Stronger Than Fiction: Reality, Just Better

True crime spearheads next-level long form documentaries while in drama multiplatform, “pervasive” storytelling moves from niche transmedia experiments into the mainstream.

Around two years ago, probably at the Nordic Media Festival in Bergen, I heard Keri Lewis Brown of K7 media mention in passing that we could expect a re-emergence of True Crime into the mainstream. I did not take this very seriously. Of course I knew that the genre has been a consistent performer in both fiction and non fiction across book publishing, made for TV movies and investigative magazine reporting. Indeed, quality true crime reporting, in media like Vanity Fair, was one of my guilty pleasures. But I still though the genre was just too shabby for cultural cachet! Obviously, I was entirely wrong.

jinx-robert-durstThis year’s Nordic Media Festival, which wrapped up Friday, was headlined by producers of HBO’s The Jinx and NPR’s podcast phenomenon Serial. A theme that emerged across the two days was a revitalised interest in narrative long-form documentary storytelling, where what we might call Upmarket True Crime is probably just the tip of an iceberg.

Longer-form reporting has already established itself as a solid niche in both newspapers and radio in many markets. This year, The Jinx demonstrated how eminently suitable the TV show format is for the artistically ambitious telling of complex stories. The process of documentary filmmaking, with its long timeframes and (typically) masses of raw material, is a natural match for multi-part series. Of course, there are many documentary filmmakers who are happy to work in a page-turner tonality and have the skill set to re-investigate, for instance, a cold case. But the increasing use of multimedia by print media houses also suggests natural alliances between investigative reporters and documentary filmmakers or TV producers. For serious news organisations relying on online traffic, becoming a first window for documentary co-productions is a natural choice*; these could for instance later air on broadcast television.

Serial, of course, is a podcast by radio documentarists, but it’s designed to be “TV for your ears, like House of Cards or True Detective,” said producer Dana Chivvis on stage in Bergen. The series even employed some signals of televisuality, like the “Previously on Serial” segments topping the episodes.

On the same stage the previous day, producers Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier of HBO’s The Jinx had hedged and hemmed a bit when asked about the ethics of transforming real-world tragedies into entertaining narratives. But Chivvis had a firm answer that would have served them just as well.

“We had ethical discussions all the time. But we didn’t make it a drama. It is a drama,” she stated.

Both projects seemed driven by this tension between on one hand the fascination with finding and shaping a fascinating story, and on the other hand a wish to give voices to the ordinary people trampled by the tragedies – whether the malice or the murderer, or the indignities of the investigations. Both producers used very similar language when describing their responsibility towards these people relative to the needs of the story. Hard and fast line are difficult to lay down, but as Chivvis put it, the key to getting it right is to remember them at all times. ”Who are we talking about? And what will what we are doing do to them?”

jenterAmong Nordic media industry events, The Nordic Media Festival is in a class of its own and we cannot recommend it highly enough. We Nordics from other countries tend to joke that its quality is thanks to the flow of oil money, but the real secret lies with their extremely well-curated speaking programme. While the event has a strongly Norwegian focus and gathers the local industry, including print media, the top-calibre international speakers make it worth the trek. You’ll get most out of your trip to Bergen, however, if you understand a Scandinavian language.

One of the many interesting presentations in Norwegian this year was showrunner Ingvill Marie Nyborg speaking about her hit web show Jenter (Girls), a smash hit among 10-12 year-olds with more than 50 million clicks. Quality serial drama combines fluidly with selfies, cell phone cam diaries and Instagram storytelling in what very recently would have been considered an experimental transmedia project – but today, really, just comes across as a storytelling necessity when portraying the contemporary world. This is an excellent example of the normalisation of transmedia storytelling techniques discussed in the 2015 Nostradamus Report.

*For interesting examples of highly cinematic multimedia documentaries, typically created for online consumption, take a look at Mediastorm whose founder Brian Storm gave an enormously generous double lecture about their aesthetics and their funding model at the Nordic Media Festival in 2013.


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