The 7hr+ documentary smash hit

About 1.4 million people watched Bergensbanen, a 7hr+ documentary about the 126-year-old rail line, when it was first aired late November. With the re-runs this Christmas, and the option to download it free of charge under a Creative Commons license, I imagine that number will be much higher by now (see Wired's recent story about the documentary here).

For my part, I thought it was a spectacular show, even if it "clocks is at almost 7.5hrs", as Wired put it. There was a lot of buzz on Twitter about it when it first ran, but I only had a chance to see it this Christmas. It is a long trainraide, but it must be one of my favourite trainroutes ever, and it's fascinating to see how much the landscape change from the jagged mountains surrounding Bergen on the Westcoast, travelling over the mountain moorlands of Hardangervidda, so often covered in snow, to the soft rolling hills as you go further east and eventually end up in the citiscape of Oslo. And it's all filmed in HD, which these few shots from my most recent trip on Bergensbanen definently are not. On second thoughts: better go to Wired and download the whole documentary there, my Netbook is so slow now I won't attempt any more uploads than this, which is not really what I planned to upload.


Editing laid bare?

Imagine your're putting together a documentary, or just a news story for the screen, and all the people you feature in your story blog the entire transcript, or their key quotes, for fear your editing should misrepresent their positions. That's exactly what happened when CNN put together their story, Dark side of the Net, on the recent firestorm in the wake of death threats against A-list blogger Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users).

After he let himself be interviewed for the programme, Cluetrain co-author David Weinberger, blogged about CNN as the knot in his stomach, carefully putting his quotes in context and talking about his fear of loosing control of his words. Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke, another Cluetrain co-author, who had been on opposite ends of the firestorm, put out a joint statement in advance of the programme, detailing their positions and warning against those who may cease upon the incident as an excuse to regulate or limit free speech and open debate.

Adding to the wariness before the show aired, Adriana Lukas, blogger and social media consultant, wrote: "Let's see what CNN does with the Dark Side of the Net piece. I have a feeling many will be watching and immediately providing their side of the story. The light may end up shining on the dark side of journalism..."

Now the story has aired and it seems CNN did a fairly decent job of putting the programme together, though Weinberger has yet to comment in full, (I haven't had an opportunity to watch it, see the clip here), but this story is a perfect illustration of 1) the staggering lack of trust in mainstream media 2) how the publishing revolution, internet revolution, whatever you choose to call it, empowers individuals to tell their side of the story and creates radical transparency.

In this way, media coverage can be put on trial every bit of the way, though of course, as long as there is no taped record, this 'opportunity' is also open for abuse and you can get word-against-word scenarios. That, I think, only serves to strengthen the need for good method reports and continually justifying, and being transparent about, editorial decisions.

Update 05/04: even BBC's Richard Sambrook recently took the opportunity to expand on this positions and answer criticism on his blog after his appeareance on Iain Dale's show on 18Doughty Street web TV, thereby creating yet another window for continuing the debate. A future trend?

Inside the trial of Saddam Hussein

A small Danish production company gained exclusive access to the entire Saddam trial and some of its key players. Tonight's world premier on Danish TV2, The Battle for Saddam, follows the trial, and the various preparations of both the prosecution and the defence team, from beginning to end. The documentary makers say the will provide a rare insight into what really happened, a chance to witness world history unfolding. I must admit I'm fascinated. Will I remain so if I find time to actually watch the documentary? That remains to be seen...

Update: of course I found no room in my schedule to see this, so better see if the TV channel has a decent online archive where I can watch it at a time of my convenience.

Investigative documentary: when methods and effects distract from the content

Following on my previous post:

Trial by Television
Yesterday, The Guardian reported how IVF parents were planning a protest against the"trial by television"" they felt this week's Panorama subjected IVF doctor Mohammed Taranissi to.

Going undercover a journalistic addiction we need to kick
Peter Cole, writing in The Independent on Sunday today, was underwhelmed by the programme's methods:

"Going undercover is no substitute for true investigative journalism," he wrote: "That is 'default' investigation these days: if in doubt, send in the undercover reporter. Between the News of the World's "fake sheikh" and Panorama's not-so-infertile women is the parade of knives, guns and false passports passing through airports in the pockets of investigative journalists 'revealing' security lapses. It is all a bit easy and often seems more stunt than investigation." Going undercover is a journalistic addiction we need to kick, commented Roy Greenslade in The Guardian.

The effects outdo the substance
"Traditional investigative documentary has become stuck in dramaturgy: the effects are out of proportion with the substance - too much of the former, too little of the latter. It gets so obsessed with revealing stuff that it often fails and falls flat on its face," said Morten Möller Warmedal, who currently is in charge of a new documentary project for NRK that will look at how lobbyists and advisers influence major public purchases, controversial policy decisions etc.:

"It will be about process, rather than revelations. It will pair the best from docu soap and reality with traditional documentary," Möller Warmedal said enthusiastically. The programme is not undercover, but has gained access to follow five concrete cases closely, including oil- and gas extraction in Northern Norway, the state's purchase of fighter planes and the Conservative Party leader's efforts to rebuild public support for the Party.

So is this the future of investigative documentary? Opening up closed doors to lay bare decision-making processes, rather than by stealth seeking to reveal the biggest possible scandal? Time will show, a lot of time since this particular documentary series is not scheduled to go on air until late next year.

Sometimes undercover methods are the only way to get at a story, as Greenslade noted, but a lot of the time the method backfires, and the debate about the legitimacy of the method completely overshadows the debate one sought to raise about the topic - which also happens with effects like music, overly dramatic screenshots etc.

N.B. It must be said that hidden cameras rarely are used in Norway. The latest 'big controversy' from Scandinavia in this respect, is this troubling case from Denmark.

Turbulent times for investigative documentary

The recent revamps of Norway's and the UK's top investigative documentary programmes show how the genre is struggling to find the right format in a changing media landscape characterised by stiff competition, converging platforms and cost-cutting.

"Complicated...will we be seeing much of that on the new Panorama?", asked Adrian Monck before the first edition of the new revamped Panorama this week: with its airtime halved to 30 minutes, many fear that BBC's current affairs flagship will be skewed to lighter, less substantial issues, and reviews were mixed (see Chris Shaw's review for The Guardian and Peter Cole in The Independent on Sunday).

As Norway's longest running investigative documentary programme, Brennpunkt, had a slot just short of 30 minutes for years, I asked Morten Möller Warmedal, a former Brennpunkt editor, how much difference this makes: "Some stories are suited to 30 minutes, but not 60, there can be some advantages, but it's no denying that it's a challenge to tell a complicated story in 30 minutes," he said.

Norway's public broadcaster, NRK, has gone the opposite way of Panorama and is currently developing a new, 60-minute format to replace Brennpunkt, which was "shelved in its current format" in November, but the remake hasn't come without turbulence and protests. Kampanje reported that all the program's staff had been asked to reapply for their jobs, creating uncertainty and fear that some of the journalists will be 'reassigned' to other programmes. "Moral is low", said a former work associate I ran into just after the news broke in November, which prompted me to pay the program a visit:

It was Monday, an hour after lunch, and I found the usually busy corridor all vacant but for the finance director and the corporations' lawyer. How fitting, I thought - the more pessimistically inclined would say that's all investigative documentary has been reduced to these days: law and accountancy.

How much time is left to do groundbreaking investigative reporting and explore new formats for telling complex stories when you spend all of your time either in court or preparing the documentation? That said, some of the methods and effects commonly used in investigative documentary these days are controversial, and worthy of a debate on their own...

So what will emerge in Brennpunkt's place? "Many people are giving this a lot of consideration because NRK, as a public broadcaster, has to be everything to everyone. The corporation works hard to be on all platforms, with increased focus on the online world. Brennpunkt was primarily a documentary platform, not a reporting platform like for instance 60minutes, to my mind is – I don't know what the new Brennpunkt will be," said Möller Warmedal.

General notes
Some of you may fault me for comparing BBC's and NRK's investigative documentary programs here, but a seminar I produced two years ago revealed the challenges they face are much the same (I worked for Brennpunkt for a short period in 2004-05). Two years ago, to the day, we were exploring the future of documentary, debating the ethics of using various effects and methods and exchanging experiences with Panorama and other key industry experts in London. Two years of course, is an aeon in media terms. Of the seminar's key speakers, both Alan Hayling and Mike Robinson have left BBC – not without a degree of frustration over the obstacles facing investigative documentary in particular, and public broadcasters in general. These challenges reflect both overall changes to the media industry, but also "the permanent revolution" any public broadcaster experiences these days.

Of course, had I the time I could have cast my net wider here, but as this is a blog I don't pretend in any way to offer the whole and unvarnished truth, nor the complete picture. This is just a quick summary of some interesting developments, the comment section is wide open though...