Dimitra Kouzi: The idea is to open the discussion about audience development, impact producing, and outreach using journalistic skills to create audiences, to reach audiences, to talk to audiences. What do broadcasters do in that direction?
I thought that talking with somebody with your great experience as a commissioning editor and as a journalist, working at the same time in a channel like SVT would be fantastic in order to share some insights on how broadcasters have the power and mechanism to support documentaries to reach a bigger audience. Or do they?
Axel Arnö: So that's quite a new thing; there is a new profession going: impact producers. And I was at Good Pitch in Copenhagen, where it's all about how to create impact.
Dimitra Kouzi: What would your spontaneous reaction be, if I asked you how you understand the phrase ‘audience development’? What is the audience for you? Who is the audience?
Axel Arnö: I think all filmmakers must have some idea of whom they are speaking to. Sometimes filmmakers are so immersed in their own story that they are not really talking to the receiver. Their focus is to be true to their artistic beliefs. I totally respect that, but we must also be aware of the fact that there is somebody at the other end. It's very important to visualise that someone is receiving, which is something I very often say to filmmakers. You need to understand that even if you think that this film communicates really well, if an audience sits there in the dark and doesn't understand what's happening in the film, if you lose that audience because you are making decisions so as to make the film more visually appealing to you, then I think you are on the wrong path. I think you always have to think about who is going to receive your film, and what you want to say with that.
We often have discussions about impact as well, of course – how to present the film in the best way. Impact for us publishers is probably the best we can do to release it at the right time to give the film as much attention as possible. In terms of long-term impact, we can help with exposure, but we don't do impact campaigns. I think our role as commissioning editors is to work together with the filmmaker to make the film as powerful as possible, as understandable as possible, as true to fact as possible in order for it to become a tool for change – which is what many filmmakers want. We are in this business to change the world, so we want to have change, we want to make a difference. I'm really sad when a film I've been working on has low ratings, or nothing happens – nothing in the papers, no reviews – it just feels like a waste of time. We now think even more, together with the filmmakers, how to prolong a film’s life.
Dimitra Kouzi: How do you do that as a channel?
Axel Arnö: Here in the documentary department, we call ourselves ‘web-first’. Ratings are not as important. We need to be out there on the platform where the audiences are. The problem for us is that we have an audience that is quite big in broadcast, but on the web, it's significant smaller. Because we have multinational competitors. SVT has a market share of around 35% in broadcast, and we have been very stable; we are still the biggest broadcaster. And on the internet, we have around 12% market share, and we are number 4 after YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix. With Facebook, it's because they have this autoplay, when you scroll through the Facebook stream, they count the streams even if they are quiet, which is not really fair.
Dimitra Kouzi: Are you competing with YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix?
Axel Arnö: YouTube has a completely different audience. But it's an audience that we want, too. It's really difficult to compete with YouTube. And Netflix, of course, they have a lot of money now. So, we will probably struggle to keep at the top. As a public service broadcaster, we need to be everywhere – your mother, my mother, us, our kids, which is a challenge. Those are very different audiences, and one particular film might have more of one kind of audience than another.
Dimitra Kouzi: In current affairs, you probably have more men and older men, don’t you?
Axel Arnö: That is probably true. All traditional current affairs will be viewed by an older audience. They are used to talking heads and a voice of God that tells you how it is. Which is not the way young audiences understand the world. But I have to defend solid journalism with real facts. So, I think it is a good thing that we do what we do. And I strongly protest against anyone who says that objective journalism is dead. We strive to be correct, fair and impartial. It is really our mission to be true – otherwise we will be dead very soon.
A creative documentary can of course be more subjective. Then, you have to be transparent about how subjective you are and what you are doing. You cannot lie.
Dimitra Kouzi: I agree that objective journalism is certainly not dead, and strong and good journalism continues to be a public broadcaster’s strong card. You often see this tendency to train people who are reporters, cameramen, sound recordists on the spot, like kamikazes who cover the news where it is happening, in order to cut expenses. This is an interesting situation happening everywhere: to use citizens to replace journalists or reporters. How do you as a public broadcaster use these other media which are available? I mean the radio and all the others in order to report, share, and promote the content you create?
Axel Arnö: We are special cases. In Sweden, public TV broadcasting and radio broadcasting separated in the 1970s. I think the reason was that they didn't want television to ‘eat’ everything, because we have so many expenses and we are so much bigger than the radio. But there is now a fear to break this freedom about our presence online. National-newspaper editors think they should go back to broadcast television. But then we are answering that this is just stupid and wish that we were all online. Nobody will tell newspapers to go back and be printed on paper only. So, we all are going to be in the same arena. But I think, thank God we have public television, because we still have money to do real investigative journalism, and soon enough we will be the only ones to have the power to do that.
Dimitra Kouzi: How much is the budget you have?
Axel Arnö: I have a pretty flexible budget so that I can buy, pre-buy, and co-produce films. And sometimes I make a full commission, depending on the subject. Often, I find new projects through the EBU Documentary group, or through my own network. I also try to push my colleagues when I see that we should do more about a specific issue, like you probably heard about Why Slavery? That came from a couple of broadcasters, and it's now going to be six programs about modern slavery. So far, more than 30 partners have committed to broadcasting during the same week.
Dimitra Kouzi: When is the premiere?
Axel Arnö: Right now, the launch is expected in October 2018. I think in terms of impact this is really something we as public-service broadcasters can deliver. By pooling our resources and broadcasting simultaneously, we hope to create a big world-wide discussion about modern slavery.
I can use my network to initiate new projects or to talk about what we should do as public-service broadcasters. We can make a huge difference!
For example, we did a film called India's Daughter, and that film was phenomenal, because it was broadcast in one week, I think in 20 countries, and it exploded all over the world – mainly because India decided to ban it, and that made headlines everywhere. It was a very good film, and luckily we could make a coordinated effort so everybody aired at the same time, and it was a huge success.
We also collaborate to find the best new films, whether already in the market or upcoming. And, of course I go to all these financing forums, I go everywhere. But that's because I want to find the best material.
Dimitra Kouzi: You also act as a producer. What is the target you want to reach? You said that you have to be everywhere – that's a big task.
Axel Arnö: Yes, it is. But the headline of your talk will be ‘creating audiences,’ or do you mean ‘finding audiences’? I think you have to be true to your own personal beliefs. I'm not going out there chasing young audiences; I think young people will come when we do a big thing. I see in festivals, as well, there is a much younger audience, and they like these investigative films. In a documentary film, an investigation can be presented in so many ways. You can do a personal film like in Gasland, or an investigative piece like Inside Job. Icarus is also a very investigative film, but very personal. It can be both: investigative and personal.
Dimitra Kouzi: There’s a gap. On the one hand, television is trying to reach young audiences. On the other, these people do not watch TV. They also don’t go to the cinema. Some of them go fanatically to festivals, and then after the festivals the films are ‘lost’ again.
Axel Arnö: In terms of views, I think it's much more. All the films here that go on cinema have very low ticket sales. But again: exposure. Sometimes we agree to a holdback, because it's better for the momentum, so you can go touring with the film, you can get headlines in all the local newspapers. But sometimes I don't want to wait for a theatrical window, or an Oscar run. If you really want to have impact, I think it might be good with a short festival run; then, it should go to television, because people will want to see the film.
Dimitra Kouzi: There’s a recipe: do a film festival run and then go to television.
Axel Arnö: I want the message to lead the audience, and we still have the mass audience. My first slot, which is 52 minutes, I'm trying to experiment a little both in terms of subjects and in terms of storytelling. It's gaining recognition and viewership, and this is after 35 years. But it's not only the old people – there is a generation that is finding out these things. I think we can do a lot more when it comes to finding the audience. We have to work a lot in the future to have contact with the audience.
Dimitra Kouzi: But how? How would you go about it if you had freedom to do it now?
Axel Arnö: I have freedom; I don't have time. I would probably go somewhere in rural Sweden. It's a big country, with many areas where we never really go and talk to people about their needs and what they want. I think we should do that. I don't know exactly how to do it, you know, how to have a dialog with the audience. Sometimes I'm not the best one; filmmakers might have a better recipe for finding their audiences. Because if you know who you are speaking to, if you know where you are coming from, it’s always good. But we also have different objectives sometimes, filmmakers and television. We are public; we need to reach the whole population and make sure that we can offer something for each and every one, and we should be everywhere in the nation.
Dimitra Kouzi: But what about rural Sweden? What is going on there?
Axel Arnö: I think, because there is a notion that we have the same development as in most European countries and the United States, that there is a growing disbelief about mainstream media, and that's bad for democracy. We should go out there and listen. And American media doesn't listen, and the way the media in Germany or the Netherlands do it is maybe too little. We have to be aware of what's going on.
Dimitra Kouzi: Offering programmes after listening to what the people say.
Axel Arnö: Perhaps yes, but we are the public broadcaster. We can't have groups of people that don't find the public broadcast interesting or that don’t take part in what we do. We need to be there for them as well, and there I think we’ve failed and we should be better. We have to try hard to find them.
Many people are not aware of what we are doing. When I tell some people what we offer, they find it fantastic. They just didn’t know. We need to be in people's agendas somehow.
Dimitra Kouzi: What is your personal listening and viewing habits? I know that you are a broadcast fan of these crime series. Or is it over?
Axel Arnö: You mean True Crime? I'm a bit tired of it. How much true crime can we have?
Dimitra Kouzi: I would like to hear you as audience, what are your personal viewing and listening habits?
Axel Arnö: Oh, I watch so much! But I mainly watch rough cuts, so I'm pretty damaged. Yet, I like to watch well-made series. O.J. Simpson: Made in America is very good; I like The Promise. That is a crime story, about a murder case in the U.S. I watch other series and documentaries, as well. In my spare time, I can watch Homeland or an arts and culture doc. I'm very curious, so if it's a good drama I will watch it. But I'm a journalism junkie, so if there is an investigative story with a personal touch, that will be my favourite. I saw a couple of great films at Sundance, such as Icarus; unfortunately, Netflix picked up many of them. It’s really hard for us to compete on American films. Of course, if a cool film premieres at Sundance with all rights available, Netflix will take it. I think they spent 20 million dollars on documentaries this year. Crazy.
Dimitra Kouzi: Is that good for the documentary industry?
Axel Arnö: Well, it's more money into the business. We as public broadcasters have to adapt by making more and better things ourselves. So, I had a discussion yesterday that we need to commit a bit earlier, work closer with the filmmakers that we like, and secure our territories. It's going to be a rights war for VOD rights. Because everybody wants sort of the same thing now.
Dimitra Kouzi: I wanted to ask you about VOD programmes.
Axel Arnö: Yes, we have to be as attractive as anyone. We have so much on our VOD platform. And it's free.
Dimitra Kouzi: I was talking to Simon Kilmurry about his job at POV, and he was telling me, of course they have a different structure there, that every time they launch a film they sit down together with the marketing and the communication departments and make a strategy for that. People don't know – that's the problem. Because we are the public broadcaster, we think that people know about it, but people don't.
Axel Arnö: I can give you one example of where we made a difference and how we treat the audience. We had a film called Cries from Syria, which is an HBO film by Evgeny Afineevsky. He was Oscar-nominated with his previous one, Winter on Fire. So, he made this film. It's about the victims in Syria. It's long, it's extremely graphic, and it's devastating to watch. You are filled with rage, sorrow, and despair. It’s an important film but very hard to watch. So, we made a special introduction where one of our news anchors interviewed Evgeny; then, there was the film, where we warned right before the most graphic images, and after the film, after almost two hours, we went to a studio discussion on Syria. This is how we can create an atmosphere around a film. Because the audience has many needs. And just because we did these things, I think the film landed very well. Had we not done anything, we might have had the audience against us. It got a lot of love, and it's spreading now. But it was a long discussion.
Dimitra Kouzi: I think that this is what all the event-based screenings in cinemas also do. That's why they are successful, they engage the audience to react. And these theme evenings are really something special, and should be on television, too.
Axel Arnö: How to create an audience is also marketing. If you have done a journalistic job, you need to use all your tools to make as many people as possible to watch it. We have our own trailers, of course, we have our audience, we have also sometimes used social media to promote what we do; we make small excerpts of the film, hoping they go viral. We have a newsletter with around 60,000 subscribers, in which every Sunday morning they get links to all the upcoming films and can watch them.
Dimitra Kouzi: On the VOD platform?
Axel Arnö: Yes. We try to engage with the audience as much as we can, and we can always be better. It's about the audience finding us, and us finding the audience. We also have focus groups. We have all the tools of a public broadcaster.
Dimitra Kouzi: You have focus groups and working groups? So, you talk with representatives from the audience?
Axel Arnö: My department does it all the time. And we have other tools, for example an audience group that have agreed to be interviewed by us, and that can be segmented according to education, age, everything. So, you can have a slice of that group and post questions to them, engage with them, and find out whether something works, if they understand it, if there something that would interest them. We use it more and more.
Dimitra Kouzi: Is this new?
Axel Arnö: That's new. We have done it in different ways before, such as focus groups, more irregularly; but now the tools are getting better.
Dimitra Kouzi: This is great. Do you know if other EBU members use that?
Axel Arnö: I would definitely think so.
Dimitra Kouzi: But you are very innovative, so I don't know if other countries from Eastern and Southern Europe do it.
Axel Arnö: I don't know. I get the impression that the broadcast world is getting a bit divided. Some of us are still going mostly for ratings. Ratings are still very important but will become less and less important. When we exchange statistics from the web, it seems that it's a big difference. So, it’s a beginning: We don't really know much about the web audience; we should know more about them.
Dimitra Kouzi: Can you elaborate a bit on exchanging internet clicks?
Axel Arnö: It's just the way we see the shift from broadcast to the web. People stop watching linear television, that group is getting bigger by the week, they cut out television from their habits. And then everything will be by choice – you will not just adapt to the programme because you are watching TV. You have to actively choose. So, what do you choose? And then, in that universe, we don't only have all the channels available in Sweden, but we also have all the VOD giants. So, it's completely different. And we don't know as much as we know about our television audience, because the television measuring system is very easy to work with, and then we know pretty much everything about these families. On the internet, how can you get the same depth of information for people sitting in front of a computer? We don't. Not yet. But I am told that new measuring tools are coming soon.
Dimitra Kouzi: I think this trend is something all EBU members together should explore. It's huge and it's there. You hear it all the time: ‘I don't watch television.’
Axel Arnö: Indeed. You can talk to the media director. Or the TV director. They will, now, because they do services, they develop tools, and they can speak more about how divided Europe is in terms of how people are watching TV.
Dimitra Kouzi: Do you think that these changes will also apply to documentary viewers?
Axel Arnö: Documentaries are at the forefront. Most people who watch documentaries will watch them online. Most people my age and downwards watch films on computers, on phones, or on the iPad, not on television.
Dimitra Kouzi: Then it makes sense that there are television broadcasters that screen documentaries at midnight, because nobody would watch them anyway.
Do you have any statistics for that from VOD, when do people watch documentaries?
Axel Arnö: No, I don't. But we should find out.
Dimitra Kouzi: Because the slots are very specific, and when you see the numbers, when people see documentaries, this could bring about change.
Last but not least, could you tell me what documentary slots or whatever the documentaries at SVT are? You have the current affairs, you have feature length etc. Just briefly tell me what is being broadcast as documentaries.
Axel Arnö: We have many slots. Weekly, we have a lot of prime-time slots. But let's go through the week: First of all, we publish every Sunday for the coming week. Then, on that Sunday night is the first slot, a 60-minute slot at 10 o'clock. And that is about 35-40 programmes per year, comprising the best journalistic documentaries that I can find. It's topical: films about war in Syria, about U.S. elections, French elections. My ideal is that by watching these programmes you will understand what's happening in the world. Whereas the news is only fragments, this will be the whole picture. And then, I have a feature-length slot, like a year-round film festival, where I try to find the most talked about, the best new awarded films made in the world. I try to be part of them. And that's also about 35mm films. Then we have the domestic documentaries, films about Sweden. And that's a weekly 60-minute prime-time slot, Thursdays at 8 o'clock.
Dimitra Kouzi: When is the feature documentary film festival?
Axel Arnö: It's at 22.00 on Tuesdays. They are pretty strong on the web. People find them. I try to find documentaries that are oriented to the festival crowd. But in a really cinematic festival, like Nyon, a film will probably have a slow, poetic narrative, because that's what you do in cinema films. On TV or the web, the landscape is the opposite, you need to have a really strong narrative. In the cinema, films should have a good ending. In the TV or web landscape, you won’t survive without a strong start. Unless a film has had a prior life on cinema and people have a previous knowledge about it. But if you haven't seen or heard about a film, I think the start is everything. That's a message to filmmakers. Everything is about the audience. You have to hook them, and then tell them your story.
Dimitra Kouzi: At pitching, nobody asks how a film begins; everybody wants to know the end.
Axel Arnö: That's just to create an image in your head about what this person is trying to achieve. I think audiences nowadays are so spoiled with really strong storytelling that it also creates new demands for super-strong, skilful storytelling docs. There are now experiments, hiring feature script writers for writing the script for a doc, even if it is in production. Because you will have an A plot, a B plot, a C plot, and you need to know what to do with it. There is also an increased demand for series, but they are a bit harder for a broadcaster to place in their schedules. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. But on the web, everything is possible of course.
Dimitra Kouzi: But this is another trend, series.
Axel Arnö: Yes, it's a different thing: Some films work well as series. The Promise is a good example, because that film was made as a two-hour special, two times 90′, three times 60′, and six times 25′. That’s a good case study; it’s interesting to explore the different demands from different broadcasters.
I think that BBC broadcast the feature version, the one-time version. And then, simultaneously they put out the six-times 25′. And they had a million views the first week on the series.
Dimitra Kouzi: It’s interesting, but it makes sense, because the audience is different.
Axel Arnö: Yes, but if you want to talk about how to create an audience, you also have to be aware of that: different formats will probably suit different audiences. So, of course, you should do your director's cut, which is important for you. But then, it would also be good if you are open to cutting it in different lengths, because there might be different audiences out there for the film. Sometimes it's impossible because of budget constraints.
Dimitra Kouzi: Let’s go back to the slots.
Axel Arnö: Domestic is on Thursdays. Then we have cultural slots – that’s not my department – both domestic and international, every Friday at 8 o'clock. But, of course, super prime time on Friday is very difficult because there are very popular shows all around. But they are doing a good job. My acquisition colleagues are buying loads more topics – nature, history, wildlife. They have also started to buy Channel-4-type docs, which is more sensational. And, of course, they get an audience. So, there are many hours of docs. My responsibility is the current affairs and the feature-length slots. I do different things, as well, Swedish films, special projects.
Dimitra Kouzi: Budgets are not increasing to cater for the need to create impact campaigns around the films by the producers.
Axel Arnö: I'm not paying more because they need to make impact.
Dimitra Kouzi: Exactly, it's in the budget, and it has to be covered by the budget.
Axel Arnö: Yes, but that makes sense; we have to be independent, so, we can't fund the impact production. That's why they have things like Good Pitch. These are problems we can't cope with. They raise funds. For example, Borneo Case is now starting its tour, and I'm in discussions about when SVT should broadcast it. They've got some money from impact, from other sources. Could be interesting to talk to them about their impact campaign.
Axel Arnö became a Commissioning Editor at SVT in 1998. Previously a newspaper reporter. Since his move to national television, Axel has been reporter, editor and editorial executive. He became the Editor of SVT’s flagship current affairs magazine Striptease and later created the investigative documentary strand Dokument inifrån. Since 2004, he works at SVT’s documentary department, dealing mainly with international co-productions (current affairs, creative, social documentaries). He was an original partner in the Why Democracy? series. Axel is chairman of the Eurovision Documentary Group.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Dimitris Saltabassis