Televisual Factual Festival: Documentary TV remains vibrant and in good health, despite heavy competition from drama.

So said documentary commissioners speaking at the Televisual Factual Festival, who nevertheless underlined the need for docs that innovate and with scale that can compete in the new TV landscape.

Channel 4 head of documentaries Nick Mirsky admitted that on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon are starting to put pressure on factual departments in traditional broadcasters. “Somebody told me that 2m less people watching [terrestrial] TV last weekend than last year because The Crown was released.”

Platforms like Netflix are winning more subscribers, he admitted, many of whom are watching their dramas. “In some way that is scary, but it means we have to move the bar…We have had a golden period where documentaries are foregrounded on most channels, but competition is coming and we need to look out for it.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said ITV controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis. “And there is a hunger for the truth.” She said the best docs at ITV have to be as big in scale and as compelling and full of twists and turns as drama. She cited ITV hit Long Lost Family. “Some of those episodes could be a single drama – you couldn’t make them up.”

Channel 5 factual commissioning editor Guy Davies admitted that no factual show could compete with The Crown’s £100m budget. “In terms of factual output, we have to innovate and be fleet of foot. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

BBC acting head of documentaries commissioning Clare Sillery noted that docs can successfully borrow certain things from drama – such as scoring, storytelling devices and camera and lens technology.

She also underlined the need for documentary to reveal the complexities of modern life.

Tim Dams

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