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.

Pippa Considine

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