Several themes emerged from the commissioning panels at Sheffield Doc/Fest this week.

Firstly, there’s a real demand for programming where there is minimal
construct, where the hand of the producer is as hidden as possible and the
narrative unpredictable.

Channel 4 series The Island with Bear Grylls is widely admired and Channel 4
head of factual entertainment Liam Humphreys is keen to see more shows where
the idea feels open and unmediated. Bringing the crew out from behind the
camera is also seen as an interesting way of keeping things raw.

As part of the same trend for unmediated factual shows, the current thinking is that presenters can get in the way of a good story. Although no-one is denying that presenters are fundamental to so much factual programming, BBC head of commissioning for arts Mark Bell felt moved to declare, "I’m not afraid of presenters."

The arts commissioners are all eager to see the creative process unfold on
screen (with the help of a bit of super sizing): "I’d rather see how
something happens than listen to how something happens," said director of
Sky Arts Phil Edgar-Jones. "Opening up the bonnet of the book, rather than
telling you what the book is about," said Mark Bell, referring to shows that bring
books to life, such as Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball.

Emma Willis, head of documentaries for BBC One, Two and Four, continues her
fashionably unfashionable call for new formats, spurred on by Channel 4 hit
Gogglebox. And Jo Clinton-Davis, ITV director of factual, made sure
that she didn’t miss out: "something will come along that has a great deal
of artifice and construct and the pendulum will swing back."

Channel 4 confirmed that its specialist factual strategy is to focus on live
and event programming, such as the well-received Live from Space
extravaganza with NASA. "Inside Nature’s Giants we hoped would go on for
ever, but we ran out of big animals," said David Glover, head of specialist
factual, Channel 4, who is now providing a counterpoint to the big
documentary series on the channel.

BBC One, as ever, is on the hunt for shows with scale at 8 and 9pm. The
latest advice from the BBC to indies looking to pitch to the corporation is
to pretend that they are pitching to BBC One, says Willis. There’s a big
need for great ideas at eight and nine on BBC One, but producers are
overawed. So don’t be.

Pippa Considine

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