TBI Factual: Dialing up diversity in a new decade

Lizi Wootton

As part of our focus on delivering more incisive commentary on the global content business, TBI is launching a series of new strands of longer-form content, which will be delivered online to our readers around the world. 

To kick off our TBI Factual strand, which runs every Wednesday, we hear from Lizi Wootton, head of popular factual at UK prodco Two Rivers Media, as she reflects on a busy start to the new decade that has underlined the importance of authenticity, the dangers of fake news but above all a necessity to look in new places for factual stories.

There’s something extraordinary about a night at The Preservation Hall in New Orleans – you feel that with one step off the pavement you are in an ‘authentic’ world. A place that knows what matters, what’s unique, what’s real. And as the jazz unfolds in front of you, you find yourself filled with an unexpected sense of joy and hope.

Everyone, as far as I could tell, left that performance feeling life was a little bit better than when they had entered just an hour before.

As a first-time visitor to both New Orleans and Realscreen earlier this year, that sense of authenticity, warmth and desire to preserve something special didn’t seem to stop at the jazz in the historic French Quarter but permeated all conversations up the road at the Sheraton Hotel hosting the annual factual event.

The buzz on the buyers’ lips in the popular factual and unscripted world wasn’t, “we’re keen on more food, fashion and more property.” It was, “please bring authentic voices, genuine drama, engaging characters, real world formats and a sense of hope, escapism, fun and warmth.”

Diversity in all aspects is still lacking. We all have to push for less predictable casts, more unexpected endings and to create multi-layered programming that allows people on the same sofa – regardless of gender or race – to take away different experiences from the same show

The search for ‘real’ ideas with a sense of scale, an ability to cut through a cluttered landscape and the capacity to reach out to an audience was across the board at NOLA.

It’s therefore not surprising that the hit series 90 Day Fiancé, a real worldwide phenomenon born at Realscreen in 2013 and now in its seventh season with six spin-off series, was feted with its own session, including a deep dive into its appeal and franchise phenomenon.

The panel, moderated by Michael Schneider and made up of TLC President Howard Lee, host Shaun Robinson and CEO and Founder Sharp Entertainment, Matt Sharp discussed how casting was critical but how the series success derived from a super authentic look into love, a glimpse into genuine extreme worlds, an overriding sense of hope and a real heartbeat at its core.

As the panel said “it’s great TV when it’s real”.

‘Real’ TV is of course nothing new, but set against the context of the ongoing fascination for real crime, the cries around ‘fake news’ and the all too real environmental crisis hitting our fragile planet, much of the conference was imbued with a sense that now, more than ever, what we all make matters.

90 Day Fiance

But when we find the next ‘big thing’ – who tells the stories?

According to the panel at Realscreen’s Women in Leadership event, the answer, particularly on the US side of the pond, is too many men. As Abby Greensfelder, Everywoman Studios CEO, noted, there is a glaring hole in the world of non-fiction when it comes to female-created content. It was encouraging therefore to see Realscreen launch Propelle – an initiative designed to narrow that gender gap.

But, if the world of popular factual is the genre that holds up a mirror to us all, how can we do more?

Buyers want to be surprised by the programmes we make, as do our viewers.

Diversity in all aspects is still lacking. It was clear from sessions and meetings, we all have to push for less predictable casts, more unexpected endings and to create multi-layered programming that allows people on the same sofa – regardless of gender or race – to take away different experiences from the same show.

So, in our search for the real and unexpected we mustn’t be distracted by the easy bright lights. A night out on Bourbon Street, New Orleans’ most famous jazz street, is fantastic fun but it’s a crowded market place where success is transient and individuality gets lost.

It’s important to look around the corner, away from the bright lights and you may just find your version of Preservation Hall – it might be a place, a person, a real world thing that perhaps doesn’t look much from the outside and maybe isn’t what you are familiar with. But its authentic voice and genuine beating heart may surprise you and before you know it, with the support of a great broadcaster, the right backing, and a diverse team telling your story, you could find you have the next 90 Day Fiancé on your hands.

Lizi Wootton is head of popular factual at Two Rivers Media, which she joined in 2019 having held roles across commissioning at UK pubcaster Channel 4, where she ordered hit series Escape To The Chateau. Prior to that, she produced shows including Secret Eaters.

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