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Even in the golden age of television drama which sees murder mystery after murder mystery on the small screen, Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer has arguably been the most talked about show in the last year.
The ten-part show followed the story of Steven Avery, who had a wrongful rape conviction overturned before being convicted of murder, and resulted in tens of thousands of people to call for the investigation to be reopened and even resulted in a petition to the White House for President Barack Obama to pardon him.
The success of the show is also reverberating across the non-scripted television world as networks try to find their Murderer said panelists at this weekend’s MIPDoc and MIPFormats, the two day precursor to MIPTV.
“Networks are reactive,” said Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock in his keynote speech. “Now what will happen on the heels of these smarter shows coming out is all the networks are betting on smarter non-fiction fare across the board — Discovery, Nat Geo, AMC. Spurlock sees this as an opportunity to increase the quality of non-fiction programming that has been dominated by phenomena such as Jersey Shore and Kardashian-based programming.
“The opportunity is grand,” he said. “You can push [executives] into something that is smart and challenging, something that is not exactly Making a Murderer or The Jinx, but is just as compelling and engaging for the audience.”
“It’s good for us as non-fiction producers and creators. This is smarter fare, it’s not putting on gowns and dancing on a shin floor. It’s going to be a tsunami wave of impact on programming around the world,” he said.
Nesta Owens, director of programs for Discovery Channel UK, agreed. “If people are able to watch a whole ten hours of Making a Murderer, our shows might become a little more sophisticated.”
“I do think it is changing the way people watch, and for the better, and the more competition there is in the marketplace the better it is for all of us,” Owens told The Hollywood Reporter. “If people are watching slow factual it gives us hope for shows we have on the horizon.”
“Yes there is more competition, but it also means there is more money going into these kinds of programs,” said Corentin Glutron, head of acquisitions for France’s RMC Decouverte.
The “Netflix effect” and the water cooler conversation of a show like Making a Murderer can only boost the interest in factual programming, especially if audiences are willing to binge watch a slow-moving story. But because Netflix has such limited factual programming it is not a threat to the industry — yet. “It might be something to worry about in five years,” said Glutron. “But not now.”
“The average person’s expectations have grown exponentially,” said David Royle, evp of programming for Smithsonian networks. These types of programs “break through the media clutter,” said Royle.
“There are a lot of shows in the pipeline on the backs of these shows,” said David Nath, director of the The Murder Detectives on the U.K.’s Channel 4. But if everyone is trying to find the next Making of a Murder, it’s impossible to create an overnight hit. “These kinds of shows take a lot of time to produce, to research, to find these stories. They are slow moving productions.”
In the formats trend analysis panel in the MIPFormats program, executives reported that as the popularity and subsequent channel focus on developing drama, audiences for non-scripted have been shrinking, and budgets along with that.
“For the big massive prime time shows [the money] is still there, but what you’re finding that the level of drama productions means that budgets for other shows are falling which is why you are seeing a change in the types of shows that are developed,” said Mike Beale, evp global development for ITV.
“We can’t just make bigger sets and add more celebrities,” he said. For game shows, even upping prize money is no longer a draw. “Giving away a million pounds doesn’t move the dial,” Beale added.
“The market is shrinking,” added Kim Dingler, managing director of new media for Talpa Global. She predicted the next big thing will be “factual emotional stories.”
One example showcased during the Formats section is A+E’s 60 Days In, which sees upstanding citizens enter jail for two months to see if they are able to survive without other inmates or officers knowing their real status. “The world of unscripted reality is struggling for a breakout series,” said A+E Networks head of international programming and production Hayley Babcock, noting that 1500 series were commissioned in the U.S. in 2015. Babcock said a U.K. remake will soon be announced.
For documentary directors, VR is the next big thing, said Spurlock. His company Warrior Poets has two VR shows in the pipeline that will be announced later this year, he said. “VR is an empathy machine,” he said and perfect storytelling tool for filmmakers.
Filmmakers will also have to work with brands on sponsored content as financing continues to be fragmented. “Brands are realizing 30-second commercials don’t work,” Spurlock said. As long as the filmmaker retains creative control and there is no egregious product placement, creators should have no qualms working with brands. “It’s all about the story and if you can tell a good story brands are now willing to go along on that ride.”
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