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The Televisual Documentary Report

Ahead of next month's Televisual Factual Festival, Pippa Considine examines the documentary genre, finding it in good shape with strong films achieving high ratings at a 
low cost to broadcasters

The last 12 months has been something of a golden time for broadcast documentary in the UK. The boom in factual, commissioned as a value-for-money tactic during recession, has resulted in some big success stories.

There's more money to invest in documentary and more channels vying for the best ideas, while theatrical documentary rides high with celebrated films such as Senna.

At Channel 4, the budget for documentary has gone up, the result of money freed up by the absence of Big Brother. "For me, it's been a story of scaling things up," says Hamish Mykura, the head of documentaries at Channel 4. "When I came to the channel [in 2001], the spend was a fraction of what it is now and we didn't have the big blockbuster documentary series. In 2010, we spent £17m and made 115 hours; in 2011, we spent £24m and made 138 hours.

In the last 18 months at Sky, Celia Taylor, head of factual has added Sky 3d, Sky Living, and Sky Atlantic to Sky 1 and Sky Arts in her portfolio. Her department will be boosted by its share of the pledged increase in original UK programming by the broadcaster, which should jump from £380m this year to £600m by 2014. "It's been a significant landscape change," says Taylor. "There's been exponential growth in our commissioning and opportunites for factual content".

Clearly the BBC is facing cuts, but documentary on the BBC is still thriving, with head of documentaries Charlotte Moore overseeing a pot of over £30m, making 240 hours of documentary each year. The documentary department won a trio of Baftas this year and has more powerful films coming through.

Over at ITV, it's generally acknowledged that documentary is strong for the channel at the moment, with success stories such as Strangeways from Wild Pictures and Wall to Wall's Long Lost Family.  "For us, it's the breadth and depth of what we've been able to bring to the channel in the last 12 months," says Alison Sharman, ITV director of daytime and factual. She is clear about the commercial advantage: "Obviously factual provides excellent return on investment when it delivers audiences at those good value for money prices."

Adding to this positive picture, Channel 5 is commissioning more factual and is eager to reassure independents that it's interested in new proposals. 
And a slew of digital channels are actively commissioning, notably Discovery - another broadcaster on the look out for charismatic presenters, strong formats and fast turn-around one-offs. AETN's History channel has five series in production, Current TV has been on a commissioning round in the last few months and there are plenty of other channels in the market for documentaries.

Of course, the budgets aren't always going to be gilt-edged; factual producers are getting used to a shortfall. However successful on UK television, it's often hard to make money unless some comes in from overseas. "Producers are increasingly reliant on programmes having an afterlife beyond primary broadcasters," says Nick Curwin, creative director at the Garden, which has recently had 24 Hours in A&E picked up by US broadcasters.
For big shows with an international life, co-production has now become the norm. John Smithson, creative director at newly launched independent Arrow Media, has been involved on 
many co-productions. "You have to have an exceptional story or talent to get a big budget, but most of the time you've got to work a bit harder to come up with the money to realise the ambition," he says.

With everything to play for at Arrow Media, Smithson is optimistic about the continued demand for documentaries. He points to Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (from the factual entertainment department at C4), which had almost 10 million viewers for its last episode: "You wouldn't necessarily think that it would be TV gold, but the public loved it and the rest is history. It shows that we have inordinate curiosity about the worlds that exist in our bigger world." At the BBC, Moore backs that up, saying that there is a resurgence in observational documentaries at the BBC, with a number in the pipeline.

Although the opportunities for documentaries seem to be everywhere, broadcasters are often looking to take a low risk option, using tried and tested talent, both on-screen and behind the camera. The BBC depends on known presenter talent, such as Louis Theroux or Bruce Parry, while ITV is keenly anticipating travelogues with Joanna Lumley and Trevor McDonald.

There's room in the schedules for celebrated filmmakers to make big films - the BBC is working with Minnow Films founder Morgan Matthews on a film about the 7/7 London terrorist attacks, while Channel 4 is backing Nick Broomfield's film, You Betcha, about Sarah Palin.

The opening up of the BBC's Wonderland strand to independents has added to the opportunities for 'witty and relevant' documentary, mainly from established filmmakers. Matthews at Minnow says: "There are still the single big hitting documentaries, films tackling important subjects... For single documentaries there are two of probably the best strands in the world with Storyville on BBC4 and True Stories on Channel 4."
Broadcasters are keen to stress that they are also willing to take risks and actively want to support programme makers and bring on new talent. It makes straight commercial sense – with the high volume of demand, more is needed and the risks are relatively low when compared with other genres.

Mykura says that First Cut has been performing well for C4, with first-time filmmakers going on to make other shows on the channel. BBC3's strand Fresh, which has had several hits including Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 and My Brother the Islamist, is also designed to give opportunities to new filmmakers. Meanwhile, big and ongoing documentary series across the schedules are providing a training ground for production talent.

The fixed rig shows that have scored hits for C4 and helped to fill the gap left by the departure of Big Brother on the channel, are viewed by many as a welcome addition to documentary. "Rig shows have been good for the industry and have rejuvenated documentary to a certain extent, giving people a new way of looking at subjects," says Matthews.

The fact that C4 now has a series of fixed rig shows, including One Born Every Minute, 24 Hours in A&E and hybrid Seven Dwarves is part of Charlotte Moore's reasoning behind not running fixed rig on the BBC, since she aims to be distinctive. And Mykura is quick to point to the fact that although they have bolstered the C4 schedule, they are only part of a wide range of documentary.

This has to be heartening news to the factual production community. Of course, the bar is still high for landing a well-funded commission and budgets remain as tight as a drum, but there's business to be had. "I would say definitely there's still a massive appetite from audiences and commissioning editors for singles as well as series," says Curwin. "It feels like a really good time to be in documentaries."

Charlotte Moore
BBC Commissioning editor for documentaries

“I’m trying to have a conversation with the audience across four channels about the things that really matter in a way that feels contemporary and relevant.
For BBC1, we want to identify the next territory for observational documentary - hidden worlds, or a world that we know well, but where we can shine a new light in a way that's entertaining or engaging. I'm particularly looking forward to Chatsworth and a season on disability in the new year. What I never get enough of is presenter-led journeys. We have series from Michael Palin and Griff Rhys Jones and of course there's Who Do You Think You Are?, but who are the next generation of national treasures?
On BBC2 we have the child protection series and some witty, more entertaining observational documentaries coming up. But where are the next big social issues and concerns that only the BBC would tackle? And, after Lambing Live and Welcome to Lagos, we'd like to find different approaches, different techniques - but not necessarily live.
On BBC3, Our War and Kids Behind Bars have shown that there's no story you can't tell on the channel. Two years ago these films might have been surprising on the channel. But where next?
BBC4 is about counter-intuitive takes on often traditional subjects, but with a strong directorial voice. Good examples include Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With English National Ballet and Sandhurst."

Alison Sharman, 
ITV Director of factual 
and daytime
"The past 12 months at ITV in terms of perception and in terms of audiences for factual have been very successful.
If I was to point to some of the biggest success stories it would be Strangeways and Long Lost Family. We worked closely with Wall to Wall and had huge audience feedback and great numbers. Both series were critically well received, which is really important.
We launched arts series Perspectives, with great story telling and great authors.
Coming up for us we've recommissioned Long Lost Family and we're going to do more Perspectives. We've got a really fantastic documentary - Leslie Woodhead's The Day that Changed the World, marking the anniversary of 9/11. And we've got some authored journeys: Joanna Lumley goes to the Greek islands... she's a great great story teller... and Trevor McDonald with Mighty Mississippi.
We've been able to open up the early evening slots, where it's more observational documentary and there's investment later at night, as well as plenty of opportunity at 9pm.
At 9pm, the ambition is to make a documentary that we think will deliver at least 4 million, that's the bar. Because we're a mainstream channel, the areas where we focus must have universal appeal, they 
can never be niche."

Hamish Mykura
C4 Head of documentaries

"The big series that reflect the state of the nation with quality are really the benchmark of Channel 4's output. At the moment I'd say that 24 Hours in A&E is probably the best example, a series that was able to take an area familiar to TV cameras and tell stories in a new way. Also, Coppers, which did a similar thing with the police force.
With presenters, the things that work best for us are cases where the presenter is deeply involved with the subject matter that they're presenting, like Katie Piper whose whole life is bound up with facial disfigurement. Quite a few we've been working with have come through, Hayley Taylor, for example, who began as a star of Benefit Busters.
Seven Days was a brilliant thing to do and we're looking for things that take a leap on the same scale and that are as successful in their interactive take-up. The great advantage of a documentary department that's growing is that you can make advances all round.
I would say that supporting filmmakers in their own way of story telling is a big part of our output, so Cutting Edge, True Stories and First Cut, which has been working tremendously well for us, gives people the opportunity to make their first proper authored documentary and they might go on to make other films on the channel."

Celia Taylor
Sky 1 HD Head of factual

"On Sky 1, the strategy of a fresh take in mainstream territory has worked well. An Idiot Abroad - celebrity travelogue turned on its head - was the ninth highest-rating show in Sky's history. A sense of scale and boldness as well - Inside Gatwick, where each episode is a year's development around a theme or Obese - A Year to Save My Life.
Our documentary strategy on Atlantic is in its early days, but we're going to see some big things. Fish Town is the first commission. On Atlantic, it's about how we make factual feel as slick and sophisticated as the scripted stuff. Authorship and creativity are important and we're showing big things, like Flying Monsters.
Sky 3D is about creating the best 3D content globally, it's about big event pieces. We're doing The Bachelor King and a new three-part documentary about Kew, both with David Attenborough.
Sky Living has had an increase in budget and we're ambitious to make the channel the destination for females. The next thing is a five-part strand looking at pushy parents. And we're thinking about how we give heart and meaning to campaigning and issue-led stuff.
With Sky Arts, we also have great ambitions. How do we broaden it out, while maintaining its integrity? Currently, we're looking at something with antiques and working with some of Britain's contemporary artists. never be niche."

Posted 21 September 2011 by Pippa Considine
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