They say the British are a nation obsessed by class, and to look at the April 2016 TV schedules it’s hard to disagree. Factual shows in the UK are increasingly divided between those looking at life on the lowest rungs of the social ladders, and those offering a glimpse into the ultra-wealthy luxuries enjoyed by those at the top. Is this a sustainable trend, though, and can this sort of local content travel globally?
Paul Heaney, CEO of TCB Rights, which distributes shows at both ends of the scale, such as Mega-Yachts and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, offers his insight into the appeal: “The UK has always loved looking at the top and so-called bottom of society,” he says. “Maybe it comes with the obsession with the class system and gives the viewer their own barometer of where they fit. It also gives an insight into something viewers around the world love – the hidden world.”
Nine shows themed around benefits, poverty and social unrest aired in the UK during April, with Channel 5 proving to be particularly fond of the genre. From Channel 5’s On Benefits: Life on the Dole and Britain’s Horror Homes, to ITV’s Bargain Shop Wars and Ross Kemp’s Britain on Sky 1, viewers were never far from a reminder of the sharp edge of society. The trend even leaked into more highbrow programming, with BBC Two’s Workers or Shirkers? Ian Hislop’s Victorian Benefits taking an historical perspective on the topic.
Meanwhile, six shows also aired documenting the lives of the wealthy elite. These shows tend to appear on Channel 4 or BBC Two, and cover a broader array of genres while using wealth as a common theme. Millionaires’ Mansions (Channel 4) and Inside the Billionaire’s Wardrobe (BBC Two) approach the topic from obvious consumer angles, but titles like Five Star Babies: Inside the Portland Hospital (BBC Two) and Flashy Funerals (Channel 4) prove that there’s more flexibility when it comes to the well off.
“From our perspective, the amount of content onscreen seems fairly evenly split between shows about the super-wealthy and shows about the poverty line,” says Paul. “In terms of both production and distribution the accent seems to be more focussed on the super wealthy.”
“Only the most mature, sophisticated markets are brave enough to tackle the bottom end and ‘lift the stone”
Such content clearly appeals to British viewers, reflecting as it does the society they live in, but do these shows have global value? “As far as international sales go, there are more slots and it certainly reinforces a Britishness that the rest of world buys into,” explains Paul. “Noisy, glitzy one offs really do sell.” The market, however, is more limited for grittier formats. “If the gritty Britain stuff features too many big bearded guys knocking down doors at 3am the world won’t really buy it,” Paul continues. “Only the most mature, sophisticated markets are brave enough to tackle the bottom end and ‘lift the stone’”.
It seems that where wider sales are concerned, it’s the luxury factual shows that have legs. “Broadcasters like C5 are certainly moving away from the bottom end,” says Paul, “Or if they’re not there is a greater degree of hope and levity.”