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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

Top speakers line up for Televisual Factual Festival

Hot on the heels of Mipcom, this year’s Factual Festival looks at How To Grow Your Business Overseas, in a session chaired by managing director of Sky Vision Jane Millichip.


To find out more and to book tickets, go to


The session takes place on Tuesday 14th November at BAFTA, on the first day of the two-day event. David Flynn, co-founder of Youngest Media and recently-appointed by PACT as an industry export ambassador, will explain how and why he has launched an indie as a global company from day one. Roy Ackerman, director of International Strategy for Zinc Media and md, Films of Record, reveals how he plans to accelerate Zinc’s business in the US and the wider global market. While Nutopia chief operating officer Helena Tait will talk about how Nutopia has nearly doubled turnover to £21.7m following a slew of big commissions from international broadcasters.


As part of a programme packed full of inspirational and informative sessions, the top TV commissioners in Specialist Factual, Documentary and Factual Entertainment will be speaking at the Festival, giving up to the minute insight into their present and future slates and to look at how successful commissions on their channel have made the journey from inbox to the screen.


Among the many highlights, Facebook’s Glenn Miller, head of entertainment media partnerships, EMEA will talk about reaching a new generation of viewers and the thinking behind its new TV service Facebook Watch. He is joined by Kat Hebden, head of digital, Fremantle Media UK, who will be addressing significant changes to the language of TV and how factual producers can use social media, together with Vice UK digital programming executive Eloise King and Derren Lawford, creative director, Woodcut Media.


The BBC’s controller of Factual Commissioning Alison Kirkham will discuss the future of factual at the broadcaster with Julian Bellamy, md of ITV Studios. 


Tuesday morning is a chance to flex development muscles, with a Development Masterclass hearing from four of the best in the business, following a conversation between Studio Lambert ceo Stephen Lambert and presenter and producer Anna Richardson about creating world-beating formats, as Studio Lambert approaches its tenth anniversary.


World-renowned producer John Battsek will talk about Creating Compelling Stories in documentary, using dramatic technique. He will be on stage with 24 Hours in Custody mastermind Simon Ford, in a session chaired by Kudos chief executive Diederick Santer.


Top names in factual will debate how producers should handle the power that they hold in their hands, in an age of fake news and viral video, in a session chaired by author and broadcaster Grace Dent, the creator of Radio 4’s The Untold. Dorothy Byrne, head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 and young film-maker Rachel Lob-Levyt are joined by Alastair Fothergill, md of Silverback Films and Will Anderson, creative director, Keo Film, both with major upcoming campaigning films, for Netflix and the BBC



This year is also the first time at the Festival that delegates will hear from the heads of Daytime commissioning, at the BBC and Channel 4. Dan McGolpin and David Sayer will be talking about what they look for in shows that play well for them in daytime and early-peak.


Plus there are sessions on VR, AR and AI, and how to adapt to a new generation of TV watching. Creative Europe will present its funding opportunities.


There will also be the opportunity to book one-to-one meetings with commissioners. Broadcasters already confirmed to be part of the Festival include the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV, ITV, Discovery, A+E and National Geographic.


To find out more and to book tickets, go to


Posted 20 October 2017 by Pippa Considine

Documentaries confront dramatic times

The era of Trump and Brexit is proving a fertile one for documentary makers to explore. Televisual Factual Festival producer Pippa Considine surveys the fast-changing documentary landscape

In a year of seismic political change, documentaries that seize the moment and 
show it with a raw drama have been capturing the zeitgeist. “People want the urgent thing, the social thing, the thing that makes my channel contemporary. It’s an exciting moment to be working in factual,” says Aysha Rafaele, head of documentaries at the newly-commercialised BBC Studios.

“There’s never been a better time to be a documentary film maker, in a world where we need to make sense of the world more than ever before,“ says Clare Sillery, the head of documentary commissioning at the BBC.

Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at Channel 4, clarifies that he’s not looking for lots of documentaries on Corbyn, Trump or Brexit. “But they all feel like an expression of people saying we don’t believe what we’re told any more, a sense of disenchantment with the establishment, and somehow in a doc that’s the world we would like to see explored.”

There have been some shifts in the world of UK documentary commissioning recently, with the BBC refreshing its team and Channel 5 commissioning more in the documentary territory. Now, with the arrival of Alex Mahon as ceo at Channel 4 and the departure of chief creative officer Jay Hunt, another shake up is on the cards.

Competition between indies is getting tougher. This year has seen the launch of several new factual indies and BBC Studios has taken its place as a supplier to all channels. In the past few months it has been branching out, pitching to other UK terrestrial channels, as well as talking to US and international broadcasters, including Netflix and National Geographic.

Finding business growth by extending overseas has continued to be a successful strategy for indies; Nutopia, with one foot in the US has significantly increased its turnover with overseas business. But companies are finding it hard to build a concrete base with commissions where the IP is given away and while precious UK business is reportedly flat, with the familiar downward pressure on budgets.

Mirsky at Channel 4 thinks that there’s a polarisation of the sorts of films that are working for documentary at the moment: “I feel there are two directions we’ve been going in – the films that have been successful have either been really escapist or confronting the moment.” He cites First Dates and 24 Hours in Custody at opposite ends of this spectrum – both have been getting record viewing figures. The channel’s new stand-out films – A Very British Hotel and Catching a Killer – are also poles apart.

While Catching a Killer, 24 Hours in Custody or the BBC’s new fast-paced Hospital are undoubtedly confronting difficult issues, none of them is difficult to watch. Each of them uses the beats that traditionally belong in drama. “There’s something about when a doc gets close to drama, there’s also an element of allowing yourself to be lost,” says Mirsky. “Catching a Killer is one of the most powerful films about domestic violence, you are gripped by the narrative and that takes you in and makes you think about domestic violence.”

Giving a doc a dramatic arc is not new, but there’s a more widespread imperative to have a story engine that goes to the eye of the story. Custody has consolidated its multiple story arcs into one powerful narrative in the more recent films. Boundless’ new BBC2 format, The Week The Landlords Moved In, focuses more intensely on the human dramas of the cast. When the drama works well, it attracts audiences of all ages. “It’s really interesting with something like Ambulance there’s a younger skew,” says Sillery. “The top line is that the drama can deliver the audience to important social issues.”

Big docs that go into forensic detail on one subject are in demand, with commissioners emboldened by the traction of shows like OJ: Made in America or Making a Murderer. The third series of BBC3’s Life and Death Row tackles one story of 98 executions in Arkansas scheduled over an intense 10 day period before the licence to use a lethal drug expires.

True crime has been burgeoning, with commissioners accused of turning from poverty porn to crime porn.  ITV has publicly pinned some of its hopes on true crime. Its much–anticipated Undercover Prisoner series is in production and a Crime and Punishment strand will launch later this year. The strand has ten films commissioned, including An Hour To Catch A Killer from ITV Studios production company Potato, announced last year.

“We know there’s an appetite for crime and punishment,” says ITV director of factual Jo Clinton-Davis. ”So we’re pulling together different films that straddle that area, making people think about issues around crime and punishment, but also making big films about a range of subjects in that territory. It’s a way of making a splash.” Plus, Potato’s film suggests a natural format for future iterations, with its focus on the critical ‘Golden Hour‘ that police believe is vital to solving a murder.

ITV is also interested in performance-based factual. The Real Full Monty was a hit for the channel, with overnight ratings of over 5m. The celebrity format, which involved dancing and stripping off, also explored the issue of testicular cancer. Says Clinton-Davis: “They literally unpeeled, undressed the issues alongside the actual strip: that’s documentary in a more entertaining framework.” Next up is Gone to Pot, a three-parter from Betty, where another group of celebrities will travel to the US to investigate the pros and cons of using cannabis for medicinal purposes.

At the BBC, Sillery points to the success of Marigold Hotel when saying that there’s room for more lightly formatted factual and documentaries generally. She admits respect and perhaps a little envy of Channel 4’s First Dates. “We do gloom very well in docs and it would be nice to get some lighter touch stories,” she says.

Whether it’s entertainment, drama or scheduling big events in the schedule, what’s become official is that noise and impact are crucial ingredients if a documentary is going to cut through.

Sanjay Singhal, chief executive at Voltage TV, which has grown rapidly in the three years since it launched, says that the indie’s strategy has been to pitch big ideas. “My feeling is that across the industry and across genres, people are looking for fewer, bigger, better programmes that have noise, impact and scale. That applies as much to single films as series.”

Singhal is keen not to box factual shows into silos, pointing to Hunted as a good example of a show that has become more of a game show, but still retains documentary sensibility. “There’s nothing wrong with taking the beats of an entertainment show and filling it with authenticity and purpose.”

Voltage is producing BBC2’s Great Family Cookery Showdown, it has an ambitious fact ent show in development with Sky and another funded development with Amazon. “The thing that we’ve tried to do is focus on those ideas that we feel have real scale and potential punch at the expense of trying to go for programmes that are relatively easy to miss and therefore channels don’t get excited about them.”

This scale includes strong feature doc ideas which can play as events in the schedule. Voltage was behind feature doc One Deadly Weekend in America for BBC3 and another feature length science doc with Ant & Dec is in production for ITV. And there’s definite demand for longer form. Nutopia, with its eye on both UK and international markets, is bringing feature doc producer Roast Beef into its fold.

At ITV, Clinton-Davis says that she is not sure that Netflix and the other SVoDs are behind a greater demand in features, but big ideas and one-offs with scale can work: The Real Full Monty was 90-minutes and recent Oxford Film & TV production Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy netted 7m viewers. C5 is increasing its demand for feature-length films to run at 9pm, following success with Brinkworth Films’ The Accused.

BBC3 has found that running features as a strand is one way to stop the ebb of viewers since the channel moved online. At BBC Studios, Aysha Rafaele says the Murdered by... strand of fact-based dramas helps to bring in the audience through its title. “It’s a way of identifying in an online landscape when you’re trying to make young people aware of your programmes.” BBC3 has struggled with certain shows, without the support of a terrestrial platform. Clare Sillery says that despite its strengths, a show such as American High School just couldn’t get enough traction: “It was too docusoapy to cut through, it needs to be more pointy.”

The established channels are mindful of the loyal older audiences that they must serve. One approach that Sillery likes is to give audiences an insight into the world view for young people, especially with the backdrop of recent political decisions, where the youth vote lost the day. There are two BBC commissions in this vein: David Glover’s 72 Films is making Redcar, a film about growing up in the North Yorkshire town; Blast! Films’ Gifted explores the issues facing children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  “One of the things behind Gifted and Redcar is that I’m really interested is to get the older audience to look at the younger audience because younger people have been shafted….it’s about making them included and getting them included and valued.”

Access is, as ever, in big demand. While contributors are now wised up to the potential perils of access, there’s also an increased openness. “The police are much more open and can see the benefits of allowing the camera in, in a way they didn’t five or 10 years ago,” says Mirsky. But access on its own isn’t enough. ITV’s obdoc on the London Fire Brigade saw Mentorn Media taking a new camera angle. “We had to approach that access thinking what can we do differently and we made sure that the cameras were used as they’d never been before, in the heat of the moment,” says Clinton-Davis.

Be it through drama, humour or a clever camera angle, audiences in 2017 seem to prefer even their gritty realism with a lightness of touch. It also helps if formats are not chewed over too much before they get made, says Simon Dickson, creative director at Label1 (Hospital). “Sometimes you can see commissioners over thinking formats and trying to inject social purpose and weighting them down with legacy which at the end of the day takes them further away from being the simple easy to engage with shows that the audience is currently looking for.”

And what are they looking for, how has demand changed? “We have to have our finger on the pulse,“ says Clinton-Davis. “With Brexit and with Trump, there’s something shifting in the tectonic plates and we as commissioners have got to be mindful of what those concerns are but embrace them in an entertaining way that gives audiences an escape from it or makes them think differently.”

The Televisual Factual Festival takes places on the 14th and 15th of November at Bafta. Go to for full details

Posted 28 September 2017 by Pippa Considine

Archive: selling the past

The archive industry is adapting to meet an ever growing demand for video content, both in the UK and around the world. Pippa Considine reports on the very modern business of selling archive

Archive might be all about historical footage, but the business of selling footage is firmly in the moment. Libraries are now fully searchable online, while their footage is being remastered for 4K delivery and reworked to reach new audiences. The business is also embracing crowd-sourcing, shout-outs and random uploads.

Archive managers in the UK report increased international business, catalysed by online access. There’s continued demand for archive from theatrical documentary releases and a knock on effect from the new digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon investing in high quality docs. Plus there’s renewed interest in archive from big factual channels, like History and National Geographic, which are moving back towards their roots.

Archive giants
As well as all these changes, there has been a spate of consolidation in the industry. Getty Images, the world’s largest video library, last year announced a deal to distribute the library of its chief rival Corbis, as well as a similar multi-year partnership with ITN. Getty has already been licencing BBC footage for the last three years.

There is, of course, compelling logic in creating big, searchable one-stop-shop collections. Getty is not alone; there are other players, notably US based giants that have added stock footage to their tech businesses, such as Pond 5 and Wazee Digital.

But the recent consolidation in the UK has caused concern among producers and archivists. “It’s a bad thing because you lose the specialists who know and love the archive,” says one documentary producer. One archivist questions how Getty decides which archive to sell to a client where two or more of the collections they represent have similar footage.

Getty is committed to keeping high levels of service. “We are certainly known to be a trusted partner and one of our main goals is to make everything go as smoothly and successfully as possible,” says Lee Shoulders, the director of video content development. She pinpoints strategies to achieve this, which include fostering people with institutional memory.

The joy of independents
There are plenty of independent archives remaining. The same reasons that might be driving consolidation seem to be also driving independence: “I believe the new technology makes it very easy for people to view everything online and they’re an email click away from head office,” says Alastair White, the general manager at British Pathe. He doesn’t need a rep in the States if customers can search and email directly and has seen significant growth in transatlantic trade since ending a US agency relationship last year. “What researchers want is to speak to people who really know the content,” he adds.

“We’re fiercely independent,” says Amanda Huntley, director of the Huntley Film Archives. “We know that our customers value the fact that we have this independence – it allows us to be flexible, move quickly and get really involved in their project on a granular level.” The archive, which focuses on social history both in the UK and around the world, has benefitted from the trend for theatrical docs; its footage appears in the new release from directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl, Letters from Bagdhad. And it has seen increased international demand, particularly from countries with little in the way of their own archive, such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Middle East.

At Getty, Lee Shoulders describes the archive as “pretty immense” and always acquiring new footage, including a recent acquisition of Beatles footage shot in 1964 and new films shot in VR. “We do constantly have to be aware and track the trends,” says Shoulders. The bigger trend, she notes, is the democratisation of content, with more publishers and brands everywhere wanting moving footage. “Everyone is looking to engage their audience with video”.

Chair of archive trade body, Focal, Sue Malden takes up Shoulders’ point, but adds a warning note. “The implication of this is that it’s a growing market, but the problem is that if people coming into that market are not necessarily producing for traditional broadcasters, then more content isn’t getting cleared or showed at the best possible quality.”

While there are strict standards for shows such as Wall to Wall’s Further Back in Time for Dinner, which used Bridgeman Images footage, the use of archive isn’t always well policed. “The industry is changing and young people coming through now need to be trained to understand that that you can’t just take something off YouTube and put it in a programme,” says Bridgeman account manager Beatrice Okoro.

Many archives now make their stock available low res and watermarked, which productions can use in an offline edit. While this is a help, it can be frustrating when productions come to the online edit and libraries can’t find original footage or their minimum charges makes it prohibitively expensive. True Vision’s recent film Hunting the KGB Killers lined up various pieces of archive, only to find that while much of it could be licensed within budget, some footage was out of reach. There were clips where owners refused permission for political reasons. Other fleeting shots could be replaced by creating original footage, using archive stills and True Vision’s own archive.

Producer libraries
Producers are aware that while mining their past footage for current commissions, they could also be selling it on. “It’s one of the things in a production company you know you should do – we have amazing footage. It’s all about time, resource and energy,” says Woodcut Media ceo Kate Beal.

Lola Clips is one archive keen to talk to indies about taking on their content. (see box, overleaf).  The archive, which launched in the US and the UK in 2015, is one of a new wave of libraries that have started up in recent years. Alongside big new platforms, it’s one of the niftier players, looking to take a different approach.

Big players like Wazee Digital and Pond 5 have grown from a technology base, using the platforms that they built to establish highly searchable archives.  Pond 5 boasts over 1m 4K clips in its vast database and draws customers in with its royalty free footage, while Wazee represents a raft of famous archives, including ABC, CBS News and Sony Pictures. 

In the UK, Newsflare, which launched in 2013, specialises in UGC clips. It has an active following of amateur contributors and sells to over 40 territories. Woodcut Media made use of Newsflare for its clip show Animal Antics for C5. The platform advertises to its community of contributors for specific subjects and gathers in the clips. “Clip shows are evergreen and the user generated element has given them extra buoyancy in recent years,” says Beal.

UGC is at the heart of indie 7 Wonder’s shows for the BBC, The People’s History of Pop and The People’s History of LGBTQ. The production team went one step further and created their own archive, as well as using footage from various collections. Both productions worked with crowdsourcing partner Historypin to create a website where people could upload stills, footage and general memorabilia.

Anniversary demand

All archives, big and small, are subject to the variations in demand for subjects according to anniversaries and world events. For example, there’s been big demand for First World War footage.

The team at NBC News Archives in New York has seen renewed interest in political docs with the election of President Trump. “For us, it’s a great fit as NBC News and MSNBC cover politics extensively and the archive goes back for 70 years,” says Clara Fon-Sing, Vice President for Archives Sales & Strategy. There’s also been a run of big archive series in the US, following on from Nutopia’s archive-based shows, including The 80s: The Decade that Made Us for National Geographic. CNN is currently airing eight parter, Sound Tracks, using archives to tell the stories of songs that defined history.

The impact of VOD and OTT services has also been positive for archives in the US. “OTT is like what cable TV was to our business in the 90s,” remarks Fon-Sing. “Streaming video providers are investing in original productions and true crime has been at the top of their lists. We have extensive content, enough for producers to supply several episodes on the same murder case, with local and national coverage and interviews with different sources,” she adds.

Naturally, there’s also demand around anniversaries. This year there’s the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots, the 20th of Princess Diana’s death, plus a number of upcoming 50th anniversaries in the US in 2018 such as civil rights, MLK’s assassination and the Vietnam War. Ken Burns has been working with NBC News Archives for six years on his highly anticipated 10-episode, 18-hour PBS series, The Vietnam War. “I’ve seen a lot of our Vietnam footage many times,” mentions Fon-Sing, “but watching it reused, digitally remastered and with enhanced sound, is a true immersive experience. It’s almost as if you were there on the battleground. New generations of viewers will see this war in a whole new way.”

Restoring and enhancing archive to conform to the high resolution now demanded by broadcasters is changing the game and forcing producers and archives to go back to original footage to remaster. “We are seeing content that we have previously telecined to SD then again to HD coming around again as people now want 2K or 4K scans,” says Matt Wills, the commercial director at restoration specialist R3:Store.

Arrow Films’ America in Color for Smithsonian is a big budget, five-part series which is entirely archive; each frame has been colorised to give a new look to the original footage from the 1920s through to the 1960s. “We wanted to turn old black and white archive into something fresh and different,” says Nick Metcalfe, exec producer for Arrow. “There is real resistance to seeing something in black and white and people often want their stories told in the present tense. Our colourising is an attempt to turn archive into something that is more present tense.”

Even if it’s not 100 per cent archive with bells on, the demand for binge-watchable series is one of the several drivers in the renewed demand for archive. Across genres, archive can have a place; Alastair White at British Pathe points to the use of the archive’s footage in Netflix drama The Crown. The increase in international business and archive for shows that want worldwide rights is also healthy for archives. British Pathe saw growth up 25% this time last year and White reports that business is still growing: “Basically speaking there are more customers buying more stuff and clearing more rights.”

How indies exploit their archive
The opportunity for indies to sell clips as secondary rights has been around since the change in Terms of Trade in 2004. But for many it seems like a lot of hard work for little reward.

There are now several archive platforms keen to take on footage from indies and to help them through the process of editing and logging material with the promise of decent ROI.

Screenocean doesn’t just represent big collections from Reuters, C4 and C5; its collection of almost 1m clips includes footage from indies such as Twenty Twenty, Wall to Wall and Yalli. It works with producers to manage, deliver and monetise their footage.

Lola Clips, co-founded by Sandra Coelho and Dominic Dare, is another that’s interested in representing footage from indies.

“Indies just don’t have the time, but they all know that it’s something they should be doing,” says Coelho. “So we can come in and take it off their hands.” For example, Lola worked with SDMC Productions, going through their catalogue to identify saleable footage. Once selected, the material was broken down into three-minute segments, identified by key words for tagging and Lola then curated it before it was uploaded onto its online platform.

Posted 15 August 2017 by Pippa Considine

DocFest report: what factual commissioners want

After listening to the key UK factual commissioner speaking at Sheffield DocFest, Pippa Considine gives some pointers to what key channels are looking for to inspire their slates

David Brindley, head of  Popular Factual and Factual Entertainment at the BBC, comes from a background steeped in rig shows and hybrid drama doc at Channel 4, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s interested in format. “For me innovation  about form and shape is the most interesting,” he said, calling for indies to bin their preconceptions about what the BBC might like. “Please be liberated from whatever you think a BBC idea might be….I’d much rather hear ideas that feel frightening and almost unmakeable.”

Hamish Mykura, executive vice-president of programming and development for National Geographic Global Networks National, believes that the UK is a great place to find the scaleable shows that he’s looking for. “People here really can generate the big ideas. Some of the best ideas we’re generating have been big ideas from small companies.” Among other things, he wants an archive show. “There’s a whole new approach to archive docs which we’re really interested in commissioning, where people are building stories where there’s a real emotional view.”

Sky commissioning editor Marvyn Benoit was on the look out for a stand-out reality series. “We would love a reality show, our own I’m A Celebrity Get me Out of Here, if anyone has an idea come and talk to us.”

Tom McDonald, head of Specialist Factual and Natural History commissioning at the BBC says that he’s been moving away from three-part series. He is keen on finding new talent with a strong point of view: “It’s genuinely a brilliant way in  - I’d like to see more of starting with talent and building from there.” He showed a clip from a show about a drug trial for Parkinson’s and explained that it was made by a very small indie, a one-woman band. Five years of filming and it’s still being made.  Clearly the BBC still wants its landmark shows, but he was at pains to show that it’s looking across the range. “Ambition comes in all shapes and sizes.”

Ed Sayer, vice president Production and Development, Factual for Discovery Networks International, laid claim to wedding programming. “The weddings space is an area that we’re wholly owning,” he said, citing Say Yes to the Dress and Big Brides Boutique and noting that they are always looking for more. Discovery channels Quest and Quest Red are a chance to test new formats, he says and he showed a clip from a new show about Katie Price, where she is leaving her old life behind for something more sedate. She stands round a bonfire with husband and children, burning pictures of herself scantily clad.

Claire Sillery, BBC head of Documentary commissioning, was definitely up for more heart-warming programming. “I’d really like more of it - there’s plenty of room for humour and warmth.” Asked at the end of her DocFest session to show a clip of a favourite doc, she chose an excerpt from Nik Cave’s lyrical film 20,000 Days on Earth, which explores creativity. She described it as in the class of documentaries “where a bit of your brain chemistry changes” and it brought her to tears.

ITV’s Real Full Monty was shown as an example of a hotly-tipped current show from ITV. ‘Factual performance’ is something that they’re keen to do more of, according to Kate Teckman, ITV Factual Entertainment commissioner. She was quick to talk about the purpose of the show, which deals with men’s health issues, as well as seeing celebrities get their kit off.

With the new Bake Off looming, channel 4’s head of Factual Entertainment Kelly Webb-Lamb was keen to reassure. “The tone of Bake Off is what makes it brilliant and the tone is not changing,” she says. “What I think people don’t know about Noel  [Fielding] is that he’s just a genuinely lovely man. He and Sandy [Toksvig] together have a playfulness that’s a joy to watch.” Agreeing with David Brindley at the BBC about looking for something completely different, she says, “If someone comes to see me and I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to make it, that’s when I get excited,”

Channel 5 was at Sheffield last year drumming up enthusiasm with indies to pitch factual ideas in their direction. This year has seen successes with Rich House Poor House, quick turn around crime docs at 8pm and new 90-minute docs. “The audience is beginning to love 90 minutes,” says Channel 5 Factual commissioning editor Guy Davies. Asked for a clip of a favourite documentary, he showed a golf club ob doc filmed over 20 years ago, which gloriously exposes the flaws of the established middle aged, middle class white male order of things.

Nick Mirsky, head of Documentary at Channel 4 insists “I want people not to pitch what they think I want, but what they think is right.” Defending the glut of true crime on all channels, not just C4, he said that Catching A Killer had allowed the channel to talk about domestic violence through the lens of a crime puzzle.

Posted 16 June 2017 by Pippa Considine

The changing face of documentary TV

Documentary in the UK is nothing if not dynamic. ITV is recharging its factual output under new head of fact ent Sue Murphy; the BBC has pledged to give BBC2 new factual confidence; Channel 4 is shaking up its big rig series; and Channel 5 is staking a claim to the centre ground.

There’s more factual on our screens. Ofcom’s PSB Annual Report 2016 showed that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 spent £522m on first-run factual content last year – an 8% rise on the 2014 total of £482m and the highest spend since 2008.

Brexit, despite being unpopular with producers, is making UK indies more alluring to the US market and has also opened eyes to new subject areas for documentary.

Nick Mirsky, head of documentary at Channel 4 confirms that it’s looking for new ideas to refresh its blockbusters at 9pm.

“We’re definitely on the look out for new spaces that will refresh our scalable output,” he says. It seems likely that One Born will find itself in the sidings, with Educating “going fallow for this year and having a rethink,” according to Mirsky. First Dates, Police Custody and 999 are still on an upward curve, while A+E remains at the centre. Mirsky believes that the rig has allowed C4 to tackle new spaces at 8pm with a documentary approach, using the more detached eye of the rig on heretofore sentimental subject areas, citing The Secret Life of the Zoo and The Secret Life of 4, 5, 6 Year Olds.

“There’s definitely an appetite at Channel 4 for pilots and potentially returning series,” says Jonathan Hewes, ceo at Mentorn Media. But what are the chances of trusting a small indie with one of the new whoppers? Not enormous, says Mirsky, but the channel is working with one smaller indie on an idea that could be supercharged.

Pact census statistics show how Channel 5 has outstripped other channels in its use of smaller indies with a turnover of under £5m. The BBC has done its own maths and says that over half of all series and returning series in factual are made by indies with a turnover of £5m or less, while Channel 4 says that it’s always in conversation with smaller indies.

Channel 5 is keen to overcome remaining concerns about reputation and lower tariffs and to appeal to smaller, as well as larger indies. “As the channel grows and develops it’s important for us to be courting the best and most creative producers,” says Channel 5 factual commissioning editor Guy Davies. Brinkworth Films is behind hit show Can’t Pay We’ll Take it Away (below), while another example is Paul Blake at Maroon Productions, the makers of ground-breaking obdoc Inside the Gang.

Although Channel 5 still has its dissenters that think the programming is derivative, others compare its factual output to ITV 10 or 15 years ago.

True, it has picked up BBC shows - The Tube and Traffic Cops have both been given a Channel 5 make-over. But Davies dismisses these as one-offs: “It’s not a policy to go and look for ideas that have already been made.” He points to the channel’s success with obdocs on GPs and vets and its I’m an Alcoholic, My Name Is series, which is morphing into new commission, Me and My... “straight down-the-lens testimony which is both raw, emotional and gripping.”

Channel 5 also has three new doc formats lined up: Rich House Poor House involving a lifestyle swap to shed light on class and the social divide; The New Wife, looking at fractured families; and Stripped and Stranded, an island survival show for the family.

“A lot of channels are looking for factual formats,” says Kate Beal, ceo at Woodcut Media. “The holy grail is smaller social experiments like Faking It.”

“The audience is desperate for people to present things differently,” says Simon Dickson, a year into setting up his new ITV Studios-owned indie Label 1, together with Lorraine Charker-Phillips. “What I’m hoping with this current crop of commissioners, is that they’re going to go for ideas that try different ways of telling stories.”

At ITV, controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis has said that the channel is after “mad, bad ideas.” It’s ditching its arts strand Perspectives and one of Sue Murphy’s first big factual commissions in the newly created role of head of fact ent is Undercover Prisoner by ITV Studios, with rumours that it has shades of A+E Networks’ hit series Jail: 60 Days In.

Over at Channel 4, documentary commissioner Alisa Pomeroy has commissioned a live event demonstrating the effect of cochlea implants. It also has hybrid comedy and drama docs, such as Barry Humphries’ Granny’s Guide to the Modern World and drama doc The Watchman from director David Nath.

New Channel 4 format The Job Interview (above) has been one of Label 1’s first commissions: the show uses a real-life recruitment agency and films authentic job interviews using fixed rig, a la First Dates. Label 1 is also in production on a major BBC2 commission about the NHS, not using a rig. “They were slow to get into the rig and I still don’t think they’ve approached it with sufficient conviction,” says Dickson.

At the BBC Clare Sillery has recently taken over as acting head of documentary commissioning. Where Mirsky at C4 talks about how the rig “drops you in the middle of an experience,” Sillery describes big BBC doc commissions as having a 360 degree treatment.

One upcoming BBC obdoc, made by Dragonfly, follows the London Ambulance Service and involves a rig in ambulances, together with filming in the central control room that filters 999 calls. Another is about missing persons, from Blast TV. “It’s a 360 approach, with the family of the missing as well as the police looking for them,” says Sillery. “It holds up a real mirror to life in Britain –  teenage runaways, debt, addiction, alzheimers.”

Documentaries on BBC2 should be considered through the BBC2 “prism of a broad topic with a singular voice,” says Sillery, whether that voice comes through the director or the approach to the subject. James Bluemel’s Exodus fits into this definition, as does The Real Marigold Hotel.

Coming up on BBC2, another series with a 360 perspective, from Minnow, shows the justice system in Jacksonville California – in the prison, the courtroom and with the detectives out on the street. Director Richard Mather was behind two-part obdoc British Vogue (below).

The BBC is putting an increased emphasis on authorship with films from experienced directors, such as Anna Hall’s Behind Closed Doors and Brian Woods’ My Parents’ in Prison (working title) for BBC1 to new director Philip Wood’s Chasing Dad: A Lifelong Addiction for BBC3.

At Channel 4, Alisa Pomeroy has been commissioning Cutting Edge singles and will soon have enough for a run. While the BBC is launching its New Directors scheme, with slots for two films on BBC1 and four on BBC3.

BBC3, Sillery insists, is still true to its reputation as “a creative hothouse for documentary.” Despite a big slim down in budget for factual, there’s still Reggie Yates, Stacey Dooley, Professor Green and increased demand for short form to play online. Marcus Plowright (Muslim Drag Queens) is making his first series for BBC3 and Top Hat is producing three-parter Love and Hate Crime, filmed in the US. Audiences, especially younger audiences, are happy to see issues played out in the US, but Sillery does say that attention has now switched to commissioning more UK-based shows.

Of course, there’s still plenty of opportunity for UK producers to make documentaries for US broadcasters. “We think it’s a very substantial market, at least ten times the size of the UK, in terms of numbers of channels, volume and spend,” says Chris Shaw, editorial director at ITN Productions, which is behind Discovery ID show Killer Instinct. “You look at some of the smaller US cables and they often commission at tariffs bigger than our broadcasters and will commission 10 or 13 if they work,” says Hewes at Mentorn. “There are fantastic opportunities, but there’s a lot of competition.”

With the pound’s plummet after the Brexit vote, Shaw and Hewes agree that there’s an advantage. “British companies can be both better and cheaper and, post Brexit, we’re cheaper than an already cheap production model,” says Hewes.

The US market includes the likes of Netflix and Amazon, leading the SVOD charge and offering hope to producers that they might commission factual on a more regular basis than the current big tent-pole productions, such as Lightbox new hostage-taking series Captive for Netflix. At the same time, other online commissioners, such as Red Bull, The Guardian and BBC3, are ordering short-form content that can play on mobile.

Whatever the broadcaster or the format, producers are reporting a rise in demand for uplifting content. Channel 5 is describing a more “aspirational” tone to its future documentary, a move away from more dark subject matter. “It’s not about being glib or overly positive, it’s about saying what are the things we can do and do in an appealing way,” says Davies.

“There’s a general clarion call for more enlivening and positive content, particularly humour,” says Shaw at ITN Productions. “Humour is a much under-rated element of factual production.” He has just finished a third documentary on Donald Trump. “One of the reasons Trump works so well is that there’s a certain comedy element. It’s deadly serious, but he’s also a comical personality.”

The Televisual Factual Festival takes place 
on the 9th and 10th of November at Bafta. 
Go to for details

Posted 06 October 2016 by Pippa Considine

A-Z of Realities in Reality TV

RTS Futures organised a panel session earlier this month, hearing from a cracking clutch of reality TV insiders who spilled the beans on what it’s like to be working behind the scenes of a reality TV show and the preoccupations of the crew. 
Here’s an A-Z of production realities in reality TV.


Coco Jackson researcher (Love Island, Naked Attraction)

Philip McCreery, series producer (The Island with Bear Grylls, First Dates)

Craig Orr, director, commissioning & development, MTV International (Ex on the Beach)

Becky Crosthwaite, games producer (Love Island, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here)


Apptastic - It’s absolutely vital that a reality TV show hits social media buttons. “If we don’t think that people are going to share the content, we’re not going to commission it,” says Craig. 

Big Brother  - John de Mol’s brainchild is the big daddy of reality TV shows. Asked to name their favourite, all the speakers had respect.

Care – the phrase ‘duty of care’ came up a lot during the discussion. Looking after the interests of the cast was always on the agenda.

Death  - With survival shows there are massive health and safety protocols. For the production to survive, real harm is to be avoided at all costs.

Emotions – Great reality TV is “all about emotions – lovely or scary, ”says Craig.

Friendships - Without the trust between cast and production team, there’s no gossip coming back to base camp and the spark goes out of the show.

Games – Challenges are carefully orchestrated to build the atmosphere or to trigger a response from the cast. Becky, working on ITV’s Love Island this year, deployed  Dare challenges to great effect.

How to deal with fragile cast members. Big characters with extreme personalities can sometimes be needy - the duty of care gets bigger and they need extra tlc from the production team.

Injuries  - Safety nets have to be in place. One of the cameramen severed a tendon on The Island and had to be helicoptered off ; TOWIE star Lydia Bright got a fishing hook injury on Celebrity Island.

Judgement – Weeding out applicants to find the right characters to cast is a skill. Coco recruited for Channel 4 dating show Naked Attraction. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted. “They had to feel really sure about their body,” she says.

Keeping the cast on side. Sometimes this might extend to cutting scenes where one of the cast has pleaded for the producer to ditch some embarrassing footage.

Love what you do. All the panel agreed that they would recruit people who are passionate about reality TV.

Music is really important. A bit of bump and grind or the Jaws theme tune can work wonders.

Needs... to be pre-recorded. It’s not many reality shows that would work live, without being boring.

Organisation  - In reality TV, with lots of people on three-month contracts and handing-over, it’s especially important to tie up loose ends.

Phone savviness is vital when you’re recruiting cast. The first hurdle is to check out applicants on the phone.

Quick decision making - When things go wrong it’s critical to move with speed. Breaking up a fight, sending in a helicopter or knowing when to cut a scene.

Robust casting – it’s really important to make sure you recruit people who are going to stay the course. 

Suggestion - With so much reality TV based on couples and relationships, shagging must be there, but not on camera. “The power of suggestion is huge “ says Becky.

Technology – Developments in tech drive a lot of new reality shows. Crews can now be small and embedded, you can have a discreet rig or just let the cast film it themselves.

Under pressure to come up with the next big reality show? The panel’s advice is to find a cast, write a great pitch, find an idea that resonates and work with a production company that know what it’s doing.

V – when one cast member disagrees another cast member, the edit must show both sides.

Watershed – need to keep some of the action for after 9pm.

Xtra large characters are in demand. Big characters drive reality shows.

Yes – Some cast members want to show everything. They need to be reined in.

Zen  - As long as the cast isn’t allowed into the production office, then all will be well with the world.





Posted 22 September 2016 by Pippa Considine
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