London Underground, the largest and oldest underground system in the world, recently invited television cameras from the BBC to film their operations, warts and all, for a new fly-on-the-wall series (to give it its posh title, an observational documentary) The Tube.
They did have some experience in this field. They had done a similar series on ITV and some one-off programmes.
The BBC series was special in that it documents the story of the Tube as it prepares to welcome millions of visitors to London for the Olympics and the Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen. The system is already bursting at the seams, as any Londoner will tell you, and billions of pounds is being spent on modernising the creaking train system, track and signalling.
Consenting to a fly-on-the-wall series is a high risk strategy. You have to accept that the cameras will see poor service as well as great service, and things that go wrong as well as things that do right. In fact, the programme makers will seek out things that go wrong. It inserts what’s called “jeopardy” into the programme that keeps viewers hooked in - will the track maintenance staff finish on time to start the service in the morning? If they don’t, hundreds of thousands of commuters could be late for work.
This kind of programme was made famous by the BBC with series like “Driving School” which made a star of the hapless but loveable Maureen Rees who had failed her driving test numerous times. During the series, viewers could see why.
Another, “Airport”, ran for ten series and went behind the scenes of London’s Heathrow Airport. It told the remarkable story of the airport, and the airlines and the passengers and staff who used it. And most of all, the airport and airline staff. It made a celebrity out of Jeremy Spake, the Aeroflot Station Manager at Heathrow.
Like The Tube, viewers were able to see the extraordinary lengths staff go to to try to do a good job under pressure. And the unbelievable abuse they suffer at the hands of a stressed out public. And on the Tube, the lengths people go to to avoid paying the fare.
There’s a brilliant line from an officer from the London Underground Fare Evasion team to a passenger caught dodging the barriers: “It’s a pay and go system, Sir. You just went.”
The Royal Opera House in London fared rather less well when it invited the cameras in for a BBC-2 series called “The House” The Opera House wanted to explain to the public why they needed public subsidy and how they spent it. Far from being enthralled, the public viewed much of the behind the scenes rows and shenanigans as indulgence at their expense. It damaged the House badly and it took a long time to recover.
There are a number of things you have to consider before taking part in such a series.
First of all, the programme makers will insist they retain editorial control. This doesn’t mean you have no say (for example you may wish to exclude material for security reasons, and that is reasonable), but it will mean the public sees things that happen behind the scenes that are less than perfect.
Secondly, you must get widespread and informed consent before agreeing, including talking to your staff and trade unions. People sign up to come to work, not to be on TV, and they must have the right to opt out. Staff who do take part will need your help in thinking whether they are happy to filmed at work only. Sometimes programme makers will want to talk about their home life and how it fits in and sometimes film them at home, leaving for work, etc. You will also need to talk to all your contractors, suppliers and partner companies. It’s a huge job, and this will take months.
You need to think about how filming will affect customers and how you can inform them it is happening. They have the right to privacy too, and must be able to opt out, where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. In large premises, you can place signs at entrances informing them. What’s surprising is how many people seem happy to appear on TV even when they are seen screaming at staff.
The programme makers will want to discuss with you how they will deal with very sensitive issues. These might include a death on your premises (in the case of The Tube there was an extremely moving and sensitive edition on the subject of suicide on the lines, which included interviews with drivers who were badly affected by it).
And remember in the age of multichannel TV, the programme will be shown over and over again for many years, in many countries. Your branding may have changed, the staff may have moved on, but the programme still keeps playing. And you can’t usually change that. A long running and popular series on EasyJet, called “Airline”, is still playing every week on cable channels 13 years after it was made in 1999.
You will need to assign PR staff to work with the team full-time before, during and after filming, which may take place over many months.
What’s my verdict on The Tube? It shows a staff who, on the whole, really care about the passengers and do an amazing job with the daily pressure of the stressed, the drunk and the aggressive on an overloaded system. Not everything is perfect. But viewers make judgements on what they see overall. I certainly look at staff on the Underground in a different light now I’ve seen what they do. I think the series was a triumph.
(Posted from Dubai, United Arab Emirates)