In the world of television, we’re fixated on the notion of how technology is going to transform our consumption of entertainment this week – and the next.
Undoubtedly, it already has, particularly in the last few years with the increased prevalence lightning-fast broadband leading to a myriad of SVoD services, and streaming becoming the new normal.
Just as we get our collective heads around the impact of one seismic shift, we’re distracted by what we think might be the next. Look at the rise of virtual reality experiences currently being launched – already it’s, ‘Hey, augmented reality is a thing now – what can we do with that?’
A collision of innovations led to the voyeuristic format we all know and love
When we think of digital at the content end of the industry, it’s often with an eye on the next headline-grabbing development in distribution or viewer experience. We rarely stop to consider how technological advances have transformed the essence of the programmes we make.
Few would argue that Big Brother is not one of most groundbreaking reality shows of all time. Core to its success was a killer format – yet without the technical solutions underpinning the show’s production, Big Brother would have been a very different beast.
A collision of innovations led to the voyeuristic format we all know and love: the fixed-rig filming hitherto used only in nature docs, the drastic cost-savings on the capture of footage from the then-nascent Sony SP and the advances in database systems that allowed video to be tagged and called back by editors in an instant.
Prior to Big Brother, scarcity of material prevailed in reality production, but those advances meant the show’s producer, Endemol, could store and share every single kiss or conflict in the house.
As picture quality improved and cameras got smaller and lighter, the types of shows using fixed-rig also evolved, with the technique fast becoming an ever-present fixture on our screens. It had become possible for the cameras to be simultaneously everywhere, while practically invisible to those they were capturing.
The likes of reality formats One Born Every Minute and 24 Hours in A&E took fixed rig into factual, capturing life-and-death moments unobtrusively. The Tribe took us deep into a culture far removed from ours, but fixed-rig allowed the producers to bring the wall down on their day-to-day lives with a familiarity not possible in a traditional doc – instantly transforming the narrative from ‘look at these strangers’ to ‘look how similar we are.’
Again, on these shows, post-scarcity technology gave the producers hours of footage that could be crafted into utterly compelling TV.
Our perception of what makes for a ‘broadcast quality’ camera has been turned on its head in the last few years. As a well-regarded photographer once said, “the best camera in the world is the one you have with you.” We live in an age where that is true of video – with smartphone cameras now commonly able to shoot an astonishing 4K resolution – and already we’re seeing the impact of this on programme making.
History’s survival show Alone removed the camera crew altogether, shifting the responsibility for filming to the participants themselves. If avoiding cougars and bears wasn’t enough for the poor lost souls, they also had to capture the experience for the benefit of the audience back home. No pressure then. But, once again, the advances in camera and storage technology took a traditional format and pivoted it into new, even more intimate territory. Without a crew around them, the participants’ fear and isolation feels more heightened; the reality, well, more real.
Perhaps the rawest example – in terms of emotion, not production quality – of self-filming we’ve seen to date is Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. Arriving just after the UK’s shock vote in June to leave the European Union, the film gave refugees smartphones in order to document their journeys from war-torn countries to the relative safety of Europe. The results are stark, brutal and stripped back. All notions of ‘format’ disappeared, and the norms of how to shoot such a documentary were removed. It may have been of little consequence to the refugees’ situation but, if nothing else, the technology allowed them to share the horror of their journeys by the most authentic means possible.
The best camera in the world is the one you have with you.
It seems that with every incremental advance in the technologies we have at our disposal for unscripted programme making, we seem to add a new level of authenticity, or rather remove a layer of artifice between the audience and the subject. The potential isn’t just for easier production or more editing-bay choices, but a deeper emotional connection with the people we’re watching. Now, more than ever, it seems the only thing dividing us is a piece of glass.
This article first appeared on C21 Media.