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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November, 2003, 10:42 GMT
Questioning viewers' tastes for war

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Last week I wrote about a rather good series on war reporters commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

I knew about the programmes because Discovery had sent me tapes ahead of a screening and a panel discussion which they had asked me to chair to launch the series in London.

Also on the panel were Kate Adie and Brian Hanrahan and the series producer Jon Blair.

Kate Adie
Veteran correspondent Kate Adie took part in the discussion panel
Mr Blair is an immensely experienced documentary-maker, who learnt his trade working for ITV current affairs programmes like This Week and TV Eye.

He won a Bafta award for his 1983 film Schindler and an Oscar for Anne Frank Remembered.

Oh, and he also helped to create Spitting Image.

The panel discussion was lively. It was clear that Mr Blair and Discovery's commissioning editor, who was in the audience, had disagreed over the inclusion of some explicitly gruesome images.

Prickly bedfellows

Mr Blair wanted to tell the truth about war; the commissioning editor was frightened that anything too horrific would simply provoke the audience to switch over.

I suspect that Discovery and Mr Blair had found one another sometimes prickly bedfellows.

Television has changed since the days when he was learning his trade in ITV, when regulation created peak time enclaves for provocative programming.

There have always been tensions between the smooth folk who run channels and the members of the awkward squad they employ to make programmes. But lately there has been a pronounced balance in the shift of power.

Programme-makers like Mr Blair are underemployed, because they produce often challenging work for which there are few peak time slots on mainstream channels and for which even specialist channels like Discovery cannot make much space.

This is partly because of limited funds and partly limited audience demand - broadcasters like Discovery survive by knowing their audiences.

Iraq war
Television executives had to make decisions about the taste and decency of war footage
In the process viewers, programme-makers - maybe even broadcasters - are losing out.


At the recent News World conference in Dublin another panel session featured the boss of a US sister channel of Discovery and three programme-makers.

Two, one British, one American, explained how to win documentary commissions and scoffed at the idea of making programmes on spec and then offering them to a channel.

The head of Discovery Times confirmed that she was only interested in programmes she had a chance to mould to her channel's requirements.

The third programme-maker was an African. He had just made - speculatively and at considerable personal and financial risk - a reputedly rather good programme about the war in Liberia.

But he had found no British or American broadcaster willing to transmit it.

He had talent and courage. But he did not know how to work the system or devise acceptable outlines for his ideas.

Result: his programme cannot find an audience, Africa and Liberia remain marginalised and our television culture is impoverished.


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