Holding the hybrid ground Wall to Wall's CEO Alex Graham talks to Jenn Kuzmyk about the evolution of factual hybrids, the industry obsession with genre definition and the prospects for 'living science' programming.
Hybrids, genre blending and genre bending are far from new concepts in the world of factual television, so why are so many players in the TV business still pre-occupied with the need to define programming by category, and is it still relevant to do so?
"The idea of identifying things as cross-genre is a broadcaster obsession driven by the departmental structure of broadcasters," says Graham (left), noting that broadcasters are beholden to operate within their own remits, defined as science departments, history departments, factual departments, etc. He believes independent producers are much less interested in compartmentalising their projects by genre.
"The reason I never wanted to work for the BBC, not that they'd have me," quips Graham, "is because there is this obsession with putting people in boxes, and labelling people. I wanted to be an independent producer - not just a science producer or an arts producer or a factual producer or an entertainment producer."
Perhaps as a result, Wall to Wall was a pioneer of cross-genre factual programming, launching Baby It's You, a child-development-meets-natural-history doc series back in 1993. While Graham says the company stays true to an organic development process, and never creates programming by first thinking of a genre and then coming up with a project, he admits that there can be merit in sticking to a specific genre definition.
"I do think genre is interesting in so far as it gives you a grammar or vocabulary for understanding what you're doing. It is a useful tool for a producer when they are thinking about how they are going to tell the story," says Graham.
Graham is also outspoken regarding the practice of 'borrowing genres.' "Creative borrowing - the television version of sampling in music - is something we do all the time. There is a difference between doing that and just taking somebody else's format and ripping it off, which has happened to us," he says. Because of the rampant copycatting of TV formats in recent years, he says, producers must be increasingly wary when they talk about 'borrowing' from existing projects within the creative culture.
"What's important is that we acknowledge what came before. We could probably look at every single new show and could trace its aesthetic antecedent. Film does it all the time, and I think television is beginning to do it more," says Graham. Looking back at his own stable, Graham says that Body Story's inspiration was the 1960s movie Fantastic Voyage, while Upstairs Downstairs was the inspiration for 1900 House, and Quest for Fire was the inspiration for Neanderthal.
In terms of new genres that could come to the fore, Graham figures there are few truly original ideas left, but admits there may be a future for 'living science' - the next evolution of the living history genre. "It is an interesting area. We've talked about it and spent some time experimenting with a futuristic spin on (living history), but we've never quite cracked it," admits Graham.
He outlines two specific ideas that Wall to Wall developed that didn't take flight. One was a big-budget project called Life on Mars, featuring people living on a realistic red planet created through the use of scientific data, such as NASA blueprints. Another looked at creating the house of the future.
Interestingly, he says 1900 House, the internationally successful format and 'grand-daddy' of living-history programmes, actually began as a science show. "The point of it originally was a series that explored the impact of technology on people - how science had changed people's lives in the 20th century. It was meant to be hard science," explains Graham.