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Who cares about the gatekeeper?

Bird2John Umney recently wrote an excellently considered and nicely penned blog about Adam Curtis’s latest film, Bitter Lake.  At the end of his blog he asked a very pertinent question about why the film was not screened on TV but released only through iPlayer.  Sadly, I don’t have the answer, although I do not share the paranoia of conspiracy theorists or those who believe the film is too dangerous for governments to let people see.  I have asked one or two insiders what happened with the commissioning process and have drawn a blank – so far – although if I ever receive a definitive answer I shall share it.  However, it would not surprise me if this, my imagined scenario, comes close to some form of truth.
Documentary is the meat and two veg of television.  You only need to take a brief look at the TV listings to see that factual programming dominates morning, noon and night.  The reason is, it’s generally cheap to make – certainly a fraction of the cost of drama or light entertainment and celebrity-driven formats and it delivers consistently reasonable sized audiences.  The great exception is the work of auteur film makers like Curtis.  His series The Century of the Self I consider to be one of the greatest television documentary series ever made – up there with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man.  Curtis is a polemicist and as such is a rare beast in TV.  Broadcasters need him in the same way as journalists like John Pilger – who pricked the conscience of audiences and exposed truths about the world there is no doubt governments would have much preferred to have remained untold.  He makes them feel good. But the broadcast landscape has changed immeasurably since Pilger’s regular investigative films were watched by millions thirty years ago and The Century of the Self garnered a modest audience when it was shown on BBC4 in 2002 – the  year that the unashamedly high-brow channel which went  by the tag line ‘A Place to Think’ was launched.  
Then, on a good night, BBC4 was getting audiences of less than 100,000 for some of its most popular programmes with a share of the national audience of less than 3%.  The five terrestrial channels, BBC 1 & 2, ITV and Channel Four and Five between them had around 85% of the entire audience and YouTube was still three years away from being launched!  Curtis’s later series including The Power of Nightmares – 2004, and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – 2011 aired on BBC2.  Although the series received considerable critical acclaim and gongs to boot, I am not sure they garnered huge audiences – 1.5 million would have been considered a success in primetime on BBC2 for a documentary series – especially an authored and challenging one.  These works wer three-part hour-long series that fitted neatly into a modern TV schedule.  Bitter Lake is a 135-minute feature-length documentary.  It might have fitted into the only surviving doco slot on the BBC, Storyville and would have been aired late at night because of its running time.  Otherwise, there is no place anymore for long-form single docs on television.  My guess is, the BBC would have thought itself lucky to have got an audience of 50,000 if it had aired on terrestrial TV. So, better put it on iplayer where it will get that, and more views.  Work of auteurs like Curtis are sought out by fans and docofiles on the web.  In fact it was a smart call in my view.  Discerning viewers are as at home watching films on-line as on the box.  A film of more than two hours in length is more likely to be seen through time shift than as a scheduled broadcast and in the case of Bitter Lake – an in-house BBC production don’t forget – it has every chance of being aired on BBC4 when they have a suitable slot at some time in the future – maybe even BBC2 although the film is probably too challenging for that channel’s brand.

The broadcasters, the gatekeepers of our viewing predilections, have become very adept in delivering content to when and where it is best served.  of course, some of us might question this in the light of plans to make BBC3 an on-line only channel, but ask yourself this question, just how much television do you watch on television these days and does it really matter what the viewing platform is, just so long as you can still watch and gatekeepers are still paying to make such amazing and important work as Bitter Lake.

Posted by author: Adam
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13 thoughts on “Who cares about the gatekeeper?

  • Good points Adam. I guess the only downside is the lack of publicity for the work except by word of mouth, so it will initially be missed by some, but this may come back to your point about it being shown later on BBC4 when, hopefully, by then its built up a following and can be legitimately described as a must see. A thought occurred to me after seeing this post maybe its the Beeb testing the waters by FIRST putting it on iplayer to see how the piece goes down?

  • Thank you for your kind words Adam. When I wrote the piece I was concerned as much about the wonder of the piece as about the longevity of the piece and, as Richard suggests, the audience. I have been relieved (a little) to see that it has been extended until the end of the year after which I suspect it will languish like “The Century of the Self” http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/ (great preface by the way). I don’t expect that viewing figures mean anything much these days, but I suspect they aren’t available for an online delivery only?

    • Hi John,
      Basic viewing figures are available through BBC’s monthly iPlayer media packs, but the last one available to-date is December ’14 (http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/iplayer/iplayer-performance-dec14.pdf). However the lists are limited to the top-performers (so, Top Gear, The Apprentice, East Enders etc. etc.) so I wouldn’t expect to see Bitter Lake in there when the January listings are published.
      On Adam’s final point, I would agree with this to an extent, but the one issue I have with iPlayer in general is that it isn’t always easy to discover content on there without knowing the title of the programme beforehand – I had to refer back to John’s original post before I could find it on my TV. Aside from this issue of discoverability, I would share your view that the notion of ‘aired’ TV being a barometer of success is becoming increasingly outmoded, especially with the recent spate of critical and popular successes enjoyed by online-only programmes e.g. House of Cards or Serial (http://serialpodcast.org/)

      • Interestingly I am reminded of Curtis’ ‘Century of the Self’ as I read your comment Paul. One of the chief aims of a ‘Market Driven’ society in a capitalist world is to divide and conquer. The multitude of channels all delivering ‘content’ for smaller and smaller audiences must make the Propagandists, oops I mean PR people very happy.
        Have to say I wasa bit disappointed with Serial, as I am now habitually used to resolution

  • I have to agree with Paul about discovering content on iPlayer.
    I wonder how many people there are who for a variety of reasons, age, location, internet problems etc. are ‘aired’ TV only viewers. I cannot access content on my TV except aired (via Freesat) programmes. WiFi is problematic in my house because of its construction and setting up a wired network is too complex simply for the dubious pleasure of online-only programmes!

    • Peter – have you tried the powerline option – I’ve got a BT 500 setup and it (generally) works a treat in my rural cottage with thick stone walls – we can now stream TV downstairs as long as the general rural broadband isn’t “lumpy” (i.e. we do still get buffering, but that will be everywhere in the house if it’s bad and nothing to do with wifi)
      As for Bitter Lake – it’s on my to do list whilst I’m off next week…

    • There’s no need for a smart TV, I just use a NowTV box (£10) by Sky and it suits our needs well. You don’t need to sign up to anything and you get the basic on demand channels such as iPlayer, 4OD etc. on that. Unfortunately, you can’t wire the box up via ethernet, but I just sit the WiFi hub right next to the box to make sure the connection is steady.

  • One option for seeing this – and you really should – is to to take a laptop of tablet to somewhere where the wifi is good and download it.

  • I have watched the film on a laptop and this lead me back to something that has been a subject of discussion at various times over the past many decades and that is the effect of viewing a piece of work in/on a medium for which it was not conceived.
    The initial discussions took place when cinema films began to be shown on TV (The big screen on the small screen was the sort of terminology used then). TV screens became bigger and cinema screen smaller over the years but I recall the discussion becoming quite prominent when Channel 4 and Film 4 started to produce movies for both media. Now we have very large TV screen, very small cinema screens (in historical terms anyway) and we are watching and we are watching content made for both on computer monitors, laptops, tablets and even on smart phones.
    I wonder how the viewing medium affects our relationship to and perception of the work wer are viewing?

    • Hi Peter,
      Your comment reminds me of a very important truth; If you are filming a plane crash no one cares what you used to record the event just so long as one can see it – and more importantly hear the sound. I was at the centre of a huge argument inside television in the nineties when I wanted to shoot films on Hi8. All programmes had to go through a technical check and the boffins at all the broadcasters would suck in their cheeks and say the resolution wasn’t acceptable because we were using domestic cameras. it became a battle of technology over content and fortunately content did win, but it was a tough fight. Content is King and sound is more important than the pictures. This is evident if anyone has watched a football match on a crumby screen with lousy reception. it doesn’t matter how grainy and fuzzy the picture is, just as long as you can hear the commentary you will watch.
      I think it is very sad that folks will watch films shot with great artistry and resolution on tiny screens and lack the curiosity to go and see them on a big screen – the means of projection they were designed for. Yet, the reality is that cinema is not where films make their money in general, it is on-line, on TV and on DVD. Even when a $100 million blockbuster grosses $500 million, most of that revenue comes not from selling cinema seats but the so-called secondary market. And now films will be released in the cinema, on DVD and on-line at the same time – something that was unthinkable even recently. The business is now all about delivering content in all the forms people want to consume it, and that little tablet or mobile phone is usually the most convenient, but sadly not the best.

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