Factual features producers are using new shapes and tones and borrowing from other genres along the way to create a new generation of features hits. Jon Creamer reports

The big hitters of features TV have been around for a long while now.

IWC Media’s Location, Location, Location is 14 years old, Boundless’s Grand Designs has clocked up 15 years on our screens as has the BBC’s DIY SOS. Keo Films’ River Cottage brand is now 16 years old and who wouldn’t bet on The Great British Bake Off being around for some time yet.

The talent that sticks in features tends to stick around for a long time too. Alan Titchmarsh, who fronts Spun Gold’s Love Your Garden on ITV has been on screen since the early 80s. And then there’s Kirstie and Phil, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein…

And it’s perhaps partly because the centre ground of features is so well occupied, that commissioners and producers alike are looking more to the edges of the genre, trying to find new shapes and new approaches.

“We need to be brave at the BBC,” says the corporation’s head of commissioning for factual features and formats, Alison Kirkham. “It’s very easy to commission something that feels nine degrees from what’s working on the channel already but the audience don’t reward that in my experience. I would love to be pitched more ideas that are unusual and unexpected. For me one of the standout hits of the past few years is Gogglebox. It works for a number of reasons but also it presents differently, the shape is different and the audience respond to that.”

Because there’s a sense that tackling features subjects in the traditional way isn’t good enough any more. “We’re having most success with a twist on the standard features genre,” says Neil Smith, creative director at Betty. “We’re still looking at the same areas – property, consumer, food, dating etc. But we’re borrowing from other genres so the delivery genre is not features, it’s not your standard presenter/reveal show.” He points to Betty’s recent property show for BBC2, Under Offer: Estate Agents On the Job. “There’s plenty of property porn in it but it’s done as ob doc” as well as Channel 4’s Shop Secrets “a consumer show which we did as hidden camera with stunts.” Upcoming C4 show Best Chef, Worst Chef will have “access to amazing restaurants and chefs but will be a formatted doc.”

Keo Film’s md Debbie Manners is similarly trying to mix and match. “We’re trying to look at things that sit across more than one genre, that aren’t in the traditional, obvious space.” Keo’s Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s last piece was Scandimania, a mix not just of just food programming but travel and culture too in a doc style. “It feels as if we need some new ideas and approaches to the way we make factual TV,” says Manners. “Some of what we’re trying to do is access driven features. You can use certain forms of access as a window into different types of features like property or food.”

That mix and match mentality is coming through over at Outline too, says creative director, Helen Veale. But instead of new takes on traditional genre areas “the target is thinking of other areas where you can bring a features sensibility.” Outline has a broadcast pilot in with the BBC, So You Think You Can Drive? about bad drivers. “We’ve taken an area that’s been done before in terms of documentary and character, but we’ve brought a features sensibility to it. It’s got all the great characters and entertainment you might get from a Driving School doc but we’re coming at it from a features slant [Dom Littlewood and Cherry Healey will present] so there’s going to be that take home for the viewers as well.” 

For Veale, that doc territory is a fertile ground for features. “It’s interesting to see where the crossover is between documentary and features and how you can get a little bit more structured learning into things that have previously been a doc territory” or conversely “where you can get unfolding character into things that have previously been a features territory.”

Though the single presenter to camera style isn’t going anywhere soon, there’s also a move to more ensemble cast for features shows, says Betty’s Smith. “We’ve been moving more to ensembles and finding our talent there.” He points to Estate Agents and upcoming Best Chef, Worst Chef in which a different café cook will learn from a different Michelin starred chef each week. “We’re using six Michelin starred chefs rather than one to present it.” Every commissioner’s current favourite Gogglebox is another example. “It’s an easier launch for the channel as they don’t have to pin their hopes on one person fronting a whole series.” And also individuals can then be plucked from the ensemble to front their own shows later on. “Mr Drew’s School for Boys is a parenting show as a fact ent proposition. And he came from another show where he wasn’t a presenter either.”

It could be argued that features programming has gone through one big change already. When the recession hit a few years back, features based on profligate spending, and unashamed property porn in particular, suddenly started to look less relevant.

And although there’s a feeling that the country is climbing out of the worst of it, the impact of the recession can still be felt in features. George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and The House that £100k Built are post recession shows whereas Grand Designs is resolutely not. 

But says the BBC’s Kirkham, features shows must still feel aspirational. “Make do and mend can feel quite depressing. The Great Interior Design Challenge and others are aspirational recession shows. They demonstrate that even in periods where the economy is tight, people still have dreams and want to be able to realise their dreams beautifully. I was struck by a piece of audience research that said the desire to own a house increased during periods of recession.”

Features shows must reflect the economic mood of the nation, and while that mood isn’t as desperate as a couple of years ago, “people are still budget conscious,” says Betty’s Smith. “In Estate Agents we managed to smuggle in high-end property porn because we were jumping on the backs of people selling £80m property in Mayfair or estates in Scotland. But on traditional features, everyone has budgets on their minds. I don’t think we’ve come out of recession thinking ‘yeah, we’re rich.’ Cautious optimism is where we are in development for property. But it hasn’t affected food shows. Britain is more confident as a food nation than ever before.”

The recession seems to have kicked off a return to simple pleasures. “When life’s getting more expensive and we’re worrying how to make ends meet, people want to know how we can do things more cheaply ourselves like baking bread or growing veg,” says Spun Gold’s creative director Daniela Neumann. “But also it’s nice to go home and see beautiful things and watch artisans make these beautiful things. It’s food porn, craft porn. It’s eye candy too.”

But even as recession recedes, that desire for simpler pleasures isn’t going anywhere soon, says Outline’s Helen Veale. “It may well have been the recession that prompted that feeling but it’s enjoyable, it’s nice exploring those good things with traditional values. It’s wholesome and people like that.”

Outline has seen success with The Great British Garden Revival and The Great British Food Revival and, says Veale, those shows are part of a rich seam within features TV. “We struck a chord with the Revival strand.” Viewers are keen to “look back at things we may have lost, knowledge that our grandparents and parents had that we have lost touch with.” And that’s shown both in Revival and in Bake Off, Sewing Bee and The Big Allotment Challenge, says Veale. “There is still a thirst for that. I don’t think everyone wants to learn to be a Victorian chimney sweep, but in unsettled times, we find comfort in the simplicity of that older, traditional knowledge and there is more scope in development of that.”

And that feeling ties in with a desire for authenticity, even within formatted shows. “There’s still an appetite for formatted shows and constructed shows but ones where people are in a real environment as opposed to taking a group of people who just want to be on TV,” says Spun Gold’s Neumann. “In Bake Off those people are genuinely passionate about what they do. It’s about finding those people and tapping in to what those great British passions are.”

In factual TV in general, the talk is of a move from heavy formatting and towards ‘authenticity.’ “Audiences want more unmediated formats now,” says Channel 4’s head of factual entertainment, Liam Humphreys. “They want something a bit more observed rather than a heavily formatted show hitting all the traditional beats over the course of an hour’s makeover. You need to make it as authentic as possible and hide the hand of the producer.”

But then over in the US, there’s a move from observed character led features to more formatting, says Betty’s Neil Smith. “It’s interesting that we’re moving towards character led shows here. They’ve been doing that for features in the US for some time but interestingly now they’re looking more towards formats. A couple that have really broken recently are 90-day Fiancé and Naked and Afraid – a relationship show in the wild. Normally they want ‘character led, character led, family business’ but now they’re saying they want some old fashioned formats.” Perhaps the wheel is turning back once again.

UK commissioners: what they want
Alison Kirkham, BBC head of commissioning, factual features and formats
“On both channels I’m looking to push more into 9pm, to try to bring a different sensibility to our features output. We want more fact ent formats. The Gift is coming up from Wall to Wall that I hope will do that.
Also I’d love to commission more moments for the channel – I’m looking for the next generation of events for BBC2 that could be stripped across the week.
I’d be really keen to find some more specialist factual formats for BBC2 at 9pm like Who Do You Think You Are? and The Choir .
We need to be brave at the BBC. I would urge people to pitch shows that are not in various iterations on lots of channels. I’d love to see things that aren’t on UK TV at the moment.
I don’t think we’re ever done with competitions. There’s an appetite for them. But can we produce competitions that sit more authentically in the real world?
I’m keen to see more new, unexpected talent especially on BBC2. If you have talent you really believe in, I’m always keen to look at them and we’ll grow shows around them together.”

Liam Humphreys, C4, head of factual entertainment
“We’ve had success with male skewing factual features. Traditionally we do skew slightly female in the features space. Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home was the first time we’ve dipped our toe in and thought ‘can we do something more male?’ Gadget Man has been a fresh take on the factual features space. It’s playing with what you’d expect from a factual features format. It’s a slight parody of it. 
What you have is a lifestyle presenter who finds aspects of life quite challenging. That’s quite refreshing rather than have someone mediate everything and tell you what to do and what not to do. There are people who do a great job for the channel and will do for a long time, but some of the challenges are around lifestyle presenters telling people how to live their lives when audiences want more unmediated formats now, something a bit more observed, a lightly formatted approach rather than hitting all the traditional beats over the course of an hour’s makeover.
The Island set up a construct then let everything play out. There’s a real need for authenticity. The more format we can take out and hide the better.”

Richard Watsham, UKTV director of commissioning
“We’ve reprioritised our commissioning spend towards the entertainment channels. We used to commission across Home and Good Food, Yesterday and Eden. Now we’ll still do that kind of programing but it will come through the entertainment channels first – Dave, Watch, Gold are the three channels commissioning. Any lifestyle content, because it’s going to premiere on one of those channels, will need to have more of an entertainment slant.
Don’t underestimate our sense of ambition. There are lots of ways of giving a show scale. It could be through talent or geography or through doing something no one ever seen before. It’s a case of being unique rather than distinctive. Distinctive isn’t really good enough for us. Creatively that’s a good thing, it forces us to take more risk and therefore come up with more interesting, unusual projects.”

Jon Creamer

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