November 1, 1999

Docusoaps: Dirty Laundry on the Air

Well, it’s official. The introduction of the term docusoap to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is proof that the genre is now fully entrenched in British culture. Not like any one in the UK was in any doubt no less than 65 documentary soap operas have appeared on the major British channels in the past four years.

For the uninitiated, here’s the docusoap recipe: Take an industry, preferably one steeped in customer service such as an airport, hotel or ski resort. (Could also choose colorful geographic location at home or abroad). Find a range of people at organization/location who enjoy being the center of attention, and are mouthy to boot. Follow subjects around with cameras for some time. Record any type of dispute, hassle, romantic moment or careless aside. Edit good (see juicy) stuff into story lines, and air over series of six or 10 weeks in half-hour slots on primetime television. Voila, a docusoap.

Through this formula, viewers have been exposed in recent years to the daily lives of wheel clampers, rat catchers, chalet girls, classical musicians, investment brokers, soldiers, hotel chefs, vets, nurses, trainee journalists, driving-school students, marriage counsellors and night-club owners.

Like dramas and comedy, docusoaps depend on characters to maintain viewers‚ interest. Their openings include a montage of characters, and the storylines alternate as they would in drama. A recent series on Channel 4, entitled Love in Leeds, followed single women over a number of weeks in pursuit of the perfect man. The final episode opens with the narrator’s smiling voice: "Back in Leeds, life is finally looking up for single mum Tracy she’s got a date." The show switches between following Tracy and her camera-friendly date to a ball, tracking 45-year old divorcee Christine on a trip to Milan with her new man, and interviewing Janine and her new love interest, whose non-Jewishness is going to be a problem. Like all docusoaps, the scenes are short, narration plentiful and the tone light.

Not surprisingly, a few of the stars of docusoaps have become minor celebrities and enjoyed the talk-show circuit route. Maureen, a 60-something cleaning lady who repeatedly failed her driver’s test, and Jeremy, a cuddly and camp Heathrow airport employee, have become so well known their names are now shorthand for the genre.

In its brief history, the docusoap has been intensely controversial, and at times has been savaged in the media. Television critics generally despise the docusoap formula: the patronizing voiceovers, the attention-seeking stars and the lack of gripping material. "I’d rather eat a bowl of dog biscuits than watch Vets in Practice again," moaned the Guardian’s television critic Desmond Christy in his column. "Does watching a vet lock herself out of her car now count as exciting television?"

The genre has been accused of making caricatures of its subjects—television voyeurism in the pursuit of popular entertainment. Not only are docusoaps giving documentaries a bad name, critics say, but they’re also pushing out more substantive programming. The serious, issue-based documentary has lost out to a much frothier cousin.

The defenders of docusoaps credit them with stimulating the public’s demand for factual programming—there is more of it on British television today than ever before. The series’ popularity proves that factual programming can pull big ratings. At just a fraction of the cost of drama and comedies—the real losers in the docuoap phenomenon.

The passion provoked by docusoaps is not surprising within the context of British broadcasting history. This is a country that justifiably takes enormous pride its factual programs. While the major US networks long ago abandoned the documentary genre in favor of more profitable sitcoms and dramas, Britain has nurtured documentaries as the best way to realize its public service philosophy that television should inform and educate, as well as entertain.

Britain has ensured that every major step in broadcasting—including the launch of new television channels—has been accompanied by mechanisms to protect the public service philosophy. This careful, deliberate approach to the medium over the decades has fostered a television climate that is high-quality, stimulating and diverse. Today that climate is widely seen as under threat—thanks to increasing competition, commercialization, digitalization, and a host of other factors.

The docusoap seems to be a lightning rod for fears about the future of British television. For many, the genre’s emergence is a disheartening sign of the dumbing down of television towards the American model. Its emergence has had the same effect in Britain that the newsmagazine has had in America—once producers recognized its ratings potential they’ve pursued the formula to the detriment of serious, investigative documentaries.

As an American, I’ve watched the docusoap debate with some amusement. The doomsday scenarios offered up by its harshest critics seem premature considering the climate for documentaries in general. If you were to remove docusoaps from British television schedules, there is still an incredible array of factual programming on offer. After decades of fostering the genre, documentaries form a central core of mainstream television schedules to a degree that Americans can only envy.

I have to confess that I like docusoaps. They’re an endearing staple of what I treasure most about British documentaries: the observational film. Every aspect of British life and culture have been examined through observational films as wide-ranging in format as Michael Apted’s longitudinal Up series, to the brief Video Nation shorts (both have been discussed in these pages—see January and May 1999 issues of Documentary). Many observational films are artistic and beautiful to watch, and are wonderful demonstrations of how documentaries can make utterly compelling television.

Docusoaps are certainly the low end of the observational film spectrum. Yet I find even the weakest are more illuminating and entertaining than sitcoms or game shows. They provide a glimpse of ordinary lives that is seldom seen on American television. Reality-based series in the US usually concentrate on the exploitation of misfortune: police arrests, emergency rooms and the like. But British docusoaps aren’t afraid to aim their lenses at the more mundane, with faith that stories will emerge. The series still thrive on crises, but they are the crises of ordinary people: the city trader who’s disciplined at work for drinking too much; the hotel manager whose cook doesn’t show up; the vet student unable to draw blood from a kitten.

It’s usually obvious that the subjects of docusoaps behave differently because a camera crew is following them. But their worlds are nonetheless authentic, unlike the contrived set-up of MTVs Real World, which recruits young adults of differing temperaments to live together You might not like the harsh accents and narcissism of the Leeds women going out to "pull" men, but you have no doubt that such women exist.

But a formula is a formula, and they become tedious after a while. There are signs that docusoaps are beginning to wear thin with the British public. According to the television industry magazine Broadcast, in 1997, nine out of 11 docusoap series beat their networks’ nightly averages; in 1998 the number was 13 out of 22. Between January and May of this year it was just four out of 21. The upcoming Sheffield International Documentary Festival, the annual gathering of television executives and film makers to discuss and celebrate documentaries, will likely focus on how to move the genre along in a way that rests easier with both the public and the television industry. We can only hope that the festival itself will be the subject of a docusoap so we can be there too.

 

Carol Nahra (carolnahra@hotmail.com) is an American journalist based in London.

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