Viewer beware: how TV format fusion is making it more difficult to separate fact, fiction and opinion
With the first part of the final series of The Crown set to air on Netflix next month, debate will undoubtedly reignite as to whether the series is fair to the individuals it depicts.
The Crown’s docudrama format is one of a number of recent fusions of television styles that have left audiences entertained but struggling to decipher fact from fiction and opinion.
From the scripted reality of The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea to essentially self-produced documentaries such as Harry & Meghan and, most recently, Beckham, the simple joy of watching television has become eroded by nagging doubts. What’s real and what’s been invented for entertainment purposes? Why has that person been interviewed and another not? Are they saying what they’re saying because it’s true or because it fits their agenda?
The unreliable narrator is a mechanism used in fiction to create a sense of disorientation, forcing the reader to question what they are being told and to compare the events being reported with the way they are presented, forming their own view that sits apart from the narrative. Although this concept can make for a gripping read, it also requires the reader to work harder, challenge everything and not assume that the person telling us the story is reporting objectively or with good intentions.
When I first read a book that uses this device, I wondered if I’d ever be able to trust a narrator again. Now, the same issue is affecting my relationship with the telly.
Of course, in many ways, I should never have been so trusting in the first place. A healthy dose of cynicism should always be applied when consuming media, recognising that true objectivity is almost impossible to achieve. From celebrity stories in the tabloids to coverage of the conflict in the Middle East, different media will always have their own agenda and facts can be used selectively to persuade audiences to take a particular viewpoint or simply to make stories more sensational or entertaining.
Equally, self-initiated documentaries are only an extension of a long-standing desire amongst those in the public eye to manage their own profile and put forward their own point of view. Prince Harry’s tell-all book and Oprah interview are reminiscent of his late mother’s literary collaboration with Andrew Morton and her Panorama interview; what’s different, however, is the broadening of owned media to encompass social channels and self-controlled TV documentaries, giving further platforms for individuals to push their own messages across.
Ultimately what this comes down to is the difference between – and convergence of – advertising and PR. Explaining these two disciplines used to be easy: advertising is what you say about yourself; PR is what other people say about you after you’ve left the room. While an individual has full control over what they say about themselves, managing what other people think or say about them is more difficult. Self-managed documentaries blur this line, helping to create a veneer of objectivity while giving the subject full control over what is discussed and how it is presented: are we watching people talking about themselves, someone else talking freely about them, or a strange blend of the two? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
But while it might be a case of viewer beware, those choosing to manage their profile through these formats also need to be wary. As Harry & Meghan showed us, using this type of format doesn’t necessarily give the subject the last word. While communicating messages via a route that provides editorial control might feel safer, the reduced objectivity gives it less validity and can end up stirring up debate rather than putting a stop to it: if only one side of a story is provided, others look to alternative media for their right to reply.
In the UK, we are lucky that there is more editorial integrity than in other parts of the world where media is state-controlled or heavily politicised. We have a range of publications and TV channels offering different perspectives that, taken together, should help us to formulate our own views. But doing so requires us to be proactive, critical, and curious. With self-produced documentaries providing a way for streaming services to create rating-topping content at the same time as questions are being raised over the BBC’s future, we shouldn’t ditch honesty and objectivity in favour of entertainment. In a world where AI is already making the flow of fake news harder to stem, the need for reliable sources that at least try to present multiple viewpoints has never been greater.