We’ve all seen them do it. You’re following an interesting story in your favourite factual / observational series and suddenly you are whisked away to a completely new story. Just as that starts to look interesting you’re shunted off to another one, meanwhile there’s something about to occur back in the first story. Since the success of Border Security they’re practically all doing it now.
‘Meanwhile TV’ has infiltrated so many titles in the genre, especially in commercial television. Have television producers lost faith in their ability to sustain an audience?
“It isn’t necessarily restricted to factual or documentary storytelling,” says producer Michael Cordell. “There’s a lot of ‘Meanwhile’ stuff goes on in drama as well. But some of the reasons it happens is to help mask weak stories.”
Cordell Jigsaw Productions has produced some of the most successful factual television in Australia, notably the double Logie winner, Bondi Rescue. Currently its newest product, Recruits, is gathering strength on TEN.
“There’s a lot of ‘Meanwhile’ that stretches out and ramps up slightly weak stories. But it’s a formula I think some shows rely on too much. And what you find is there is so much intercutting between stories, particularly when the stories get a bit complex, that you find yourself completely lost,” he said.
“One thing I really love about working with TEN is they’re very open-minded about the storytelling. So there’s certainly plenty of times when we do the ‘Meanwhile’ thing. But we’ve done a couple of episodes where there’s an entire show on a single story.
“We did an entire (Bondi Rescue) episode on a poor fellow who drowned, and one on a guy who claimed he had been bitten by a shark and it turned out it was a hoax. And we’d do the same in Recruits if there was a story that was strong enough and ran for long enough.
“I think it’s really important to keep audiences on their toes and keep things a bit fresh. To me the only rule should be ‘is it engaging enough for the audience?’ The rule shouldn’t be ‘you must do 4 stories in a half hour.'”
Cordell acknowledges that the editing of stories is often out of fear of losing viewers, yet too much tinkering with storytelling can have the opposite effect.
“If their concern is that the audience is going to lose track or lose interest they’re actually working against their own logic. Because if you intercut too much you lose the storyline and in effect you lose the audience. But that’s why it happens.”
Recruits focusses on two groupings of young police graduates, some in training at Goulburn Police College, contrasted by new graduates who have just hit the streets. Cordell says it provides the show with helpful story junctures.
“It gives you a great editing points where the students in college are learning about people suffering with mental illness for example, and then all of a sudden you’re out there on the streets seeing them do it,” he said.
“Originally we proposed just doing a series on the Police College, and I think that would have been interesting. But I guess you’re faced with the problem that they’re all mock scenarios. You only get the pay off when they leave the show and go out on the street. In dramatic terms that was always going to be a little bit of a problem.”
But with the success of Seven’s The Force: Behind the Line, how do the police graduates on Recruits have a point of difference?
“A hallmark of a lot of the shows we make is that we spend a lot more time on character,” claims Cordell. “In Bondi Rescue and Recruits there are people you get to know and we follow their stories. Instead of it being a nameless policeman that’s involved, suddenly it’s a young bloke from country New South Wales who’s never been in the big smoke before and he’s dealing with his first arrest.
“Or a girl in her late teens is seeing the first heroin overdose that she’s seen. I think audiences get involved in the characters, and it also, to me, makes the drama that much more powerful because you’ve got people you know and like, or have opinions on, who are reflecting and observing what’s happening in front of them.”
A key to the success of the genre, he suggests, is access, strong characters and following stories with pictures rather than relying on narration.
Narrator for Recruits is Rush actor Rodger Corser, now a TEN network identity.
“We had a bit of a dilemma, because TEN has this new edict that you can’t run any credits,” says Cordell.
“So his presence is really big on the Recruits website. We think over time he’ll gradually become more synonymous with it.”
However, not everything between Cordell Jigsaw and TEN has hit its target. Bondi Rescue: Bali didn’t match the success of the local prototype.
“It was a show that didn’t succeed not because it was badly made but because it just didn’t connect as much with the audience.”
While the show will surface on National Geographic, Cordell is hopeful TEN will give it another showing. There are also unaired episodes of Guerrilla Gardeners, a show in which anarchic, if well-meaning, landscapers makeover city eyesores. The show didn’t generate strong ratings, and attracted some criticism from local authorities for its renegade practices.
“We really love the show. It’s perfect for TEN –cheeky, with a lot of humour. It’s a show for times, trying to improve our urban landscapes,” said Cordell.
“There’s always a bit of room for improvement but at its heart it’s a really solid show. We’ve got 15 episodes still left up our sleeves so TEN’s just trying to figure out when the best slot is, really.”
For now his attention is on Recruits, which, with a healthy lead-in from MasterChef Australia, last week took in 1.26m viewers.
“It teaches you about what the police have to deal with and policing life on the streets and I’m excited that it’s reaching a big audience.”
Recruits airs 8pm Mondays on TEN.