, probably in the evening during their leisure time. That’s a big ask – far more than the 15 minutes or so most people spend reading an entire newspaper. So any revelation must be one that affects large numbers of people. There is no point in broadcasting programmes that no-one watches, or in arguing that people ‘ought’ to watch something.

So it’s easy. Work for months to uncover an amazing revelation that affects millions of people. Keep repeating until you have enough revelations to construct a gripping narrative. Work out how to capture in pictures the wrongdoing you have documented. And then persuade the people affected by your revelations to relive their ordeal in front of a camera.

Of course, rules exist to be broken. However, if you break these suggestions you need to be able to explain why you are breaking them and why the end result will be improved. If you can’t, think again before pitching the idea. And even if you think you can, you should probably think again.

Eamonn Matthews is the Managing Director of Quicksilver Media. As a film-maker and executive producer, he has won many major television awards, including two BAFTAs.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis. It is used with the kind permission of the editors. With many thanks to BBC College of Journalism.


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