At the recent Sheffield Doc Fest, the factual commissioners from the PSBs were setting out their programming needs for the months and years ahead.
The session featured Alisa Pomeroy, head of Documentaries, Channel 4; Poppy Dixon, Director Documentaries & Factual, Sky UK; Kate Teckman, Factual commissioner, ITV; Clare Sillery, head Documentary commissioning BBC and Guy Davies, commissioning editor, VP, Factual, Channel 5 and Paramount+.
Here’s a snapshot of what they said:
Alisa Pomeroy, head of Documentaries, Channel 4:
We have the spectre of privatisation looming over us. In some respects, it’s been bizarrely energising. There’s nothing like the threat to your existence to sharpen your thinking. We’ve thought a lot about remit, we need to reflect modern British life and concerns in way that’s innovative, takes risks, to tell stories in a way that other people won’t, including stories with really difficult compliance.
Channel 4 has a big spectrum of shows, from The Dog House, to Grenfell: The Untold Story. Shaminder Nahal (head of Specialist Factual) has recently commissioned access films that relate to the Ukraine crisis.
The sweet spot is where there’s impact and audience. 24 Hours in Police Custody and mini -series, like The Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime, do brilliantly in terms of impact. Jeremy Kyle got good overnights and All 4 figures, huge young viewers and generated press and critical acclaim.
We do go for past-tense, box set TV, Spacey Unmasked (w/t) and Miriam: Death of a Reality Star. I don’t think it’s a deep pockets issue, because there are funding options.
As a public service broadcaster, we need to reclaim a space for present tense, observational film making. I have an anxiety that we, as public service broadcasters, have slightly migrated to those sort of streamer shows. We need to tell present tense films about Britain. Not just crime, but it’s a big challenge to get people to watch those quieter, observational pieces we used to make loads of. You need to have a grabby headline. Coming up is a Blast series, Night Coppers, a new approach to blue flashing light territory.
We have a journalistic and moral imperative to reflect the cost-of-living crisis. One approach is to tell the story through access to a low-cost supermarket, a familiar brand. We just have to be cleverer, and people will come to those pieces.
There are a lot of single films in the pipeline. They need to make headlines, have unusual access.
Privatisation is a time when we need to be doing our best work. We’ve been overwhelmed by support from the industry.
Favourite show on Channel 4? The Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on daytime
Shows to admire on another channel? Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, Sky; Warship, Channel 5
Poppy Dixon, Director Documentaries & Factual, Sky UK
We’re looking for original, deep dive looks at something that may be familiar. Our audiences like to know a little bit about what they’re going into, but we want to peel back layers. We prefer stories that have some link to the UK, but if it’s a really great story we’re going to commission it.
Mother Teresa: For the love of God goes darker and deeper. Liverpool Narcos is a regional story, a 360 look at drugs and the impact on people, a retrospective, but told in a live, dynamic way. It can relate to anyone in any city around the country.
Icons: we’re looking for more big feature docs, or it could even be a series, about an icon we know and love, but haven’t had that privileged look. We’ve focused on people at the end of their life, or career, or who have passed away. At the moment, we’re interested in people at their peak, a story which will stand the test of time but speaks to this moment in their life, which is worth honing in on, is significant. Both about them and with them.
Sky Documentaries is two years old. We’re pleased with numbers and audience engagement
In terms of success, we look at 28-day numbers, audience engagement. Have people stuck with a show? There’s a Sky top 10 channels metric. And awards, we had our first Bafta, for cinematography on Liverpool Narcos.
It’s helpful if ideas come with a filmmaker attached, you can look at previous work or see their vision in the treatment. sometimes it really pays off to take a punt, such as first-time director Sophie Cunningham’s film Look Away.
The greatest learning for me has been more about titles and key art and how we’re presenting the project – I’m learning that we need to be a little more on the nose. With Devil’s Advocate: The Mostly True Story of Giovanni Di Stefano, I wonder whether people saw that on the epg and thought it’s the Keanu Reeves film. Or Look Away…I’m not sure people knew what that film was about.
Favourite show on Sky? Liverpool Narcos
Show to admire on another channel? – The Tinder Swindler, Netflix; Navalny, BBC
Kate Teckman, Factual commissioner, ITV:
Documentary and factual entertainment: we really like to mix the two up. The Real Full Monty, or Harry’s Heroes, slightly formatted docs that range from true crime through to the lighter, like The Savoy.
We want broad audiences and British stories.
We’re launching our streaming service later this year and that has changed what we’re looking for. There’s more factual, more documentary, more box set. It’s a little bit of recalibration and there are new areas we’re looking to get into.
Ideas do need to have purpose. Ghislaine, the Prince and the Paedophile is a story of our time, incredibly tabloid but incredibly important. We wanted to tell the stories of the women, to follow the story as it happened. Finding Derek certainly wasn’t a celebrity vehicle, it was an important story of our time.
We are increasingly looking for box set. Starting with an authentic question and telling interesting stories, over two or three hours.
For ITV2, Social Media Murders was anthologised, mainly working with small indie production companies, who got access. We felt it was an important story of our times. It is a wild west; people are dying who hook up on social media. We will be doing more anthologies of stories.
The big threats? We’re all feeling the march of the streamers, with their huge budgets. And there’s the threat of not having alternatives, refreshing with new ideas.
With ITVX, we still want broad, popular subjects but now they can appeal to a more targeted audience. A Year on Planet Earth is a blockbuster, natural history series from Plimsoll, massive scale. We want to be doing more, unexpected, big scale… box set, crime series, con series, scaled up. There’s going to be more factual for a younger audience, such as reality series Olivia Meets Her Match about Olivia Attwood. More of that please.
Favourite show on ITV? Finding Derek
Show to admire on another channel? The Tinder Swindler, Netflix
Clare Sillery, head Documentary commissioning BBC
We are now iPlayer first commissioning: not so much thinking what channel is this going to work for, we ask about who is this for? If they’ve been told the story this way before, we should be surfacing archive on iPlayer.
How do we measure success? We look at 30-day numbers on things. That’s the early tail. Increasingly, with iPlayer, things will get a second wind. With the [Ghislaine Maxwell] sentencing, the House of Maxwell will get another wind.
The sweet spot is if it works for both the channel and iPlayer. The big brands have to work on the channel and on iPlayer. A brand like Ambulance or Who Do You Think You Are, on iPlayer you watch one at a time, whereas something like The Detectives you’ll probably watch the next episode. Unusually, Murder 24/7 is built to be stripped on BBC Two and then we create a box set for iPlayer.
You can see from our showreel, there’s quite a lot of testimony. I think it’s important we have more actuality now we’re out of lockdown.
There’s lots of different ways to skin a cat. It doesn’t have to be past tense testimony for a box set. Detectives was three years in the making, it’s an incredibly compelling box set. We have authored box sets, such as Mobeen Azhar on BBC Three.
When we are commissioning for a younger audience for One and Two, rather than Three, it’s better to go broad – Sort Your Life Out and Ambulance, Murder 24/7. In general, we want to go broad modern mainstream (lower socio-economic groups) and will also bring in younger.
Favourite show on the BBC? High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule, BBC Three; Uprising, BBC One; Our Falkland’s War: A Frontline Story, BBC Two
Shows to admire on another channel? 24 Hours in Police Custody, Channel 4, Long Lost Family, ITV
Guy Davies, commissioning editor, VP, Factual, Channel 5 and Paramount+
We’re the only PSB linked to a global streamer. We’re looking for box sets, feature docs… the streamer menu, for Paramount+.
Terrestrial TV doesn’t feel creative enough. Maybe, with the pandemic, we’ve been making too many series about people walking around Britain. We want to keep all the blue light. But what else?
In terms of documentary commissioning, we slowed down when we could have sped up. That area of big, noisy, social issue – feature documentaries The Abused, The Accused, Suicidal: In our Own Words – we haven’t done for a year or more, Covid stopped the commissioning. We’ve got more of those coming, we’re getting back into that area.
We need more observational documentary. There are the two ends of ob docs. Critical condition is high concept, then it’s different at 8 o’clock, where Police Interceptors does one million. Those shows and Inside the Force 24/7 do have higher purpose, but couched as approachable, viewer enticing. We’ve got plenty of police and medical ob doc. And we’ve got The Queen’s Guards and Warships. But there’s more opportunity in ob doc, we’re also interested in a different kind of ob doc.
We’ve made bit of our own thing on Sunday night, Happy Campers and Bargain loving Brits in the Sun. …slightly Channel 5 in a cheeky way, celebratory. Now we’ve ordered 80 for daytime, so it’s become a soap.
You don’t mess with daytime, we’re gingerly commissioning summer reboots, like Cash in the Attic. Is there more of that daytime reality, like Bargain loving Brits?
Talent has become more important as the channel has grown. Five years ago, no one wanted to work with Channel 5; now, everyone wants to work with Channel 5.
Inside Chernobyl with Ben Fogle: putting Ben into it made it feel different. It did mega numbers, 2.5 million live. is there a way we can use Ben and have a bit of the feel of Louis Theroux… where we can send him? There’s also Michael Palin: Into Iraq. It will be interesting to see if we can take the audience into new places with someone they know.
Favourite show on Channel 5? Suicidal: In Our Own Words
Show to admire on another channel? Navalny, BBC; American Murder: The Family Next Door, Netflix
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