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What the specialist factual commissioners want

Pippa Considine reports on the programming needs of the specialist factual commissioners from the recent Sheffield Doc Fest

Chaired by Kim Shilllinglaw, director of Factual at Endemol Shine, the specialist factual panel at Sheffield delivered plenty of heads up for producers.

Discovery and Nat Geo talked differences. Ed Sayer, head of original commissioning for Discovery showed a clip from its latest Ed Stafford format, First Man Out where Ed catches a mammal in a trap baited with his own vomit. “We wouldn’t do vomit in trap” said Mykura, who underscored Nat Geo’s shift over last three years to make its TV in line with the magazine and its “yellow border”. This includes featuring Nat Geo’s own roster of explorers on the screen.

Discovery has also backed Salvage Hunters The Restorers. Sayers admitted that the format feels risky because it’s very slow TV, but it gives space to reveal the history behind each object.

C4 specialist factual commissioner Shaminder Nahal said:  “immersive is what we absolutely want. Narcos with Jason Fox in Columbia feels incredibly in the thick of it. …Showing people places that they haven’t been seen before in a way that hasn’t been done before is still exciting for us and immersive is what we expect.”

Nahal also underlined the interest in recent history. “It’s possible to revisit things in recent history. The Tony Martin murder story tells you about modern Britain. It’s dramatic, plays with form and story-telling, but also has huge resonance.”

Tom McDonald, the BBC’s head of specialist factual and natural history conceded that BBC 2 competition format Astronauts hadn’t been pitched quite right. “That level of construction got in the way of the content for the BBC 2 audience, while for younger viewers it wasn’t constructed enough.”

This autumn BBC2 has commissioned Voltage for The Wonderful World of Babies with new science and digital potential. “It delivers in a way that feels broad and entertaining but is going to different place,” says McDonald. Also, with robust material, they can risk new presenting talent with paediatrician Guddi Singh. “We have a premium now on people who not just know their stuff but have something different.”

Tom McDonald broke with tradition and poured praise on a rival channel: “Channel 5 specialist factual is really bloody brilliant. Sometimes we commission for each other I don’t think we spend enough time in specialist factual thinking about the pleasure for the audience.”

Lucy Willis at Channel 5 took the compliment and said that the channel is looking for shows that can be stripped for an appointment to view, but has to be a really compelling aspect. Pompeii’s Final Hours ran across three nights with three presenters appealing to different elements of the audience and  with ticking clock device to keep momentum. At the time of DocFest she said that they were looking at a new show Nocturnal Britain to decide if it had potential for similar stripping treatment.

Willis conceded that the 8-parters they had aired recently were “difficult.” Last year saw Eight Days that Made Rome and Elizabeth Our Queen. “It’s a long time to get the audience to commit.” They are now on the look out for more 3/4/6 parters.

Willis also said that she’d had two big ideas with reality /competition in them which didn’t make it through to commission. “But if you get it right it can be a good way to attract a broader audience.”

What do the specialist factual commissioners watch in down time?
Lucy Willis, Channel 5:  BBC drama A Very English Scandal
Tom McDonald, BBC: Channel 5’s Cruising with Jane McDonald and The Bridge
Hamish Mykura, National Geographic: HBO four-parter The Defiant Ones, Sky’s Patrick Melrose, History ‘s competition series Forged in Fire
Ed Sayer, Discovery : Amazon and Netflix, including an All Blacks documentary

The Televisual's own Televisual Factual Festival will take place at Bafta once again this year on 21st and 22nd November. Details soon on

Posted 02 July 2018 by Pippa Considine

10 highlights from the Sheffield Doc Fest sessions

Pippa Considine runs through the standout moments from the recent Sheffield Documentary Festival

1 Alastair Campbell on his new BBC documentary, Depression and Me, was in conversation with the film’s director Peter Gauvain, “I didn’t want to see you talking about it,” said Gauvain. “I wanted to see you living it, to see Alastair Campbell’s depression for ourselves rather than talking about it.”
Recorded over 18 months, Campbell described it as a process of ‘attrition’: “I had a love hate relationship with the TV process, it was quite difficult, balls-aching.” The self-filming produced highlights of Campbell contemplating life in his bath and a moment of clarity at three o’clock in the morning.

2 In a packed session on the future for short form, delegates heard from  commissioners at BBC3, Little Dot’s Real Stories and the New York Times Op Docs. “More and more will be consumed online and short form is good for bite-sized viewing,” said Lindsay Crouse from the NYT, who predicts that viewers will increasingly be wanting to fill shorter spaces of time with great content, including journeys in self-driven cars. “The time for consuming this content is only going to get bigger.”

3 On the subject of how to gain instant impact for a short film ,The Future of Documentary Shorts panel split hairs between the need to grab attention in the first minute, the first five seconds, or the thumbnail photo and title.

4 During the Fact Ent  Comissioning session,  BBC, head of popular factual and factual entertainment commissioning David Brindley admitted that they’ve got a lot of food at the moment. What they want is more real world constructive docs, pop docs at 8pm on BBC One and BBC Two to grow and build.

5 Talking talent, Channel 4 is backing comedian Joe Lycett as the next big new talent, now fronting quirky consumer series Got Your Back.  The BBC is looking for experts, who can also offer something a bit different. While ITV cites talent from its Real Full Monty  - Ashley Banjo and Alexander Armstrong, Coleen Nolan and Victoria Derbyshire – not forgetting elsewhere in its schedule, the Queen and David Attenborough.

6 With the SVODS now dominating non-linear viewing, live and event programming is even more in demand from the terrestrials. At Channel 4, deputy director of programmes Kelly Webb-Lamb said that they want to do more live, “which we can do as a terrestrial channel in different scheduling, using digital platforms.” While Channel 5 is keen to find ideas that can sustain stripped 3-day event scheduling.

7 As well as the big 9pm returnables, ITV is also after formatted docs with a huge heart. “If you can make Kevin Lygo laugh then you’ve got the ink on the paper” said Kate Teckman, factual commissioner at ITV.

8 At the Sheffield/ Channel 4 First Cut pitch we saw diversity in action, with four finalists out of five being women. The standard of the films was impressive, with the winner Lyttanya Shannon getting great access to a story of domestic violence.

9 While much factual content is now shot through with drama and tension, might we have a bit of pulse-racing overkill? Tom McDonald, head of specialist factual commissioning  at the BBC said: “I find the trope of adrenalized, right on the edge, will they survive has begun to feel a bit tired and the audience is saying what else have you got ?”

10 UKTV  hosted a packed session. With a third more original commissions pledged for 2018 v 2017, they showed a real breadth of demand, from obdocs like Inside the Vets from Brown Bob Productions to fact ent formats like Judge Romesh bringing a comic spin to real-life disputes from Hungry Bear Media.

The Televisual's own Televisual Factual Festival will take place at Bafta once again this year on 21st and 22nd November. Details soon on

Posted 02 July 2018 by Pippa Considine
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