Why­didIr­ish Water­splash out ¤800kon­aTV­doc­u­men­tary?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CULTURE -

One Sun­day evening in early De­cem­ber, 2019, Vir­gin Me­dia Two aired a 45-minute doc­u­men­tary on the sub­ject of water in Ire­land. The Story of Water, as it was called, was fairly un­ex­cep­tional stuff, couched in the cur­rent ba­nal id­iom of talk­ing heads in­ter­spersed with end­less drone shots, faux-clas­si­cal mu­sic and breathy voiceover. To be fair, it was a com­pe­tent enough overview of the chal­lenges the coun­try faces in get­ting its water and sewage infrastruc­ture fit for pur­pose in the 21st cen­tury – although it avoided men­tion of the pop­u­lar re­volt against water charges a few years ago.

That’s not sur­pris­ing. This week Jack Hor­gan-Jones re­ported in The Ir­ish Times that Ir­ish Water had paid more than ¤800,000 (in­clud­ing VAT) for The Story of Water, de­scribed as a “fea­ture­length doc­u­men­tary com­mis­sioned as part of a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion cam­paign on how Ire­land uses water”. The film was pro­duced for the util­ity by “cre­ative agency” Rothco Ac­cen­ture.

¤800,000 is a lot of money by most peo­ple’s stan­dards, but film­mak­ing is ex­pen­sive, right? Not that ex­pen­sive, ac­tu­ally. At the very top end of its range, RTÉ will bud­get about ¤130,000 for an hour-long doc­u­men­tary (in re­al­ity 52 min­utes). Fea­ture-length Ir­ish doc­u­men­taries of 90 min­utes or so, when made for the­atri­cal re­lease and in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion, might cost up to ¤400,000. Ab­so­lute top-of-the-range in­ter­na­tional doc­u­men­taries by renowned di­rec­tors would be the only ones at the bud­getary scale achieved by The Story of Water – but these are made in the ex­pec­ta­tion of mil­lions of view­ers and sales across the world.

Vir­gin Me­dia Two is Ire­land’s fourth most pop­u­lar do­mes­tic TV sta­tion, with a na­tional au­di­ence share of just over 3 per cent. It would be a sur­prise if The Story of Water’s view­ing num­bers at 7pm on a Sun­day evening rose above the low tens of thou­sands. That’s around 40 quid per viewer. It would be cheaper to bring ev­ery one of them out for a Miche­lin-starred lunch to ex­plain the is­sues.

Wel­come to the strange world of “na­tive con­tent”. At first glance, it’s noth­ing new. Spon­sored pro­gram­ming goes back to the ear­li­est days of broad­cast­ing. News­pa­pers have al­ways run ad­ver­to­ri­als which blur (some­times un­ac­cept­ably) the lines be­tween ad­ver­tis­ing and jour­nal­ism. For decades, large com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies have com­mis­sioned cor­po­rate or “pub­lic in­for­ma­tion” films to pro­mote their aims.

But the spec­tac­u­lar col­lapse of the tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, and its dis­place­ment by search en­gines, so­cial me­dia and the sur­veil­lance econ­omy, have led to a flow­er­ing of a new kind of hy­brid me­dia. Com­pa­nies now pro­duce their own pod­casts, make videos which they run on their own YouTube chan­nels, and write their own ar­ti­cles for their own web­sites. Some farm these ac­tiv­i­ties out to agen­cies such as Rothco Ac­cen­ture, oth­ers keep them in-house or get me­dia plat­forms to take on the production du­ties. Na­tive con­tent forms a sig­nif­i­cant part of the busi­ness model for the dig­i­tal op­er­a­tions of news­pa­pers from the New York Times to The Ir­ish Times. And it’s the (some­what shaky) fi­nan­cial bedrock of dig­i­tal start-ups from Buz­zfeed to Joe.ie.

But what is the “con­tent” in na­tive con­tent? Is it clear to view­ers that what they’re watch­ing is es­sen­tially an ad? Does any­one want to see, hear or read it? And do the peo­ple mak­ing it have any idea what they’re do­ing?

Ac­cord­ing to Ir­ish Water, the doc­u­men­tary “high­lights the im­por­tant be­havioural change re­quired to pro­tect our water re­sources into the fu­ture and en­sure the pub­lic aware­ness of the items they put in

‘‘

But what is the ‘con­tent’ in na­tive con­tent? Does any­one want to see, hear or read it?

toi­lets”. It cer­tainly in­cludes eye-open­ing footage of the prob­lems caused by raw sewage in west Clare and an in­ter­est­ing crash course in the his­tory of Dublin’s water sup­ply. It also pro­poses a so­lu­tion to Dublin’s prob­lems (tak­ing water from the Shan­non) which is po­lit­i­cally con­tentious, although you wouldn’t have heard that.

For its part, Vir­gin Me­dia would ap­pear to have abided by all the re­quire­ments of the Broad­cast­ing Author­ity of Ire­land in clearly flag­ging the prove­nance of the film. If this trend con­tin­ues, though, it might be worth ask­ing whether it’s a good idea to fill up broad­cast­ing space with ad­ver­to­rial .

But the most im­me­di­ate ques­tion is why Ir­ish Water, so ve­he­mently crit­i­cised in the re­cent past for its ex­pen­di­ture on con­sul­tants and mar­ket­ing, thought it a good idea to get into film production. It’s one thing to in­vest in an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign to raise aware­ness of water qual­ity, in the knowl­edge that your ads will be seen in whatever slots you buy. It’s quite another to make what’s prob­a­bly the most ex­pen­sive doc­u­men­tary of the year (although, to be fair, it doesn’t look it) for a tiny au­di­ence. That seems like a whole new way to waste money.

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