Reportage and Docusoaps: In the Jargon Jungle

Jargon jungle

Reportage and Docusoaps In the Jargon Jungle Reportage and Docusoaps In the Jargon Jungle

The fact that terminology in commissioned films always has to be redefined between the client and the production company has already been mentioned here. For a few months now, communication with film and video has been involving more and more formats that strongly resemble television programmes in their construction and style. Reportage and Docusoaps are becoming more popular.

This seems to be a trend that is growing, particularly when it comes to serial production of video content for the internet, YouTube and social media. However, even when it comes to successfully conveying emotions and information via image films, videos are increasingly orientating themselves to the tried and tested mechanics of TV formats. Two formats in particular are very popular: docusoaps and reportage. Filmpuls decided to analyse the style of docusoaps and reportage and create construction plans for two of the most successful TV genres worldwide.

Docusoaps: A love/hate relationship

A docusoap is a type of reality TV that presents (‘documents’) people in a dramatically staged and entertaining way. From a strictly analytical viewpoint, this genre is a type of documentary that follows people, groups or – on television – families in unusual situations. Typical events include those that are linked to a certain place, a certain situation or a certain group of people.

Life doesn’t imitate art, it itimates bad television.

Docusoaps take elements of entertainment and complete them with information. They are typical examples of infotainment or edutainment. As in the eponymous soap operas or daily talkshows, emotions play a central role in docusoaps. Problems and conflicts are a driving force behind the stories. As this mixture of emotions and information is deliberately not declared by some docusoap makers and is often combined with a frightfully exaggerated dramatisation of events, TV docusoaps usually receive rather bad press, and not without reason. Distorting the facts in the editing phase or in the commentary have become commonplace in some shows not least because quotas and viewing figures are all that count. However, this genre of ‘car crash television’ that passes as entertainment cannot be dismissed as having no potential for corporate communication. When produced in a good journalistic manner, docusoaps should be seriously considered as a form of moving image marketing.

Features of docusoaps

Here are some typical features of a docusoap:

  • Focus on a small group of people (this group serves as identification figures for the viewers)
  • Observes normal people in unusual situations
  • High level of emotion
  • Events are not questioned
  • Increases the recognition factor via an easy-to-remember image
  • Suspense builds at the end of an episode or before a commercial break (cliffhanger)

Docusoaps often use emotionalisation and personalisation techniques. Reality as a framework for the action gives the story a high level of credibility and plausibility.

The four basic types of docusoaps

Docusoaps are split into four basic categories. Of these, there are additional variations and thematic as well as stylistic permeations.

(1) Transformation

The protagonists are filmed during a certain, significant phase in their lives. This could be anything from moving house, dieting, renovation or emigration. Well known examples include: Auf und davon (emigration docusoap), Einsatz in vier Wänden (renovation/DIY docusoap), and Jedes Kilo zählt – Eine Insel wird schlank (dieting docusoap).

(2) Documentation (Unknown everyday)

Usually fixed groups of people are filmed with the aim of providing the viewer with a supposedly authentic glimpse into their everyday life. Generally, families or institutions are targeted. Examples include: Jobtausch (job swapping docusoap) Die Fussbroichs (working family docusoap) and Die Ludolfs – 4 Brüder auf’m Schrottplatz (working family docusoap).

(3) Social norm conditioning

People with abnormal behaviour are re-socialised by returning to society or to their families. Examples include: Die Super Nanny, Das Erziehungcamp and Teenager ausser Kontrolle (all docusoaps about badly behaving children).

(4) Isolation

People or groups of people are isolated from their usual surroundings in a limited setting for a certain period of time where they have to prove themselves by social self-management whilst being observed by the audience who decides if they remain – and thus be in with a chance of winning – or are kicked out. The participants have to complete social and psychological challenges. Examples include: Big Brother, Dschungelcamp: Ich bin ein Star – Holt mich hier raus! (I’m a Celebrity! Get Me Out Of Here!) and Abenteuer 1900 – Leben im Gutshaus (historical way of life docusoap).

Combining all four categories

An example of a docusoap that flawlessly combines all of these four aspects is Rach, der Restauranttester, a restaurant transformation docusoap. In this series, the viewers are given impressive insights behind the scenes of the gastronomy industry (documentation/unknown everyday). At the same time, this successful series focuses on renovation (transformation) and conditioning problems (the mentality of the restaurant owner). The restaurant owner must overcome these problems and other obstacles in order to achieve success before Mr. Rach’s next visit.

Limitations to scripted reality

Some channels refer to scripted reality shows as docusoaps. Scripted reality shows are very similar in style to classic docusoaps, however they follow a script that is either completely made up or inspired by true stories. These shows are staged using amateur actors and are so over dramatised that they’re painful to watch. Based on this definition, scripted reality formats are not classified as docusoaps.

Reportage: The cinema of the mind

Reportage – from the Latin reportare = to report, to notify – is a form of presentation where the author does not report from a desk, but right from the centre of the action. In print media, the term is used to refer to a dramatic background report that depicts an issue using concrete examples, people and/or their fates.

Definition of reportage

While news and reports provide distance, reportage gets closer to the story and gives the viewers access to the protagonists via observations and other sensations. On television, this format is often referred to as a documentation or a feature. In the news industry a simple, on-location report counts as a reportage. And of course, sports journalists who report live from football stadiums are called reporters.

The role of the reporter

Unlike the news and report writers, reporters are allowed to complement the facts with their own impressions that they collected at the scene of the event. Either the reporter will explain the goings-on without any evaluation, comments or omissions or they will complement the report with their own impressions that must be disclosed as subjective experiences. The reporter limits themself to a narrative function and speaks mainly in the present tense. He allows the viewers to understand the situation easily.

For example, when reporting on a house fire, the reportage will explain in detail how the house looks. It tries to get the viewers virtual cinema rolling by talking about the “scorched, blackened banisters where the woodwork is hardly recognisable”. A reportage can be combined with interview and commentary.

Reportage and Docusoaps: Conclusion

In contrast to pure documentaries or reportages, docusoaps are driven by their actors. Docusoaps are ‘people-driven’ while in documentaries and reportage the issue in question – which can be illustrated by one or more people – plays the central role.

Both genres, reportage and docusoaps, are suitable for adaptation for communication purposes that go beyond pure entertainment; for example, for concepts for serialised moving-image communication as part of a multi-channel strategy. The frequency and significance of adapted concepts based on docusoaps and reportage will increase within the area of corporate communication. In B2C and print, mass media has yielded to an immense flood of media formats. It will be even more important in the fight for attention to have strong, tried and tested concepts that are developed by clever minds for new uses and versions. This is why  reportage and docusoaps are gaining more and more popularity.

Background information: The author is the head of the TV unit at Condor Films. Faro TV is responsible for some of the biggest quota hits on Swiss television. As a reliable partner for direct clients and agencies, Faro TV and its interdisciplinary team have also been developing and producing innovative video content for cross-media, web, smartphones and tablets since 2012.

About Markus Röthl
Markus Röthl is head of TV at FaroTV and Member of the Management Board at Condor Films.


  1. Friedhelm Dohmann April 3, 2016 at 4:53 PM

    Thanks Marcus! Great article and to the point.
    BTW: I like the blog layout 😉

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