The commissioners responsible for specialist factual at the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and Discovery set out their top programming priorities at this year’s Televisual Factual Festival.
The panel was chaired by Liesel Evans from Raw TV with speakers Abigail Priddle of the BBC, National Geographic’s Carolyn Payne, Fatima Salaria of Channel 4 and Discovery UK & Ireland’s Victoria Noble.
To describe the BBC’s commissioning slate Abigail Priddle used the analogy of ‘going on a school trip with your favourite teacher’ explaining that, “I’m looking for content which is enjoyable, a break from the norm and which gives you pleasure; it doesn’t feel like homework and although it can be serious it’s learning but it’s not dull.” Priddle emphasised the channel’s commitment and championing of iPlayer as a ‘destination in its own right’ and that multi-episode programmes are welcomed for an audience who have become used to consuming volumes.
There was a focus on returning brands, as well as a reminder that the BBC is committed to continuing to explore environmental issues and history programmes. Priddle highlighted that talent was a means in which production companies can be dynamic in established genres, using the example of Jack Whitehall’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are being a success in reaching a younger audience and “a really exciting way to bring someone new to a familiar brand.” Priddle also shined a spotlight on diversity affirming that “We need to be reflecting all of us.”
Carolyn Payne summed up National Geographic’s commissioning slate with three words, science, adventure and exploration. A take-home message for production companies was whether the pitch could be imagined as a story in the National Geographic magazine, Payne suggested that it was important to look at the work of National Geographic explorers and that she is “always interested in hearing proposal ideas about their work.” The channel’s Lost Cities with Albert Lin originated from Lin being a National Geographic explorer, which she hopes will provide a blueprint for future programming. Payne said that it was also important for indies not to assume that the company has already been provided access to certain things, and mentioned a small UK indie brought them exclusive access to a NASA space mission, which guaranteed them a series.
Channel 4’s Fatima Salaria outlined that she wanted to find a series which talks about current topics “that are very timely, very provocative, that feels like you’re lifting the lid on something and also feels very entertaining.” Using the upcoming Putin: A Russian Spy Story as an example, Salaria focused on how a biography programme can be adapted to embody a Channel 4 tone to create something that feels edgy and austere, remarking “let’s look at it through murder, let’s look at it through assassination, let’s look at it through corruption.”
Her priorities are to get a returnable history series and a returnable science series, however, she stressed that regardless of genre or format “We are never ever going to turn down brilliant, great ideas.”
When questioned on co-productions Salaria stated that Channel 4 was considering them an exciting avenue. She opined that Channel 4 is committed to taking subjects “which always feel taboo risky” and that the channel is especially interested in ways to do this through presenter-led formats, which “gives people space to tell stories from their perspective.”
Survival and adventure are two genres which Discovery’s Victoria Noble pushed strongly, she said that she is looking for twists on genres, a recent commission Richard Hammond’s Big! she said gave them more licence to make the topic of engineering entertaining. When reflecting on recent commissions for the male-skewed Quest channel she identified Australia has been an interesting precinct and backdrop for the channel, whilst the focus of tough jobs, as demonstrated in the upcoming Born Mucky, was a continued interest and ‘blue light’ programming remained something the channel was open to.