Good documentaries can make a big difference

opinion May 26, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Digital TV needs refreshing content to avoid the mainstream trap

Digital TV is getting closer and closer to a full-scale launch. The positives have been identified and the negatives have been spotted. On one hand, the TV industry is striving to try the untried and advertisers are getting a bit braver supporting unorthodox content. On the other hand, the gravitational pull of the status quo is heavily asserting itself, with mainstream sure-to-get-good-ratings and sponsors’ content starting to creep in.
We have seen the positives – the attempts to produce content never before put on air – so let’s see what has been obviously lacking. No new TV station has come up with good documentaries, or at least showed us it’s trying. That’s a pity because Thailand is a country rich in history, a goldmine for documentary-makers.
We have great temples with intriguing backgrounds. We have a long-established monarchy. We are one of very few nations that escaped colonialism. We are not the world’s most spectacular sporting country but we have a fair share of great athletes. We played our roles in world wars. Our politics is one of the world’s most colourful.
That is to name just a few. We all know the famous “History” channel that has slowly changed the general mindset that watching historical documentaries is boring. That international channel has explored key world events and interesting names and places. The concepts and examples are already there for our local TV producers to follow. The best part is the TV industry doesn’t have to focus on the world, because this country alone can provide unlimited material, ideas or resources for great content.
Any digital TV station that decides to pioneer documentary making will make, no pun intended, history. This is not to say that no locally-made great documentaries have ever graced our TV screens. There have been some masterpieces, but they are only far and few in between and no station has really dedicated itself to being a pioneer in this particular field.
Money is admittedly the key issue. It’s easier and cheaper to get celebrities to host some programmes that attract advertising – but do not quite enrich the audience with new knowledge – than to do one really good documentary. The problem is that celebrities’ chit-chat, concerts, health advice or gadget updates are part of the mainstream content that is threatening to flood every station. There are attempts to try new “presentation” methods, but that is not what makes a station “different” from others.
Well-researched and well-produced documentaries are the answer. This sort of content requires a good mix of journalistic skills and visual expertise. In other words, any station armed with good journalists, dedicated video and CG technicians and film directors can have a really great head-start. 
Where will the funding come from? A good documentary series on, say, Ayutthaya, may be as costly as making one movie. Money and quality content are a chicken-and-egg issue. But the bottom-line is that if one production is good, the next one can attract a lot of sponsorship or advertisements. All a station needs is the courage to invest and get started.
Digital TV stations are competing in a “red ocean” business environment, they say. On the one hand, it’s called “red ocean” because it’s tough. On the other hand, a “red ocean” is where all the easy things are done so there are too many fish gathering there for comfort. While it takes some courage to be in the red ocean, getting out of it may require greater bravery.

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