This week’s Televisual Factual Festival underlined how the factual television business continues to enjoy something of a golden age.

It is, after all, an era when factual comes in all shapes and sizes, from traditional ob docs like 56Up, through to huge rig shows like 24 Hours in A&E, stunts such as Plane Crash, UGC docs like Our War and cgi spectaculars like Discovery’s upcoming Strip the City.

And the Festival confirmed that there is still huge demand for factual content made by British filmmakers and production companies, from UK terrestrial broadcasters, digital channels, international operations such as Discovery, Nat Geo and A+E Networks, as well as the US networks.

There were, of course, voices arguing that the growth of the factual business hasn’t all been for the best, with profits often being put ahead of passion, an insatiable appetite for talent to front every kind of show, a factory line mentality that churns out returning series and fears that long-running series were crowding out original filmmaking.

For example, David Glover, senior commissioning editor of factual at Channel 4, said: “In the time that I have been in TV, production companies and producers have become more about business – they are more interested in big returnable brands and series and more professionalised. That is not necessarily bad thing. But it is a bit more cynical.”

Boundless managing director Patrick Holland noted that commissioning editors are still terrified of anything new – but “as soon as anything gets traction they say let’s get 40 of them.”

But a session with the UK’s top documentary commissioners agreed that overall it is a good time for the industry, with chair John Willis, the group creative director of Tinopolis, describing documentaries as the “most resilient and imaginative genre on television.” BBC head of documentaries Charlotte Moore concurred, saying that “things are going really well for documentaries.”

Rapid advances in camera and editing technology are helping to push the genre forward. Smaller and cheaper digital cameras are bringing documentaries closer to real life while desktop editing allows a much faster turnaround of programmes.

C4’s deputy head of documentaries Nick Mirsky said: “Technology and imagination can take us closer and closer to human experience.”

Perhaps reflecting the unease with so many heavily formatted shows on TV, the documentary commissioners said they were looking for authentic programmes that are about peoples’ lives today.

Celia Taylor, head of factual and features at Sky1HD, said that commissioners were looking to move the documentary genre on. She said she felt “slightly jaded” at any evidence of the “hand of the producer” to manipulate shows. 

The BBC’s Moore said viewers no longer wanted to feel manipulated and that they are after storytelling that reflects back on their own lives. “People are quite hungry for authenticity and raw immediacy,” she said, citing docs like Our War and The Secret History of Our Streets.

ITV head of popular factual Jo Clinton-Davies picked out the Up series as an example of viewer appetite for truthful, quality documentaries that has been evident for over 50 years, most recently in 56 Up.  “The innovative thing about that programme was its internal truth. When you push the documentary form you have got to make sure it complements and enhances the content."

However, the diversity of factual film-making was very much celebrated at the Festival. Award-winning film-maker Mandy Chang (The Mona Lisa Curse, The Camera That Changed the World) acknowledged that “a mixed economy” of series and singles is a good thing. “It works in nature, why not for television?” she said.

ITV’s director of factual Alison Sharman said that single docs should not necessarily hold the moral high ground compared to long running series. She cited hit drama Homeland, pointing out that long running shows allow characters to reveal themselves more and viewers to understand them better.

In the end, Sharman said “audiences just want a great story.” And the best way to find filmmakers who can tell great stories, she said, is to weigh up their passion for a project.  “It’s all about people’s passions.”

Meanwhile, there was a strong sense that the success of British producers internationally, in particular America, has honed their business skills.

The US market is one of sizzle tapes, tough negotiations, market research, agents, lawyers, leverage – and rapid production to prevent ideas being ripped off.

“Unlike Britain, there are no terms of trade so every sale is a different deal,” said Studio Lambert chief executive Stephen Lambert. “In America it very difficult to sell a paper idea, unlike in Britain…You have to have your idea worked out and a tape to show for it. And then you go and show it to everyone. Buyers know that you are off to sell to someone else right after they have seen you.”

As evidence of the increasingly international outlook of British producers, Nutopia executive producer Ben Goold said that to succeed in the US, producers have to immerse themselves in the culture. “You’ve got to start thinking like an American, you’ve got to read American papers and magazines.”

Indeed, a consistent theme of the Festival was how the British factual production sector has become much more resourceful, entrepreneurial and international in outlook – even in the six years since the event has been running. This was on show throughout Festival with articulate and informed speakers discussing issues such as co-production, alternative funding, multiplatform, the US market and talent deals.

Little wonder that Channel 4’s chief creative officer Jay Hunt could confidently assert at the Festival that factual is a much more robust genre than most others today.

You can find further coverage of the Festival via the following links:
C4’s Jay Hunt on factual
What factual entertainment commissioners want
BBC4’s Richard Klein on factual
What documentary commissioners want
What international channels want

Tim Dams

Share this story

Share Televisual stories within your social media posts.
Be inclusive: is open access without the need to register.
Anyone and everyone can access this post with minimum fuss.