|01 June 2010
Fact ent shows are now expected to be as much a star of the schedule as any other programme
They’re relatively cheap to produce and, if you’re lucky, highly returnable and capable of sustaining long runs. They’re also often fronted by talent that can help to brand a channel.
But whereas in the past, fact ent shows could exist as the relatively unobtrusive glue that held the channel together between the showier, more standout genres, now, along with every other kind of show, broadcasters are demanding more scale and more impact from their fact ent commissions. The message from all broadcasters is that they want fewer, bigger, better shows that can draw viewers, and column inches, to the channel.
For Channel 4, looking ahead to its post Big Brother era, that drive has become even more important. “Fact ent will play a vital role in the slots that are going to be freed up next year,” says Channel 4’s deputy head of factual entertainment, Liam Humphreys. “We’ll be looking to make bigger commissions, which will have a kind of scale and position in the schedule.
There are more slots but there might be fewer things filling them. We’ll still commission four-part series. I might even still commission one off access docs if the access is right but, across the channel, with us as with everyone, there’s going to be less room for one-offs and two or three part series.”
Other broadcasters too are looking to up their game with their fact ent commissions, ditching the idea of having a large range of moderate performers and pumping more money and effort into creating a few standout shows.
“It’s fewer, bigger, better,” says Sky1’s head of factual and features, Celia Taylor. “The fact we’ve had some brilliant talent signings signifies to people we’ve upped our game a lot. Because we are doing fewer, bigger, better we can compete budget wise.”
Aiming for a few major successes rather than a lot of safe bets also means taking a few more risks. “We’ll try stuff out, and be creatively open and experimental,” says Taylor. “We’ll be breaking the rulebook a little bit. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it won’t. We’re not just after slightly increasing our share; it’s about having big hits. We want everything to perform well but we’d much rather have ten really big hits that people love than 30 things that do slightly better than the slot average last year.”
For Virgin Media’s head of commissioning, Mark Sammon, putting the money into a few big shows rather than a plethora of smaller ones is also key, especially as the broadcaster attempts its root and branch rebrand of men’s channel Bravo. “Instead of saying ‘We need ten episodes and they’re all going to cost x amount’, I can come in with a show pilot like [pop science series] The Human Guinea Pig and say, ‘I need four times the normal budget to do this pilot’ and the business has been up for that. The sense of scale and ambition we’re after means we’ll sign off budgets appropriate to that.”
For digital channels like Bravo and Living, the realisation is that, if they want to compete for the best ideas and the biggest fact ent shows, then they have to stop making so many in order to offer budgets that match the terrestrials. “Our fact ent budgets are absolutely comparable, if not better and healthier, than what’s currently being paid at terrestrial channels for peaktime shows,” says Sammon. “That’s why we attract some fantastic production companies and talent. We have the money and we’re prepared to spend it on the right ideas.”
Because getting that breakout fact ent hit is well worth the investment. Fact ent can be highly returnable, repeatable and can sustain long runs possibly two or three times a year. It’s that returnability that is the pot of gold commissioners are looking for. “Without Big Brother we’ll definitely need bigger runs and bigger brands,” says Channel 4’s Humphreys.
“I want to build bigger brands which return. There’s some great output in fact ent but not enough returning stuff. That’s a key priority of mine.” And it’s a key priority of all factual entertainment commissioners, something that pretty much spells the end, certainly in commercial television, of short run or non returnable factual entertainment. “We very rarely do one-offs,” says Sky1’s Taylor. “I want returnable brands. It’s a 6x60 minute minimum order. If we get it right or have confidence we’ll go for a lot more.”
Part of the brand of a factual entertainment show, and often the key driver of the entire programme is the talent fronting it. Getting the right talent, along with upping the scale of the shows in general, is becoming more important. “Talent’s a short cut to changing perceptions of Bravo and bringing audiences in that might not have watched for a while,” says Virgin’s Mark Sammon. “So now we might spend more money on a piece of talent. They do a job. They make people reassess their opinions of the channel in a single stroke.”
That’s certainly the tack taken by Sky1 that has made efforts to bring in talent that’s still at the top of its game, or on the way up, rather than being the home of talent that’s on the way down. “There are the A-listers like Davina and I’m doing a feature length documentary with David Attenborough so you’ve got the cream of the crop,” says Sky1’s Taylor. “But there’s also that younger level of people who have had major mainstream exposure like James Corden and Joanna Page. And I’m having conversations with terrestrial talent who think Sky is now one of the players.”
For the terrestrials, fact ent talent is no less important. “Talent’s going to be vital going forward,” says Channel 4’s Humphreys. “When you’ve got something like Big Brother, which effectively helps to brand that channel and give it an identity – faces are going to be vital to building brands in the future.”
There is, of course, plenty of factual entertainment talent already out there, but finding new faces, or faces new to their channel is a priority for all. “Part of our remit is new talent,” says Humphreys. “It would be great to get more female faces on the channel and some younger faces and more diversity.” “We’re not afraid of new talent,” says Sky’s Taylor. “Making our own talent is key for us too.”
There’s also the drive to get already well known faces to front fact ent shows in areas they’re not best known for. But there’s also a reaction against the ill thought out celeb-on-an-adventure shows that were at one time so ubiquitous. “We’re not putting celebs on the telly for the sake of it,” is BBC3 commissioning editor for features, formats and specialist factual, Harry Lansdown’s comment.
“There were so many celebrity journey shows that when they’re clearly doing them for the appearance fee they don’t ring true,” says Five’s head of factual entertainment, Steve Gowans who’s bringing back another season of Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing show. “With Robson, there’s an absolute passion for the area and no little ability and that comes across on screen.”
And it’s the credibility the presenter has with the audience that’s the key. The big fact ent names – Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Jo Frost – have an expertise and passion for the subject they’re talking about that existed way before a TV producer came knocking. “With Alex Polizzi [who fronts Five’s The Hotel Inspector] you have an absolutely credible expert - she has been doing this all her life,” says Steve Gowans. “So it’s the easiest thing in the world – bring me an absolutely credible expert who’s also a TV natural.
And sadly, it’s that simple formula that’s so difficult. “It’s a constant search,” says Gowans. “That’s the point of the job and the hundreds of meetings you have every year. You’re always looking for that next new face, area and format.”
What are you after? A lot of our programmes have really young demographics anyway but we are commissioning more shows which speak directly to young people.
How will the absence of Big Brother affect fact ent? Fact ent will play a vital role in the slots that are going to be freed up next year. We’re looking for more size and scale in what we do. There are more slots but there might be fewer things filling them. They could be competitive formats or events that could be stripped across the week. We’ll be looking to make bigger commissions, which will have a scale and position in the schedule. Without Big Brother we’ll need bigger runs and bigger brands. I want to build bigger brands which return. There’s some great output in fact ent but not enough returning stuff. That’s a key priority of mine and talent’s often key to that. We’ve got a brilliant array of talent and it would be great to get more female faces on the channel and some younger faces and more diversity.
What’s missing for you? There haven’t been many non-talent factual formats at 9 o’clock and that’s going to be a priority along with finding new faces.
What else is important? Mischief runs through all our best commissions. It’s always a slightly subversive idea rather than straight factual formats which the BBC better serves.
Are there subject areas you’d like to build on? If I know an area we want to do I wouldn’t publicise it. The rule of thumb is look at Mondays at 8pm. We own tech and we’ve got a few new things on the go already but if there’s something else we can do in that area, we’re always interested.
What else do you want? It’s the easiest thing in the world - bring me an absolutely credible expert who’s also a TV natural. Sadly that’s the circle you have to square and when you hit someone like Alex Polizzi who is all those things, it’s gold. That can start from the area or a piece of talent you’ve come across.
Any themes you’d like to build on? Cowboy Builders is of the time. Rewarding the deserving and punishing the undeserving - they’re both really good starting points. The best new fact ent shows like The Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss are all about rewarding the deserving and the surprise ending - a big reveal where people are getting what they deserve. Feel-good or getting our own back has many applications.
What slots do you need to fill? 8pm and 9pm for me.
How has Bravo changed? We are a male skewing channel and will continue to be but in order to get the volume we want to get it’s about girlfriends and wives watching as well.
What’s worked so far? When we commissioned Alex Reid: The Fight of His Life we had a lot of women watching that haven’t watched Bravo in years. They’re watching because he’s in Heat magazine and the guys are still watching for the fight demonstrations and the drama.
What budgets do you offer? Our factual entertainment budgets are absolutely comparable, if not better and healthier, than what’s currently being paid at terrestrial channels for peaktime shows. That’s why we attract some fantastic production companies and talent. We have the money and we’re prepared to spend it on the right ideas.
What’s needed on Living? The Holy Grail for Living is the next Four Weddings. Formatted shows are still very much on our shopping list and it’s always about the talent. What names can we attract that add that bit of glitz.
What tone do you need for your channels? Shows that can spike attention – either because their concept’s noisy like Made In Britain for Blighty or Scream if You Know the Answer for Watch – or because we are generating news just by the setting of the programme, like Fawlty Towers: Reopened. For Food and Home it’s necessary that we are ahead of the trend in those areas because the terrestrials are climbing all over them.
What are you looking for right now? Everybody is looking for the next wave of 9 o’clock fact ent formats that feel fresh and that can stand out on any channel. We’ve got a couple of things that we’re very hopeful of but we’re very open to other ideas.
What are you not after? We can sometimes get pitched a lot of fashion and style ideas and we just don’t have a home for them. If it feels like it could be on Living, it’s probably not the right tonality for us.
What sort of budgets do you work to? It completely varies. For the smaller, more niche channels you should be coming in at the equivalent of BBC daytime rates. For the bigger entertainment channels you’re probably looking at a reasonably good budget. We can compete properly in the market. We won’t do a lot. We don’t have the ability to commission a lot and burn off some that don’t quite work. Everything has to work. It’s three or four shows a year for a channel.
What do you want from your fact ent shows? We’re trying to be liberated from the restraints and pressures that factual’s been under. We want really entertaining well made stuff rather than trying to be too serious so it feels bold and fresh and spirited. We’ll try stuff out, be creatively open and experimental. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it won’t. We’re not just after slightly increasing our share, it’s about having big hits. We want everything to perform well but we’d much rather have ten really big hits than 30 things that do slightly better than the slot average last year.
What budgets do you work to? We go from £70K to 300k depending on what it is and who it is. Something like the David Attenborough 3d doc is considerably more than that.
What are you looking for now? We’ve had a lot of success in taking viewers around different parts of the world and we’d like to keep doing that but we’re also looking for some more domestic stuff as well.
What else are you after? We’ve had a lot of success with Britain’s Missing Top Model and then we did Dancing on Wheels. I like that way of doing disability, it doesn’t feel worthy, it feels celebratory. I’m keen for something in 2011 like that.
What else are you missing? We have a lot of quite serious stuff, programmes around globalisation etc. But we’ve had success with The Undercover Princes and Princesses. Formats like that are like gold dust. They’re more at the entertainment end and we need those as well as the Blood, Sweat and World’s Strictest.