This week I attended the Australian International Documentary Conference and as usual left with a sense of dread and hope.
Dread as you hear international Commissioning Editors tell you your stories are too Australian and don’t resonate with the stereotypical view of your country. Hope because with online distribution you know one day you may not need a Commissioning Editor at all.
But in all reality, until broadcast and digital distribution converge the current commissioning model is still God and guarantees you an audience.
On the final day of the conference delegates are asked to raise issues they would like the AIDC committee to lobby on your behalf. By the end of this session it was clear that despite the increase in digital channels on free to air tv, we are still relying on the ABC and SBS to deliver Australian documentaries. Never once was there discussion about lobbying the commercial networks to create slots for documentary series or one-offs instead of their reality tv and factual formats.
Perhaps if we did members of the Australian Director’s Guild would receive an annual wage closer to the national average of $68k instead of the meager $45k.
When I look at SBS’ success of 2011, Go Back to Where You Came From, I have hope that we can do this. Sure it fell perfectly in to their charter of multicultural stories that pushed form and subject, yet its presentation of a polemic could fit on any commercial network. (In fact I am convinced a few commercial Commissioning Editors wished they had it.)
During the AIDC case study on the series, Producer Michael Cordell acknowledged part of its success was strong journalism and journalists behind its research and implementation. Music to my ears, if we want quality journalism to come back maybe we should embrace it in our documentaries.
Throughout the conference I also heard that one off documentaries on social issues are no longer accepted. By who I wondered? Audiences? Or Commissioning Editors?
Four Corners is a great example of one off social issues, which in documentary terms are ‘presenter lead’ that delivers a diversity of voices on subjects that make up Australia. It is also one of the ABC’s highest rating and longest standing programs.
Perhaps I should have gone to the sessions called “Defining Documentary: A Debate”, that may have given me some rationale as to why we continue to put journalism and documentary in separate camps. Because from what I saw, when the two meet in a series like Go Back it can create groundbreaking, must see television. And isn’t that what we all want.