Television’s love affair with the People’s Princess

Getty_157809899_DianaWilliamHarry_ThorpeParkYearlong activities have taken place to mark the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and the television industry has followed suit with a raft of documentaries and series to signify the landmark event. Kaltrina Bylykbashi reports on the ongoing influence of the late British royal, as her son, Prince Harry, continues to make headlines thanks to his engagement to Suits star Meghan Markle.

A significant number of documentary shows covering almost every element of Princess Diana’s life and death, from her relationship to her children to the conspiracies surrounding her untimely demise, were produced this year ahead of the twentieth anniversary of her passing on August 31.

Through this, the ongoing global appetite for the princess has proven strong, with territories worldwide choosing to purchase the programming throughout this year and viewership drawing significant audiences.

Universal appeal

The former Princess of Wales is undeniably one of the most recognised figures in the world. Audiences worldwide will not only remember where they were when news broke of her death, but also the sheer numbers that turned out to mourn her, and the discussions and theories that have taken place on the topic since.

Diana's-Death--The-Search-For-The-Truth-Kaliste-231This universal appeal is what keeps Diana-themed content engaging decades after her death, according to Emily Elisha, head of factual at Banijay Rights, the distributor of Diana’s Death: The Search for the Truth (above).

“Being such an icon, Diana’s legacy remains as prevalent today as it was 20 years ago,” she says. “The effect she had on so many people and the tragic way in which she died seems to have left an indelible mark on many of us. A public figure of this magnitude that seemingly died before her time will always attract media attention and public interest.”

Global television markets certainly believe in her international appeal. Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (pictured top) was one of the most watched programmes of the year in the UK, drawing in over seven million viewers for ITV on July 24. The show’s distributor, London-based Drive, reported international sales on the eve of the launch to NDR in Germany, TV4 in Sweden, Mediaset in Italy and RTL in French-speaking Belgium.

Outside Europe, BBC Worldwide also acquired the doc for its BBC Lifestyle channel in Africa, as well as Poland. The territories were joined by Network Seven in Australia, Three in New Zealand and CBC in Canada.

“It’s sold extensively to a range of territories,” Lilla Hurst, Drive’s co-founder, tells TBI. “It’s a universal story. Everyone has heard of it and everyone has experienced the loss of somebody.”

Diana, Our Mother…’s creators believe firmly that it’s the universality of Diana’s experiences that make programming around her appealing.

Her story has captured themes that made her a relatable and affable character. She had relatable problems: affairs, single motherhood, difficult relationships with her in-laws and problems with self-image.

Nick-KentFor Nick Kent (left) , executive producer of Diana, Our Mother… her tale is mostly “a story of how you keep the memory alive of someone you’ve loved and lost”.

When Kent’s prodco, Oxford Film, got Diana’s sons to discuss their journey of loss, it tapped into how the two British princes now celebrate their mother and also opened up discussions about how this memory is woven into their approaches to parenting, attitudes to work and daily motivations.

These themes appear to have helped to transcend borders when it comes to getting the doc viewed worldwide, and the sentiment is reflected across the gamut of producers and distributors currently working with a Diana doc (and there are many).

Cineflix Media distributed Finestripe Productions’ Diana: The Day the World Cried. Chris Bonney, CEO of rights at Cineflix reports the programme had been pre-sold to the US, and has shopped to Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Meanwhile, another distributor, Scorpion TV, sold Channel 4’s Diana: In Her Own Words across 20 territories, including deals with NHK in Japan, Via 24 in South Africa and TVN in Chile. Many others have reported interest as well.

Opportunity for new audiences

A large part of the Diana doc audience will consist of those that were affected by the death of the former princess in their lifetime. However, a list of producers and those that have worked on these shows describe the intention and potential to also reach a new generation of viewers that may have never come across the story before.

“Twenty years is a large enough period of time for there to be more takeaways from her story and to tell her story to a whole generation of people who don’t really know the full, remarkable life she lived,” says Dan Wakeford, deputy editor at People Magazine.

Crown-goodHe joins a string of individuals involved with a Diana doc that describe resurgence in appetite for the British royals in general. Hurst, for example, says that shows such as Netflix’s The Crown (left) have had particular influence in the recent growth of interest in the family among a younger audience.

People Magazine paired with US broadcaster ABC earlier this year to feature a four-hour documentary series, The Story of Diana, about the former princess. Wakeford says the show highlighted parallels from Diana’s life with today’s obsession with celebrity, and that is why it’s particularly relevant two decades on.

“Without Diana, many of the celebrities we cover now would not have evolved in the same way, whether that’s Angelina Jolie or Kim Kardashian,” he says.

This is the core of The Story of Diana, which explores the former Princess through the world’s fixation with celebrity, and uses the combination of People and ABC’s interviews, news footage and archival audio and video.

Cineflix’s Bonney says that he has seen a high international demand in the market for commemorative documentaries in general, as they introduce millennials to topics they may not have experienced in their lifetimes.

A crowded marketplace

While the benefits of creating Diana-related programming are clear, it means there are many productions taking place within a short space of time. Therefore, producers must find a fresh approach to the subject that goes beyond the obvious.

Despite this, when asked about the challenges of creating such programming, many producers and distributors refer to the natural pull of landmark titles, which they say often provides more of a competitive edge than regular programming despite many tackling a similar topic at once. “Landmark programming has a chance to stand out and can really bring attention to a schedule because the subject is part of the national psyche and viewers have a built in reason to tune in,” says Elisha.

“Audiences often feel already invested in subjects they are familiar with and whether it’s for reasons of nostalgia or to learn something new about it, the content is likely to have broad appeal and potentially deliver higher ratings across a number of demographics.”

It is why in 2017, like in many other years, a range of producers have created programming around landmark moments.

To commemorate 40 years since Elvis Presley’s death, HBO has been working on a three-hour project named Elvis Presley: The Searcher, while NBC’s Peacock Productions released Elvis: Behind Closed Doors and Rayday Media is selling Sky Arts show The Seven Ages of Elvis.

A&E’s L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, Showtime’s Burn, Motherf—er, Burn! and National Geographic’s L.A. 92 are among many in the US exploring the anniversary of the LA riots 25 years ago. Then there is the BBC’s 50-year celebration of The Beatle’s Sgt Pepper album, a doc named Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall, plus History is commemorating 80 years since the death of American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart with Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence and BBC Studios is making Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors 200 years after the influential author’s passing.

The fear of not standing out in the crowd certainly seems to be lost among these producers, and why shouldn’t it when many have received such positive returns? Elisha says that was for the case of Diana’s Death: The Search for the Truth.

When it premiered on M6 in France, it attracted an audience of 3.5 million viewers, outperforming the channel’s factual share by over 30% above its average.

Channel 4’s Diana: In Her Own Words was one of its best performing shows of the year in the UK, drawing in 3.5 million viewers during its premier on August 6. The programme was also the broadcaster’s best performing documentary in three years, according to UK-based distributor Scorpion TV.

Lorraine MeKechnie, who helped produce Inside Dior for Channel 4 this spring as well as Diana: The Day the World Cried, The Day Kennedy Died and The Day John Lennon Died, says pegging a TV proposal to an anniversary is not a passport to a commission, “But it gives potential financiers something to grasp and sell all around the world and in turn help to attract an audience too”.

“The trick for us before embarking on any anniversary project is to get in early – both in pitching to financiers and approaching contributors,” she adds.

The many faces of Diana

Part of the reason Diana documentaries have been so popular is the varied stories they can tell only after time has passed and the story moves on. Docs focusing on newly revealed footage, photographs and interviews have been particularly prevalent.

National Geographic’s Diana: In Her Own Words uses recorded tapes of the Princess to tell her story, as does Channel 4’s title of the same name, while PBS’s Diana – Her Story combines interviews, archival material and ‘rarely seen’, filmed conversations.

Many other themes have arisen. Finestripe’s Diana: The Day Britain Cried focuses on the day of her funeral and those that organised it. The prodco was joined by Smithsonian Channel’s Diana: The Day We Said Goodbye, which also follows up on how the Royal family was treated post-funeral.

Another Smithsonian doc, Diana and the Paparazzi, explores the role the press took in her tragic death, while ABC’s two-part series with People Magazine explores her role as ‘the most photographed woman in the world’. Others have taken a dramatic take on her life. TLC’s Princess Diana: Tragedy or Treason delves into the conspiracy surrounding Diana’s death and Princess Diana’s ‘Wicked’ Stepmother looks at the strained relationship between Diana and Raine Spencer, the second wife of the Princess’s father, Lord Spencer.

Will-and-HarryDiana, Our Mother… (above) highlights why it was best to tackle the Diana topic decades on. Having already worked with the Royal Family on two major productions, including ITV’s Our Queen in 2013, Oxford Films had built a trusting relationship with the family, which ultimately set them up to get Princes William and Harry on board exclusively for a conversation about their mother.

Our Queen at 90, which was based around the monarch’s Diamond Jubilee and was one of the highest rated shows of 2016 for ITV with 7.1 million views on the night it aired, gave the prodco a chance to do unique interviews with the family, including Princess Catherine (Kate Middleton)’s first televised interview.

Kent says: “Later on, we had a meeting with everyone and during the course of that the subject of Diana came up. I’d always looked for an opportunity for the two princes to tell their side of the story and when we met up they seemed happy to work with us.”

This ultimately led to a personal portrayal of the ‘People’s Princess’ in a way that audiences had never seen before. It was from the direct perspective of her sons, included rare interviews, commentary from friends and never-seen-before photographs and videos coming directly from those closest to her.

2017’s landmark docs

Inside Dior
Event: Marking 70 years since fashion designer Christian Dior’s death
Producer: Finestripe
Distributor: Channel 4
USP: The producers were granted exclusive access to Dior, a brand that guards its reputation and image fiercely, to film for six months
Insight: Halfway through filming, Dior appointed its new creative director, Maria Grazia Chuiri – the first female to head the company.

The Seven Ages of Elvis
Event: Marking 40 years since Elvis’ death
Producer: Raydar Media/Fireball TV
Distributor: Raydar Media
USP: Uses Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man to recount the life of a pop culture legend and explores how Elvis was shaped by his times and the world he lived in
Insight: Enables the viewer to enjoy the nostalgia of Elvis’s life and music while also seeing it in the context of history

Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors
Event: Marking 200 years since Austen’s death
Producer: BBC Studios
Channel: BBC Two
USP: The show traces the houses Jane Austen lived in to show how much they influenced her work
Insight: Beginning her expedition at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, presenter Lucy Worsley sets the scene by recreating a carriage journey the cash-strapped Austens completed to visit a recently widowed relative

The Nineties
Event: The fourth CNN edition of the franchise that looks at pop-culture and major news stories in ten-year increments
Producer: CNN, Playtone
Channel: CNN
USP: The show looks at decade-defining events that took place, including the explosion of the internet and Bill Clinton’s impeachment
Insight: Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman produced the series

Most Recent