DIYTV BBC1, Fridays at 5pm from September 14 to October 19
If you followed the arrow on the "DIYTV Office" notice by the lift on the fifth floor of BBC Television's East Tower last month, you'd have come across an unusual scene. In an orange and blue office, a group of children were looking busy - talking on the phone, arguing about something on a computer screen, assembling a model of a studio set - while a few outnumbered adults (a cameraman and a couple of chaperones) looked on. It was noisy, too, but as one of the 12 young people put it: "It's productive noise." And what they were attempting to produce was their own 15-minute television programme.
The team of 10 to 15-year-olds, from a variety of homes from Scotland to Cornwall, had been chosen by the BBC from 8,000 applicants (in comparison, 50,000 applied for Channel 4's Big Brother this year) and were spending August "learning about television by making their own show", in the words of a BBC publicist. The whole operation, from the initial selection procedure onwards, was recorded by BBC cameras to make a six-part documentary series, DIYTV. The first episode can be seen this evening.
The children have been allotted all the roles necessary to make a television programme - not only presenting but research, design, direction and so on. They have had professional training and mentors for their given tasks. "We told them, 'here's a studio, there'll be an audience there in a month's time. You do what you like with that'," explains executive producer Roy Milani. "It could be a stand-up comedy show, a music show, a science show. It was entirely up to them. They had to use that studio, plus filmed inserts. And there's been a lot of heated debate in the team as to what to film."
So, how were they getting on? "We're all working as a team, we're all friends," declared 14-year-old director Sadie Done, from Verdin high school in Cheshire. Cameraman Wyndham Richardson, also 14, from Truro school in Cornwall, was more guarded. "We're getting on better than we were at the beginning." With 12 days left before the scheduled recording of their show - due to be titled The Buzz - much remained to be done. "I've got to get this set design off to the construction manager," said 13-year-old Devraj Joshi, from Poole grammar in Dorset, who was combining design work with his role as floor manager. "And I've got to do the logo this week."
"We're all worrying about the budget," added Wyndham. They were still enjoying themselves, though. "I'd rather do this work than sit at home watching telly," said Sadie. "I don't miss being at home at all." (Although they were able to go home at weekends, the team stayed in a BBC hostel during the week.) Wyndham observed that "the BBC looks after you really well", while Devraj was keen to note the usefulness of the experience. "Reading credits at the end of a programme, like associate producer, you say, 'what does he do?' Now we're doing it ourselves, we know what's going on."
Real-life producer Gillie Scothern observes how "very sensible" the chosen 12 have been. "We were looking for people who could work in a team, do the job allocated to them and be happy to be filmed all the time. And stand being away from home, of course."
So is this where the public-service ethos of Children's BBC meets the "reality television" trend, exemplified in such ratings-chasers as Castaway, Big Brother and Popstars? For Roy Milani, there's no comparison. He sees DIYTV as "not at all" like other reality TV shows. "The kids are very much in control here, and we try to be as transparent as possible and let them get on with it."
But there are some links with other "reality" series. Psychologists - including Big Brother's Peter Collet - sat in on the DIYTV auditions. "They were very helpful, particularly with telling the kids who hadn't got through," says Gillie Scothern. "In reality TV, it's useful to have psychologists to advise on team selection."
Their advice has undoubtedly helped to build a well-balanced team for DIYTV. All the same, you can't help wondering if the children might have reservations now, or later, about how they appear on screen. While they have control of the show-within-the-series, the documentary series itself is shot and edited by BBC staff, with narration by regular CBBC presenter Josie d'Arby.
In the first episode, we see edited highlights of the selection process, and the focus is largely on those who make it through. But there are worrying sequences. A couple of the less fortunate applicants are seen in a mock-up studio session making mistakes that appear to have led to their elimination. Will they be happy to see their blunders broadcast on BBC1?
"That's a difficult call," says Gillie Scothern. "We did explain to all the children, and their parents, that they would have cameras on them all the time. We spoke afterwards to everybody who did not get through. There was quite a lot of embarrassing stuff left out."
"It would be misleading the audience if we were to show everything going perfectly," adds Roy Milani.
"It's quite important to show how difficult the job is. But the bottom line is that whatever we broadcast has to be in the best interests of the child concerned. You've got to be extra careful with children that you're not doing anything that would make them the target of ridicule or upset them."
Certainly the DIYTV 12 seem a resilient bunch, unlikely to be too upset by seeing themselves on television. In that respect they're an example to their elders - after all, when have we seen professional programme-makers subject themselves to the type of exposure undergone by this group of novices?