Spaniards like their current affairs shows in small doses

Short documentary skeins, evoking YouTube-style content in their brevity, are taking Spanish primetime TV by storm.

The docs, running between 30 and 60 minutes, are sliced up into self-contained segs that often last just a few minutes.

For instance, “Animales viajeros,” a 45-minute wildlife holiday special that ran on commercial broadcaster Cuatro, wrapped with this micro-report:

The Vancouver backwoods. Two black bears mooch in a river.

What do you do if a bear approaches?” a reporter asks a warden. Back away slowly, never turn and run, he replies.

One bear catches a salmon; the warden finds a salmon skull.

And that’s a wrap.

Earlier, it had featured an equally short take on swimming with sharks.

The special was a spinoff from Cuatro docu-reality-mini, “Callejeros viajeros.”

Broadcast Friday in primetime, the 60-minute program focuses on quick takes of Spain’s colorful, marginalized classes — single mums, hobos, addicts, immigrants and street vendors. Last year it punched a 11.9 share and 1.9 million viewers, huge numbers for a doc in Spain.

Cuatro is doing so well with this form of entertainment, which is much cheaper to produce than drama, that it has a third mini-doc skein in primetime, “21 Days.”

Bubbly reporter Samanta Villar adopts different lives, such as a shanty town denizen and illegal immigrant.

Her “21 Days of Luxury,” where she chilled out with Colombian billionaire Carlos Mattos on his private Caribbean island, attended the Dior catwalk in Paris and chatted with designer John Galliano, notched up a 15.1 share on Jan. 1. Its average share in 2009 was 14.5, way above Cuatro’s usual 8.2.

Pubcaster TVE1 airs “Espanoles en el mundo” — snapshots of ex-pats’ lives around the world — in primetime on Tuesdays. Though its 2009 average of a 14.3 share was below TVE1’s average 16.5, single segs still prove timeslot winners. A New York feature took a 18.3 on Dec. 15.

Spain’s new docs are a sign of tough times.

They’re “easy to watch and easy to do. In a competitive TV landscape with much less ad money around, they’re one solution for broadcasters,” says Bertrand Villegas at Paris-based audience research company WIT.

Cuatro programming head Fernando Jerez declined to comment on costs. “Callejeros,” he did say, is “much, much cheaper” than drama. “It’s a profitable genre at a reasonable cost.”

With total free-to-air TV ad revs plunging 30.1% in the first half of 2009 to 1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) and Cuatro posting $44.7 million in third-quarter losses, the broadcaster, like its rivals, needs such shows.

One reason they have become popular is that they touch a national nerve.

With unemployment in Spain at 20%, the down-and-outs and outsiders of “Callejeros” and “Days” show Spaniards that they could still have it a lot worse; “Mundo” shows that, wherever they go, Spaniards remain very Spanish.

Also, “Callejeros” and “Days” can push the envelope on sex or sensationalism: Villar, for example, has promised to spend 21 days “doing porno.”

With classic current affairs formats getting little love on skeds, these short docs play well with the generation of viewers bought up on snappy Web content. Carlos Arnanz at audience research company Corporacion Multimedia says the docs are “agile, wide-ranging, sometimes almost dramatic and, in a way, descendents of old-school investigative journalism.”

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