BBC Documentaries Under Attack, in Danger of Extinction

World Wide Filmmakers Struggle to Save the BBC Documentary

Once World Class, British documentaries set the bar for the rest of the world with their critically acclaimed documentary winners. England’s leading filmmakers, who once stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, today cry foul as they warn of an industry in financial crisis. Funds once exclusively their own, now wander among various forms of entertainment, most frequently those that produce the ever-popular reality-shows broadcast by television.

In an effort to persuade broadcasters to keep putting monetary resources into documentaries, they have developed a campaign to preserve what they term, “BBC’s respected Storyville,” now threatened by 60% revenue cuts from its small Pounds 2.2m budget.

Director of The Last King of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald became the latest to sign on to the effort this week, joining the rally to save BBC’s paramount place among international documentary creators.

They have a donation site in place to petition for funds, which has so far attracted more than 2,600 signatures. Founders of the new campaign are today preparing a detailed dossier for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in an effort to support their case for not making budget cuts.

Oscar-winner Macdonald, best known for his documentary titled “One Day in September” made an appearance on Storyville last year, declaring to Broadcast Magazine, “I think it is totally outrageous that the BBC is so savagely cutting the budget of the one remaining strand of quality programs on the whole network. It is nothing short of vandalism.”

Nick Fraser, editor at Storyville, stated he was optimistic that a deal could be reached to save that series. It has won 200 prizes in a decade. He did however warn that a new series of 10 films on the subject of democracy launched this week would not, could not have been made if 60% budget cuts had already taken place.

Lack of documentary funds has become an entertainment trend today, replaced by factual shows like Wife Swap and Supernanny. Edging out documentaries in lieu of factual entertainment began some years past with the marginalization of documentary filmmakers, making what they do less valuable to television.

Of greater concern is that once television greats among the film industry in the United States are being dumped for the big screen, beginning with popularity in Animal shows. Although no mention was made of Penguins, they certainly come to mind.

No longer basking in world envy, British documentary makers have a tough time getting projects funded the full 100% required to finish quality productions. Part of the problem is blamed on broadcasters and perhaps rightfully so, is not entirely their fault. Faced with increasing competition, dwindling audience, ratings on the slide, advertising revenues shrinking, as the Internet takes a more prominent place among the citizenry, even the best of UK film-makers now are condemned to spend their time seeking funding from a all manner of international sources.

Nick Broomfield, whose docu-drama Ghosts, inspired by a Chinese cockle-picker’s tragedy when drowned at Morecambe Bay, doing its terrestrial premiere next week, said: “All the television stations have gone ratings mad and it’s particularly disappointing with something like the BBC which has a big public service function. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted.

“Storyville has a very committed audience. It’s tucked away on BBC4, but it has a massive impact worldwide, because it’s truly international, which is what the BBC was set up to be.”

Tom Roberts of October Films, also doing a Save Storyville campaign, proclaimed, “The audiences haven’t gone away. They just look at the listings and see there’s no longer a documentary on a Monday night and read a book instead.”

Heather Croall, Sheffield Documentary Festival director, who works in association with The Independent each November, says, “If there’s any country in the world that’s the king of documentary making, it’s Britain. We all have to stand up and make the case for the art of documentary making.”

German film director Werner Herzog writes online, “This would be a catastrophe for me. Some of the best films I have made were only possible through Storyville.”

Storyville highlights

One Day In September (1999) – Kevin Macdonald’s account of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis, in which nine Israeli athletes died, won an Oscar, although critics said it did not adequately depict the motives of the terrorists.

A Cry From The Grave (1999) – Leslie Woodhead took a year to make his award-winning documentary about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which the Bosnian Serb army killed an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, the worst act of mass murder in Europe since 1945.

When The Levees Broke (2006) – Spike Lee’s award-winning documentary investigated how African Americans in New Orleans suffered in Hurricane Katrina and challenged the US government over its sluggish response.

Donations from supporters of quality television are welcome at In fact, they are critical.

To help save Storyville, you can visit the site, get the facts, read “How to Help” and check the “Get Involved” section to sign the petition and write letters. Please do it now; and tell your friends, it’s Showtime.

Claudia Strasbaugh
Claudia Strasbaugh was a freelance writer who founded Scripps Ranch/Mira Mesa Writer's Guild, was head writer for the weekly TV show "Kill 'EM With Comedy," plus California Bureau Chief for National Lotto World Magazine. Claudia also ran a nonprofit called Dinner On A Dollar. Sadly, Claudia passed away in 2015, but we are pleased to display her writing works.