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Channel 4′s Gogglebox and the BBC’s 21 Up New Generation represent different approaches to observational documentary.  Does either come close to providing true insights into the attitudes and experiences of its subjects or the broader population from which they are drawn?

Through our video-based work for Ofcom, BBC Radio 4 and others, The Knowledge Agency has built a reputation for providing compelling, entertaining video outputs which are nevertheless rooted in deep insights about real consumer behaviour. (For more information about this side of our work, please click here.)

In the process, I have developed a strong interest in documentary film-making, and any programming which uses research techniques to give us a window into the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps the most notable current example is Channel 4’s Gogglebox, which has become a particular favourite amongst many of our clients. Its apparently observational style – which echoes some of the classic ‘watching the watchers’ research of Dr Peter Collett in the 1980s – appears to offer a real insight into the world of viewer groups with whom most programme makers and TV executives have little day-to-day contact.

At the end of a recent debrief honed from tens of hours of video footage, one senior manager from the client organisation complimented me by saying “It was just like watching an episode of Gogglebox”. Whilst I’d like to think that this is a reflection of how entertaining our presentation was, this kind of comment does nevertheless raise questions about just how real some people in television think Gogglebox actually is.

There is no doubt that Gogglebox has been compelling viewing, providing an entertaining window on some of the most opinionated TV viewers in the country. But the truth is that the show is reality TV, unrepresentative of the behaviours and attitudes of the broader viewing public – a piece of entertainment which is at least in part staged for the cameras. (This article from the Daily Mail in December 2013 gives some insight into just how truly ‘observational’ the programme is.)



And despite the assertion of the programme’s producers that they set out not to cast anyone on the show whom they could “imagine in the queue for Big Brother”, you only have to go as far as the current series of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5, to see Gogglebox ‘star’ George Gilbey opining on the strangeness of his life in the goldfish bowl.

By contrast, buried away in the late night BBC schedule last week was the outstanding 21 Up New Generation(available on iPlayer until Monday 14th September), the latest instalment in one of the great institutions of British TV documentary. The basic approach and format of the programme has changed relatively little since the original 7 Up was first broadcast in 1964.

21 Up does not pretend to be observational, yet the subtle, naturalistic style of its filming and presentation allows the raw material to speak for itself. The participants are not overly opinionated; in fact most of them are remarkably normal. Yet, the programme creates a powerful sense of engagement between viewer and protagonist (something we aspire to doing in our own work) and some of the insights that emerge about the impact of social background, educational environment and family expectations on young people’s development, for example, are both profound and remarkably powerful.



In research terms, we might dismiss such conclusions as ‘anecdotal evidence’ but it is difficult to watch 21 Upand not feel that these examples are somehow representative of a broader truth. The paradox here is that an editorial form which does not hide its artifice is capable of communicating more substantive truth then a format which appears on the surface of least to be less mediated and more ‘fly on the wall’. Why might this be?

In part, this may just be a function of seriousness of purpose – I’m sure that Channel 4 and the producers of Gogglebox do not intend it to be taken seriously as a barometer of audience opinion. Yet the fact that it can be interpreted as such even by people within the industry may be a cause for concern.

Another factor might undoubtedly be the amount of diligent work which goes on behind the scenes, but which never features on screen. When Melanie Archer, the Producer on 21 Up, in her blog about the series on the BBC website, describes the process of meeting “thousands of children from different social, ethnic and economic backgrounds living all over the UK” during the process of recruiting participants for the series, this reminds me of the lengths that we go to as researchers to ensure that what we present in video debriefs is deeply grounded in good research practice, and not just a series of ‘vox pops’.

And of course, the ability of the researcher/producer in questioning the participants, analysing the output and shaping the presentation of the insights is critical.

My final observation is about the power of being able to track the development of an individual through a series of snapshots over time, rather than capturing a one-off soundbite or hot-housing people under the spotlight for an extended period and watching them turn into ‘celebrities’. It is perhaps this unpolluted historical context, above all, which makes programmes like 21 Up so absorbing.

We have some experience of this ourselves, having conducted a series of annual filmed interviews with a cross-section of individuals, tracking their digital journeys – and the associated media literacy issues they encounter – as part of Ofcom’s Media Lives study, now in its tenth year. We are fortunate and privileged to have had the opportunity to work with the same participants over such an extended period, and great credit is due to Ofcom for consistently supporting this initiative, which now forms an extremely rich and powerful resource for understanding digital literacy in the UK. (For more information about Media Lives, please click here.)