Accentuate the positive, spare us the catastrophes: Last year TV focused more than ever on the developing world. But a report out today says it is still failing to change people's attitudes
It was a year in which television gave unprecedented attention to the developing world. From the Live 8 concerts and the G8 summit in Scotland to the 20th anniversary of Live Aid and BBC's Africa Lives season, the main broadcasters made a concerted effort in 2005 to address a range of issues affecting poorer countries. Despite this, attitudes to the developing world among the British public remain stubbornly negative, according to a report.
Reflecting the Real World?, commissioned by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, the Department for International Development, the International Broadcasting Trust, the Open University and VSO, and released today, used focus groups to look at the impact TV had on attitudes to developing countries. It found little had changed since a 2002 VSO survey in which the public said they associated developing countries with conflict, disaster and starving people.
Famine in Africa 20 years on from Live Aid, the devastating earthquake in South Asia and issues surrounding poverty all helped to confirm stereotypes. Broadcaster and VSO president Jonathan Dimbleby says in the report: "Even the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts, which enthused millions of people, inadvertently contrived to confirm a stereotype of Africa as a continent on its knees."
According to the report, audiences want more positive programming. "There was a very strong sentiment across the audience focus groups that developing countries are portrayed on TV in too negative a light," it says. "Audiences expressed a desire to hear about the good news, the positive side of life in developing countries and any progress that is being made."
BBC World's editorial director, Sian Kevill, acknowledges the criticism. "Sometimes we are not very good at portraying the developing world in its humanity, as opposed to people at the receiving end of some awful catastrophe," she says in the report.
Channel 4's head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, adds: "On our coverage of economic and scientific issues in the developing world we really have to raise our game - we have to stop shying away from the complicated issues."
International programmes about difficult subjects often have a tough time fighting for funding and slots against more ratings-friendly fare. Peter Dale, head of More4, admits in the report: "It's a given among commissioning editors that films about developing countries are not going to drive the [audience] share like a domestic documentary is going to."
Many broadcasters are looking at alternative ways to draw in audiences to more difficult issues. BBC's head of TV news and former head of current affairs Peter Horrocks, quoted in the report, says mainstream audiences have to be attracted to developing world issues by "stealth" with clever programming. A recent success was BBC2's Tribe, in which adventurer Bruce Parry lived with different remote tribes in a bid to understand their way of life. "British audiences love to see their own culture and life reflected but we were struck by how Parry's series reached a surprisingly large audience with a younger focus than BBC2 is often used to," says BBC2 controller Roly Keating.
Neera Dhingra, VSO's head of media, admits it is a difficult balancing act for broadcasters but contends viewers will watch shows about the developing world if they are made in the right way and marketed better. Speaking to MediaGuardian, she says: "What is interesting is that nobody had seen the programmes the focus groups seemed to like, such as African School and Living With Aids, until we showed them the clips. Some programmes are what everyone wants but people aren't watching them. It begs the question, how are they being marketed?"
The report praises those broadcasters who tried new ways to bring in audiences, in particular the BBC's Africa Lives season. As well as news and current affairs coverage of African issues, it also used drama, comedy and light entertainment to catch people who would normally switch over. Rolf on African Art, Strictly African Dancing and a Holby City special set in Ghana were all given the thumbs-up.
BBC2's World Weddings, GMTV's campaign to improve the life of school children in South Africa, Comic Relief, Children in Need and BBC4's African School all attracted praise, as did presenter Sorious Samura, who is of African origin, and his documentary Living With Aids.
If such a bumper year of programming makes so little change in the public's attitude to the developing world, how much more do broadcasters have to do? Dimbleby acknowledges it was frustrating: "One has to say to oneself a glass is half full and not half empty and keep making the case," he tells MediaGuardian. Other executives question whether it is broadcasting's job to try to change attitudes. "Our duty is not to make people think or feel any specific thing," says Byrne. "Our duty is to inform and give people information which they can use as a tool."
Many worry that after so much exposure last year, international programming could now fall back. "My fear is that it's seen as a 'tick that box, done it, move on' approach," says Steve Tibbett, head of policy at ActionAid, in the report. The BBC, which produced the most coverage of the developing world last year, remains under the greatest pressure to do more. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell's assertion that the corporation should "bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK" is a measure of that. Speaking to MediaGuardian, Hilary Benn, international development secretary says: "The more people see the lives of others in the world through the voices and experiences of the people themselves, the more people realise human beings have an enormous amount in common."
The immediate future appears positive, with C4's Unreported World expanding this year from eight episodes to 20 and the BBC's This World and Holidays in . . . continuing to attract critical acclaim. But the longer term is less promising, with the growth of on-demand technology enabling viewers to watch their favourite shows any time they want - lessening the chance that they may stumble across new shows about more difficult issues.
"For 'worthy' programming of any description it's a bleak outlook," Horrocks says in the report. "The tough things in TV will get significantly tougher and we will have to be even more creative and imaginative about how we try and get those to people, because they will just be gorging on great, amusing and enjoyable content that they love to watch - and why should they watch this stuff that we think they ought to?"
Audiences liked programmes such as BBC4's African School, but could they have been marketed better?