Briefing Notes: This World
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Sam gave some background on how This World was set up in 2003 as a documentary strand to cover global stories. There has always been a tension between news/current affairs and documentaries with his BBC News colleagues wanting him to cover the news agenda. He has resisted that and, since he took over a year ago, has adopted a documentary approach. There are 12 episodes a year, and most of the time they play at 9pm on BBC2. It’s important for him that This World is at the heart of the schedule and aimed at a mainstream audience. It should be interesting and enjoyable to watch – not a duty.
Sam’s approach is eclectic. Some films will have a presenter; others will take an observational documentary approach. He is interested in covering big themes (population, the rise of the East) through small or quirky or less obvious stories. The approach is story-led rather than issue-led.
He spoke about how competitive the peak time schedule is. It’s important that he gets decent ratings but he is sometimes up against big dramas like Sherlock or 24 Hours in A and E, so it’s tough. The current series has done well in terms of ratings, including (to Sam’s surprise) Hans Rosling’s film about population.
Sam doesn’t usually tackle issues head on and he likes to find a way in that surprises viewers. So, for example, he wanted to do something about the way India is changing, the fact that not everyone is poor. He thought about looking at wealth but decided against as he felt his audience wouldn’t watch – they’d feel that they knew this already. Instead, he decided to focus on obesity and to look at children who were becoming obese. He chose a populist title India’s Supersize Kids and the audience came to the subject.
He wanted to look at population and he commissioned 3 films: Don’t Panic – the Truth About Population (a personal view by Hans Rosling); No Sex Please, We’re Japanese (which looked at attitudes to sex in Japan and reasons for the falling birth rate) and The World’s Busiest Maternity Ward (which looked at a maternity hospital in the Philippines but also looked at how that country is changing at a rapid pace).
He also spoke about Dan Snow’s History of Syria which he said did well in audience terms, whereas other documentaries about Syria had not done so well. He felt there was an audience appetite for this historical context which was lacking in the news coverage. This was followed up with Dan Snow’s History of Congo.
The strand still does investigations. The Shame of the Catholic Church looked at the way the Church in Ireland had dealt with child abuse. The film won a number of awards.
America’s Poor Kids was an observational doc looking at the lives of poor children in the US, made by an independent production company, True Vision.
Sam was asked to explain how ideas got commissioned. He said he received lots of ideas from independents but 95% were binned straightaway. He gave the impression that indies didn’t really get This World and that they were pitching more conventional news or current affairs stories. They hadn’t understood that This World takes a more angular approach.
Sam said he would welcome NGOs suggesting stories to him – just a short email – and he would try to reply. He liked hearing about small stories as they often provided a way in to bigger issues. But, on the whole, he wanted all his films to deal with the big issues of the day. Sometimes he works with indies to develop projects; other times they are developed in house. He doesn’t have a development team. This World is just himself and a series producer.
He was reluctant to talk about what was in the pipeline or which countries or issues he was interested in. He said it wasn’t as simple as that; ideas evolved as a result of lots of conversations and snippets of information.
On presenters, he has no set view. Sometimes a presenter emerges; on other occasions it’s someone like Dan Snow who is part of the BBC ‘family’ of presenters.
He spoke about two films coming up: Robert Peston would be looking at China’s success story and asking whether it was all going wrong; and there would be a film about affluence in Brazil with access to The Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio. There were a lot of Brazilian programmes in the pipeline on the BBC, such as Welcome to Rio.
Some of the films were made by indies but there was no set rule and there were no particular indies that Sam worked with regularly. A company called Wingspan made the Hans Rosling film as they had worked with him before. NGOs could pitch their ideas for This World to indies producers if they had good relationships but it might be better to pitch them directly to Sam.
Working with NGOs
Sam said that his teams often work with NGOs. He’s responsible for the Simon Reeve travelogues and he said that in Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve the team worked with many charities, particularly environmental ones. In India they worked with a charity involved with a turtle rescue project; in Madagascar they worked with WWF; they worked with a charity involved in shark protection in
Mozambique; with a charity working with refugees in Somaliland; with a human rights charity in Sri Lanka.
Sam is also responsible for Toughest Place to be… a format which he came up with, that involves sending a British worker to do his/her job in a foreign country. This series regularly works with NGOs behind the scenes. Sam said that the series had now come to an end but there was a new series in the pipeline featuring a London taxi driver, Mason McQueen, who featured in an episode of Toughest Place to be…
Sam showed 3 clips from sequences in films where the producers had collaborated with an NGO. He said there were strict BBC guidelines which stated that the BBC could not be seen to favour a particular NGO or to endorse it or to solicit funds for it. The guidelines state that: ‘We must retain our impartiality when we cover the work of charities and not appear to favour one charity.’ Nevertheless, Sam said that when his teams worked with charities they would help to publicise the charity if it fitted in with the editorial content of the film.
The 3 clips he showed were:
Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve – this featured the work of a small NGO, Blue Ventures, in Madagascar. It’s a conservation group working on overfishing but it was featured for an innovative family planning project which it was also running in Madagascar, alongside its conservation work. The work of the family planning project was included because it was felt that it fitted in editorially. Blue Ventures were very happy as they received several name checks.
Tropic of Cancer with Simon Reeve – this series covered the issue of child labour and featured a UNICEF-run centre for working children which enabled the children to study, play, get a decent meal, have a shower etc It was featured because the producers thought it was interesting that a major charity like UNICEF was working with factory owners and had accepted child labour as a necessary evil, for the moment at least, because they understood that the families needed the money which the children earned. The focus of UNICEF’s work was to teach the children skills so that the cycle of poverty was broken. Again, UNICEF received a name check and one of their members of staff was interviewed by Simon.
Toughest Place to be a fisherman – this film was made in Sierra Leone with a great deal of help from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) but when the film was shown there was no mention of EJF as it did not fit editorially. There was a ‘with thanks to EJF’ in the end credits. Once the film had been made, EJF used it successfully to lobby the Sierra Leone government to enforce a no fishing zone that had previously gone unenforced causing much hardship to local fishermen as big foreign trawlers were overfishing in the area. Sam then commissioned a follow up film in which the British fisherman went back and in the follow up he was able to cover the lobbying activities of EJF.
Sam’s aim in showing these clips was to acknowledge the enormous help that NGOs often gave film crews behind the scenes but to make the point that the NGOs could not be given name checks within the body of the film unless this could be justified editorially. The BBC’s position is particularly tricky, given its strict guidelines. Other broadcasters are not subject to such strict rules.
Now that Toughest Place to be… has ended Sam is on the lookout for a new format. The Mason McQueen series may work for the moment but a new format will be needed in the long term. There are more Simon Reeve travel shows in the pipeline. This World will continue to be eclectic and story-led. Sam said he welcomed ideas from NGOs but it’s clear that these ideas need to tackle issues in an imaginative and creative way – and surprise audiences.