Charlie Brades-Price, Development Executive, Arrow Media reports back from this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival on what’s happening in the world of Unscripted, with her top five takeaways.

Entering the lobby at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, delegates were hit by a wall of sound, as TV’s industry leaders gather for the biggest Edinburgh TV Festival to date. Now spread over four days, the iconic British industry event was this year back to its pre-pandemic strength.

But the buzz of excitement had an edge to it this year – with the UK commissioning market moving slower than ever and a record number of freelancers out of work, this crowd was out for answers.

So, what does it mean for indies and producers brimming with new ideas? In my fourth year at the festival, here are my top five takeaways from an unscripted Development Executive:

1) The Commissioning Slowdown

A hotly anticipated debate on who holds the power opened Wednesday at the festival, with over a hundred delegates unable to even get in the room. It’s a question asked every year at Edinburgh, usually in service of diversifying the industry and making it more accessible. But this year a film was shown in the session featuring freelancers who’ve taken second or third jobs to make ends meet and that set the tone for what has been anything but an ordinary year.

Each commissioning brief begins with the big question: why has commissioning slowed down? And when will things pick back up? Almost universally the answer is ‘we’re open for business’ or ‘spending more than ever’, but one broadcaster lies firmly in the firing line… Channel 4. Chief Content Officer Ian Katz reassures indies commissioning will be resumed before the end of the year, with briefings being held in September.

No one commissioner or channel can hold all the power in regard to freelancers’ livelihoods, but one thing is very clear, a mixture of the fewer, bigger, better ethos – now a mainstay in commissioning briefs – and spend budgets tightening, means that competition for commissions is harder than ever.

2) A-listers

Whether it’s David Beckham and Robbie Williams for Netflix, Brian Cox or Arsenal Football Club for Prime or Dua Lipa and Keanu Reeves for Disney+ – the appetite for the celebrity lead documentary doesn’t seem to be dimming. Since the advent of the new age of streaming, pay-for-television has always celebrated its big names as serving their subscribers, but this year linear television is bolstering the trend. But we are cautioned that there has to be a strong purpose when working with big-name talent. Poppy Dixon, Director, Documentaries and Factual for Sky UK, put it best: “What’s really important is genuine, intimate, unvarnished access – we’re not looking for puff pieces”.

With ITV previewing Grandslammers, a prison/rugby format featuring Johnny Wilkinson and the World Cup-winning team, Channel 4 also followed the trend with their jaw-dropping new format Banged Up, which featured celebrities serving time alongside convicted murderers. After a gruelling round of questions regarding the commissioning slow-down the room was in rapturous applause in seeing this new edgy offering. Whilst the terrestrials might not have the budget to pull in the biggest names in celeb-land the message is very clear – big names rate.

3) Risky Business

Closing the second day of the festival, beloved documentarian, and indie boss Louis Theroux delivered his MacTaggart lecture where he confronted the elephant in the room. Through a compelling and nuanced argument for television to stay risky, he tackled the creative question that has been underpinning the industry for some time now – the culture clash between the old-school PSBs and the seemingly unstoppable SVODs.

Theroux defended his legacy in making films about neo-Nazis, the alt-right and people whose views are increasingly being de-platformed, to make the argument that online, a guy with a camera phone can reach the same audience numbers as a well-funded broadcaster.

What Louis was referring to was editorial risk, offering up examples of his documentaries he believes would never be commissioned in today’s landscape. At a time when television can feel overwhelmingly commercial, he provided hope to the creatives in the audience, like me, who feel a little overwhelmed by the shiny new media landscape:

“I believe in the long run, it’s the truthful, sensitive storytelling that will last. It is on us, as programme makers, those of us who care about great television to be brave about telling stories that are compelling and that can fight for people’s attention.”

4) Algorithm commissioning

As ever, myth-busting was the order of the day as the streamers were put in the hot seat to talk through their current needs. Netflix – which famously keeps its data private – is often the centre of the algorithm question. For years the rumours have been that greenlights, and series renewals are decided by a high-tech computer, that spits out algorithms to create the perfect shows. Nothing is given a chance to find an audience or grow after success with the critics. This thankfully was confirmed by all the SVODs to be complete nonsense.

In a media industry currently tied up in ethical questions around AI and jobs being taken by computers, having this definitive answer can finally put to bed this myth. Like most commissioning teams across Terrestrial, decisions are being made by individuals in small teams to decide what’s best for their platform.

5) Creative storytelling is here to stay

Over my 15-year career, I’ve seen documentary and factual programmes evolve and shapeshift into the most premium and exciting offerings on television. If one thing was clear from this year’s Edinburgh festival, unscripted is an unstoppable force in the UK television industry. I lost count of the number of times speakers credit Britain with being the global industry leader in creating unscripted content for global audiences.

What strikes me about this success is the ever-evolving way we tell stories. Netflix’s massive hits Depp v Heard (co-pro with Channel 4) and the latest Wham documentary boldly let archive tell the story. Channel 4’s Partygate drama doc promises to make a huge impact this September, using the words in the infamous Sue Grey report alongside archive to bring this hidden story to life.

Not only do we need to pitch amazing ideas, with unique access but the bar is set incredibly high to deliver fresh and new ways to bring these stories to life for television.

As I leave the festival with a renewed sense of ambition to pitch the next hit TV show, I’m reminded of a quote from Louis’ MacTaggart lecture ‘Television is the most powerful art form known to mankind’. And everyone knows that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ (thank you Spiderman). It’s been a rocky year for the freelance community, but there are still a lot of important stories out there to be told, so let’s get to work and get things commissioned.


Pippa Considine

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