Who Gives a F**k About Single Documentaries? is the provocative title of a session at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest (June 15).

Ahead of the debate, we asked the four speakers to give their view – getting their take on the health of single documentaries in a television landscape dominated by fixed rigs and long running access series.

Are the broadcasters commissioning enough singles and are they commissioning the right kind? And at a time where there is more commercial pressure on broadcasters and production companies, are both sides playing it safe?

Olly Lambert

The channels always claim to like the idea of single docs.  But the reality of having a single director, who might have an attitude or, gasp, a ‘point of view’, seems to give a lot of comm eds the editorial heebie jeebies.  So many new directors are getting subsumed into the rig show behemoths like 24 Hours in A&E or One Born, where individual voices or styles are not really required, as so many stylistic and tonal decisions have already been made and “signed off” from on high.  It’s breeding a kind of documentary monoculture, drowning out the distinctive voices and creative risk taking that single docs can offer.

Lina Prestwood
Channel 4 commissiong editor, docs

Docs are having a renaissance, but finding new voices and first-time directors for singles in the age of big access and rig shows isn’t as easy as you might think. With their long-term APs, DV directors and often edit producers accustomed to working within an established house-style, many are suffering a sort of imposters syndrome when faced with a single. Conversely, others see themselves as ‘seasoned’ having spent hundreds of hours in galleries and edits but may lack the narrative detective skills that come from spending anywhere near as many hours in the living rooms of their contributors.   

Ed Coulthard
Managing director, Blast! Films

On one level single docs just don’t make sense. They’re perilous and unpredictable for broadcasters – and for production companies, they’re time-consuming and usually don’t make any money. It’s no surprise that in (slightly) more commercial broadcasting environments, like the US, they barely exist at all. Yet without them, to me at least, factual TV doesn’t make sense. It would be all Tesco’s and no Fortnum and Mason, all Amazon and no independent bookshops.  And of course they do make sense for indies too – not just in nurturing reputations and directors, but it’s where the innovative series like The Undateables or Gypsy Weddings came from.

Anna Miralis
Channel 4 commissioning editor, docs

Single docs work well for C4. The schedule can easily accommodate them and they are not crowded out by bigger series and formats. Docs connect with our viewers and they frequently deliver a large audience. Singles enable you to act quickly – to immediately jump on a story – or to access a diverse range of voices. In the past year I’ve commissioned films on everything from dogging, to social media stalkers, gypsy fighting to children behind bars. The appetite for singles works well with the channel’s different strands, first time directors in First Cut and a range of new and established talent in Cutting Edges and True Stories.

Tim Dams

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