Tuesday, July 5, 2022

All or Nothing: Reality, or Reality TV?

Ed Avern is a writer and producer based in London. With over a decade’s experience working in television, he’s filmed behind the scenes with some of the largest companies in the UK and around the world. As Arsenal open their doors to All or Nothing for the 2021/22 season, he takes a look at the challenges the club and the production team will be facing.

If you’re so inclined, you can follow Ed on Twitter at @edwardavern, where you’ll encounter a peculiar mix of football, book reviews, nerdery, and bad puns.

Making documentaries is hard.

Filming something is easy. These days your iPhone records broadcast-quality footage, GoPros are a dime a dozen, and editing software comes free with every computer. Your film might not look particularly slick, the shots might be a bit wobbly, and the audio might sound like it was recorded in some kind of dungeon, but fundamentally generating content is not hard. For more information: see pretty much all of YouTube.

But making a documentary — a good documentary — is hard. Capturing moments of genuine honesty is hard. Getting someone to open up in an interview and not sound like a poorly programmed robot is very hard. And when you’re filming behind the scenes at a massive corporation, where everyone you speak to is media-trained to within an inch of their lives under the eagle-eyed gaze of PR representatives for whom “the brand” reigns supreme… well that’s really, really hard. Like playing with ten men against Bayern Munich, but all your players are Willian.

That’s the challenge that faces the All or Nothing production team going into Arsenal this year. The fact is that when big brands let documentary crews in to look behind the scenes, what they really want is an advert disguised as factual television. This is understandable, and to even get in the door of an organisation like Arsenal production companies have to agree to a host of conditions designed to keep them away from anything juicy. Non-disclosure agreements are par for the course.

This creates a conflict. Very few of the TV crew will be Arsenal fans, and some may know little or nothing about football. Most will be freelancers emerging from a year-and-a-half of projects hacked down by COVID-19. They don’t care about Arsenal’s image. Their interest is in making entertaining, high-quality TV that looks good on the CV. They want strong narrative, compelling characters, and ideally an underlying sense of jeopardy (which, one imagines, will be in plentiful supply at Arsenal this season).

Presented with a united front of PR reps, canny producers look for the back doors, building relationships with staff members to establish less official lines of communication. Even so, crew members who worked on previous seasons of All or Nothing and similar shows like Sunderland ’Til I Die describe the struggle to capture anything “real” from a corporate machine well-versed in dealing with the press on a daily basis. As a result, however, one director I spoke with noted that the occasional moments of sincerity came with a sense of real achievement – the defences had been breached, the walls had come down, and something genuine had been captured.

So, you’ve got the club who want an advert, and the production team who want a story. What about the people in the show? The players, coaching staff, manager, board, and all the other people that get labelled as “contributors” in TV parlance (they tend to get huffy if you start to refer to them as “characters”). Presumably Mikel Arteta and Edu have signed off on this – both have been involved in previous iterations of the show, at Manchester City and Brazil, respectively – although that’s not a given. Ultimately, they are employees of the club, and if Stan and Josh Kroenke have decided this is a good idea then that’s that.

Anecdotally, I’ve been told that Mauricio Pochettino was opposed to Tottenham’s participation in the series, which perhaps explains why there’s so little footage of him in the show when he wasn’t sacked until 19th November that year. His replacement, Jose Mourinho, makes excellent television – a classic diva, and clearly only too happy for the cameras to roll during his one-on-one conversations with the players. It seems unlikely Arteta will feel the same way.

Whether Arteta and Edu are on board or not, the club won’t be worried about how either will appear on screen; both are slick, practiced professionals with excellent communication skills. In the normal course of making television, pointing a camera at someone tends to make them freeze up; experts worry about looking like idiots, and employees worry about losing their jobs.

At Arsenal, however, the All or Nothing team are likely to have the opposite problem: preventing media trained professionals from sounding as though everything they say has been scripted by committee. This is tricky, because most of the interviews that intersperse the “actuality” (TV jargon for “things happening”) are what’s known as “master interviews” – pre-arranged conversations filmed at a later date that can be used throughout the series. They’re filmed with a high-quality lens and a shallow depth of field that concentrates all your attention onto the contributor’s face.

This gives the viewer a sense of intimacy, and also hides everything going on around the interview: the camera crew, the lights, and the PR rep sitting three feet away making sure the director only asks the pre-approved questions. Keen-eyed viewers will note that some player-interviews are conducted in the car. In my experience, these serve two purposes: they make the viewer feel part of the players’ lives, but they help keep the PR reps away, because once you’ve got a director, a cameraman and a sound-engineer in the car there’s nowhere for the PR people to sit!

Accustomed though the club may be to TV crews, it’s a fundamental law of television that pointing a camera at something changes the way it behaves. That’s true for the organisation as a whole as much as the individual contributors. It would be ludicrous to suggest that any major decisions will be made (or not made) because All or Nothing is around, but if crunch-time comes and the Arsenal board have to decide whether or not to fire Arteta, you can bet that the presence of the production team will be part of the conversation, and whoever is on the list to replace Arteta will have to be comfortable having their first days at a struggling club scrutinised by eager television producers. It’s hard to think of many managers who would welcome that.

Whatever happens across the season, whatever footage is captured, it’ll end up in an edit suite – what used to be known as the cutting room. Whenever you watch any documentary, it’s important to remember that you’re only seeing a fraction of the footage that was shot. Twenty years ago, the rule was that you filmed 10 hours of film (real, physical film) to produce a 1-hour documentary. Then, within a matter of years, the television industry went digital, and suddenly filming didn’t really cost anything. Ratios shot up to 20:1, even 30:1. Things got even more insane when we invented GoPros, TV-grade cameras you could plonk anywhere and leave running for hours. Ratios can now reach 40:1, 50:1, 60:1… I’ve worked on programmes where 100+ hours of footage was shot for a single 60-minute documentary, which means that 99% of everything filmed was discarded.

Given the sheer quantity of fixed camera angles covering the dressing rooms, the briefing room, and the various offices in All or Nothing, anyone suggesting that 400 hours could be shot for a 7-8 hour series would not be being unreasonable, and that’s before you factor in the matchday footage, press coverage and historic clips bought in from other sources. That gives the production team a lot of material to choose from (so much so that editors are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer volume they have to cut), and they’ll use only footage that drives the narratives they’re looking to tell. The most compelling stories will be given greater prominence, while the lacklustre ones will be left to degrade on a hard drive. Clips from different days will be spliced together to suggest a more cohesive storyline, all cut to music designed to play on your emotions. This is where the sausage really gets made.

To ensure that the brand is portrayed in a good light, Arsenal will want a degree of editorial control over the final programme. Now, when you make a documentary for British television – be that for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky, or whomever – you’re subject to the rules of the Office of Communications, better known as Ofcom. Under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, programme-makers are required and entitled to retain editorial control of any programme they produce. Corporations tend to panic about this, believing that the production company will take everything out of context and defame them at every opportunity, which they won’t, because that’s also against the regulations, all of which are there to protect the integrity and accuracy of the show.

But Amazon are not subject to Ofcom. Neither are Netflix or Disney+, for that matter, because none of them are based in the UK. The British government is working to try to solve this, and a review is expected in the autumn of 2021, but it’s unlikely to affect Arsenal’s agreement with Amazon, which will already have been signed and sealed. Certainly it’s hard to imagine Stan and Josh letting cameras in if they weren’t confident that it would be good for the brand, even allowing for the reported £10 million fee that City and Sp*rs received when it was their turn.

So when you sit down to watch All or Nothing: Arsenal when it airs, feel free to enjoy it. It’s a great series, and it’s always fun to see your favourite players in their natural habitat. But just keep in mind that, whatever ends up on screen, it won’t be the whole truth. It’ll be a compromise between two visions: that of the brand, and that of the production team. Part publicity, part narrative. The dramatic music will swell, the gravelly tones of the presenter will tell you that this is the historic, majestic Arsenal, and you will settle in for eight hours of entertainment. But it will be actuality, rather than reality.

Not fake, but certainly not the whole story.

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