Meanwhile, over in the factual genre….

recruitsWe’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.

8 Comments:

  1. What confuses me on Recruits is when we go from the new recruits who are just joining the Academy, then cut to the less-newer recruits who are already on the beat, which is backwards on how to structure a show like this.

    I’d prefer it if they tried to keep the progression in chronological order, and had introduced the rookies on the beat later in the series.

  2. It’s nothing to do with holding the audience’s interest, save for those casual viewers who channel-surf to the point of pointlessness.

    What this editing style does is treat the viewer with absolute contempt. It basically works on the presumption that the viewer is either too stupid, too senile or too distracted to remember the most basic bits of storytelling, and so recaps the same story again and again and again to the point where it becomes an absolute necessity to watch these things on a PVR to skip all the crap.

    A couple of years ago I took an episode of Border Security and edited out the ads and all the repeated material. It ran barely 10 minutes.

    RSPCA Animal Rescue and The Force were both shows that stayed away from this idiot-pleasing style of editing in their first seasons, but which both have adopted it with open arms now.

    I feel sorry for the poor Freeview PVR users who have been banned from having access to the kind of time-skip tools that us users of proper PVRs have. I really do.

    To the producers of these shows: tell a story, for hell’s sake. Stop teasing your audience. Just tell the damn stories, one at a time. It’s not rocket science.

  3. All the intercutting has completely turned me off the genre. Anybody with an attention span longer than a commercial break can’t be bothered.

  4. I used to watch Border Security all the time, but the ‘meanwhile’ killed the whole genre for me. It wasn’t only the fact they couldn’t stick with 1 story for more then 3minutes, its that they then re tell half the story again as if i forgot what happened 5minutes ago. I found the whole thing to be too condescending so they definitely lost a few people over that and burned their genre.

    If the story isn’t compelling enough to air without ‘meanwhile’ing it then don’t tell it, its as simple as that.

  5. I really despise ‘meanwhile’ stories, especially on Border Security. I still watch it (just), but it is annoying. Border Security is also quiet repetitive. Each week you have the Asian that didn’t declare the suitcase full of food, the person with the drugs, the person without the correct paper work, and chuck in the occasional bust-the-illegal-workers story line.

    Having said that, it always pulls in good ratings, so it mustn’t be that much of a turn off.

  6. I really like this show and often feel disappointed that it is over after 30 minutes.

    Policing lends itself well to this type of drama as it offers so much material in which to work with. Having worked, indirectly, with police in the past I have the highest respect for these people as a whole. We ask them to deal with the most horrible of things, put themselves in danger and then we want them to lead incorruptible lives in the face of a lot of temptation. On the whole, these are people who get into policing because they have strong personal values about protecting society and helping people. Yet over time who can blame them for becoming jaded and harden as they are exposed day after day to drunken idiots and drug dealers who often live a charmed life.

    The episode last week about police having to draw their gun was a good example. It linked the theory they are taught at college with a real life example of practical application. Image the thoughts that must go through the head of a young girl of 19 who must decide in a split second – Am I going to have to shot this man dead or not? I am glad it is her and not me having to make that decision. After all they are all human and we all make mistakes – only they are held (as they should) to higher accountabilities.

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