Docu-soap can get in your eyes

Reality TV programme-makers are zooming in on the world of work and business. If one of them hammers on your company door, should you grab the chance of free publicity or batten the hatches?

by Virginia Matthews
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For most of its half-century of media dominance, TV has not had much truck with business programming. Hefty doses of suspicion and incomprehension on both sides have kept business leaders off the box, and when they have appeared it has been to apologise when something has gone wrong. On the other side of the camera, to suggest that business might possess entertainment value would have been enough to put the kybosh on the most promising of TV careers.

With the battle lines thus drawn, the stalemate continued - even the success in the mid-80s of the BBC's original Troubleshooter, Sir John Harvey-Jones, didn't do much to change the situation. Despite pulling in millions of viewers and launching a thousand suburban dinner-party conversations, business programmes remained a late-night rarity, while the received wisdom in the nation's boardrooms was that only a fool or a knave would let the cameras in.

But then came reality TV, and all that was turned on its head. These days, bosses across the land are queuing up to get themselves - and their businesses - on the telly, and viewers can hardly switch on without encountering the inside-easyJet docu-soap and business-based reality shows such as Airline, Dragon's Den, Make Me a Million, I'll Show Them Who's Boss, Property People, The Mind of an Entrepreneur, The Apprentice ...

So what has changed? Well, the promise of celebrity and the lure of free publicity can make the opportunity to wash your corporate dirty linen on the air seem well worth it. Unpopular industries are happy to give their corporate right arm for positive TV coverage; and in the hope of attracting new talent into their skill-starved sectors, UK engineering and science lobbyists are beating a path to the doors of TV producers to beg for docu-drama coverage or even fictional drama portrayal of their sectors.

But beware, it may be called reality but it's still TV, which means that the programme-makers decide how to edit it - what to show and what to leave out. Once the crews start filming, many employers find they have little control over content, and shows may end up having the opposite effect to that first hoped for. For example, environmental health officers claim that the reality docu-soap Life of Grime wrecked recruitment plans for three years.

Most of us have cringed at the ability of TV to expose weakness, greed and ego, but the explosion of 'reality' in recent years is testament to the large number of individuals prepared to expose their frailty in return for instant celebrity. The returns can be great, but so can the pitfalls. Anyone thinking of getting involved in a business TV show needs to be realistic about both their own expectations and what the producers will want to get out of it.

Michael Waldman is an award-winning documentary maker whose credits include the '90s BBC2 series The House, a highly watchable programme that documented a period of crisis inside the Royal Opera House. No stranger to boardroom machinations - his portrait of prima donna behaviour both on and off-stage almost literally, um, brought the house down, according to some ROH staff - Waldman believes that business is TV's final frontier.

'The Apprentice has gone some way to explaining how business works, but it isn't the full picture,' he says. 'In order to tackle the overall lack of commercial understanding among both documentary-makers and society at large, significant companies - and I have already received some interesting approaches - need to be prepared to open themselves up to the curious eye of the camera and to trust film-makers.

'TV exposure offers enormous benefits to directors and employees, but both sides need to be open about their motives in collaborating with each other.'

Christopher Millard, director of press at the ROH, sees it all rather differently. 'Seven years since The House was made, it is still having a damaging effect on us. While some of the most dramatic scenes that formed part of the series still happen here today - the sometimes angry meetings and the performers arriving minutes before curtain-up - the overall tone of the series and its dogged concentration on absolute chaos was down to little more than clever editing. The House was the first and the last fly- on-the-wall we shall ever make.'

One organisation that has gone further than any other in its willingness to roll over for the programme-makers and have its tummy tickled is the aforementioned easyJet. The budget airline's seven-year collaboration with LWT has not only spawned one of the top factual shows in the entire ITV stable - with a regular 7.5million viewers, Airline is second only to I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here - but has secured household-name status for the company and some of its more colourful employees.

When it was first approached in 1997, easyJet - then just two years old - had no profile to speak of. Lured by the promise of free exposure on peak-time national TV, its media-savvy founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou agreed to give free rein to the cameras. The first show was aired in 1999 and the TV crew, who routinely film slanging matches between often inexperienced staff and irate passengers, has been an almost constant fixture ever since.

Although the company exercises no overt editorial control over the programmes and is strictly forbidden from doing so under the terms of the Broadcasting Act, it is allowed to correct any factual errors. This gives it a chance to offer an explanation as to why a flight has been delayed or to detail how it has rectified an awkward situation with a passenger.

The inclusion of softer elements such as stories about staff romances or travellers' job interviews may have reduced the adverse impact of intransigent bookings clerks, but some viewers may feel that easyJet's TV career has made it more enemies than friends. Yet for all those travellers who have vowed never to fly with a company where back-covering and rule-quoting seem to be the norm, others approve of the no-frills, no-favours style and take an affectionate view of the highly pressured staff.

Despite scenes of altercation between the men and women in orange and their clients - and no-one is saying that they aren't typical of airline ground staff everywhere, or that all passengers are angels - easyJet believes that the balance of the TV series is distinctly positive. Indeed, Stelios has already done a very similar deal with Sky TV for his new easyCruise brand.

EasyJet says it would recommend any other airline to collaborate with documentary makers - with one proviso. 'You have to take the rough with the smooth, and being open and honest is absolutely key,' advises Samantha Day, corporate communications executive at the company. 'A fly-on-the-wall documentary isn't a format that is right for every business.'

Although much of the estate agency world was horrified by the negative press that accompanied Property People, a BBC2 six-parter last year that will be remembered in part for one negotiator's repeated use of the 'f' word, David Pollock, founder and CEO of the London estate agency chain at the heart of the series - Greene & Company - takes a different view.

'The name recognition we got from the series was overwhelming,' he says. 'Not only did it bring in loads of new leads, it also gave me the opportunity to hold a mirror up to my business. In terms of honesty and integrity, the BBC crew was excellent and I would have no hesitation in recommending them.'

And the f-worder? 'The documentary makers used clever editing to give the impression that one particular negotiator was swearing all the time, but I didn't altogether blame them - after all, they were in the business of making good television,' adds Pollock. 'As for the negotiator himself, he found the profession too stressful and subsequently left it altogether.'

For Richard Rawlings, though, MD of Inside Out Communications, a marketing agency that specialises in advising estate agents, Property People was a travesty. 'The programme highlighted some of the worst aspects of the business by a company that I would never take on my books and, ultimately, it did the industry a lot of harm,' he says.

'In the US, estate agents are pillars of the community, but in the UK they are seen as pariahs. Until that attitude changes, I would strongly advise estate agents to refuse to co-operate with any documentary film-maker.'

How difficult it can be to take the rough with the smooth when you and your organisation become film-making fodder is even clearer in the case of an organisation that enjoys a largely unsullied reputation among the British public. In 2003, BBC2 aired a five-part series of hour-long programmes on the National Trust, filmed, it says, 'over two of the most stressful years in its life'. Among the highlights of the series were The Stones, an episode in which the Trust was seen going head-to-head with the hippies, druids and travellers making plans for a summer-solstice celebration, and The Beach, which documented the NT's fraught negotiations with the dog-owners, yachtsmen and - memorably - the nudists competing for a stake in Studland Bay, Dorset.

Although not on the staff when the series was made, Julian Lloyd, head of media at the NT, sums up the less-than-positive feelings among the Trust's staff about the power of telly. 'We had collaborated with the programme-makers, Oxford Films, on another project and felt it had been a good showcase for us. When it came to the BBC five-parter, we knew where the crew were filming and who they were talking to, but were pretty much in the dark when it came to the actual content.

'Some of the programmes focused very much on public opposition to our work, with scenes of angry people outside Stonehenge and the like. That was neither helpful nor indeed a fair representation of what we do. Individual people here felt very exposed by the series and, ultimately, we did not find it to be a particularly balanced or useful portrayal of how we work. We certainly have no plans to repeat the series.'

BBC2 director Patrick Forbes takes a different view. 'Any organisation in the process of change, as the National Trust was when we filmed, will find it painful, and the experience is never going to be great when you look back on it. In fairness, though, the people who pushed for the series to be made were prepared to take risks in order to lift the lid on how this powerful organisation works.

'My job was not to come down on the Trust's side every time there was controversy, but to reflect the different opinions about its work. Their aim was to explain what the organisation does and to attract a wholly different audience. In many ways, the series achieved that.'

Forbes now has his sights set on the City. 'Real life is always more interesting than any manufactured show, but TV has only skimmed the surface of work and business,' he says. 'I would love to make a programme about a large City firm in the process of change and I am open to all offers, particularly if the directors are prepared to leave their egos at the door.'

REALITY CHECKLIST

Chris Genasi, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, offers the following advice to any business contemplating collaboration with a TV crew ...

DO IT IF ... - You have a proper story to tell. - You can laugh at yourself and your organisation, and not burden the staff with endless recriminations. - You think it'll be good for your brand or business. - You are prepared to take a risk and feel that you can get on with the production team. - You can look at yourself on telly for hours on end and not leave the country. - You believe that TV programme makers should understand business better. DON'T DO IT IF ... - Your business is in bad shape or your reception area is tatty - TV will only highlight the weaknesses. - Your staff are unhappy about it - it may be your company, but your employees will inevitably get involved. - You aren't prepared to spend time negotiating with the crew. - You're a control freak; although you can correct factual inaccuracies, you absolutely cannot exercise editorial control.

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