At the recent Sheffield Doc Fest, both Nat Geo International commissioners and Paramount + commissioners explained to producers their upcoming programming needs.

Here’s a snapshot of what they said:

Nat Geo international commissioners Simon Raikes and Carolyn Payne walked through how some of their biggest shows have changed from their linear incarnation, to appeal to the online audience.

The Nat Geo service goes to 171 countries, in 43 languages and reaches 400 million homes.

The Nat Geo global team is based in the US and is focused, at the moment, on adventure commissions, expensive, stardust-sprinkled shows like Running Wild with Bear Grylls and Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, big ticket, tentpoles.

The international team, based in the UK, is looking to complement the US content. “What we try to do is to encapsulate the core Nat Geo DNA, but with less of a focus on adventure…. shows that have a curiosity about the world…somehow exploratory,” says Raikes. “Most of it takes place outdoors, we don’t do much in urban settings…. It’s people out and about doing things.”

Increasingly, shows that are ordered by the international team will find their way onto Disney +. Any pitches need to bear this in mind. The audience is younger, more family-focused and more mixed male and female, than the older, more male-skewed Nat Geo audience.

Formats aren’t welcome, unless they are hidden, “and you can’t see the hand of the producer,” says Raikes. Singles do get commissioned, but not many. Unlike other streamers, they don’t go in for limited series. The big business is in returnable franchises, ideally running for 6, 7, 8 seasons.

To get the right idea made, with high production values, they are rarely looking for all rights. Mostly, they don’t want US rights and co-production is frequent, including with competitors.

Shows that have worked really well include Lost Treasures of Egypt, the From Above franchise, Dutch Caribbean Coastguard and Locked Up Abroad. Air Crash Investigation, Hitler’s Last Stand, Narco Wars are also hits.

Solid subject areas are history, ancient history, archaeology, World War 2, engineering, science and space. “We’re constantly looking for new talent and new precincts, new forms that allow us to explore the subject areas our audience loves to watch,” says Raikes. “The audience can see something familiar on the epg, but then get a welcome surprise.”

The shift from linear has led to a reassessment, “to think quite deeply about form and story-telling,” says Raikes. “In the past Nat Geo has made really good shows, but they felt led by a specialist factual mindset, educational, didactic, a degree of homework.” Facing into 2022, “presenter is a dirty word…We want to go on a journey with a host and sit on their shoulder,” he says. “Frankly, we’re looking for thrillers, character-led stories, really compelling. Docs in a specialist factual space.”

Payne describes how Nat Geo’s Primal Survivor has been reinvented for Disney+ for its most recent series, instead of each episode located in a different country, the series took one country and visited different environments. “The series narrative arc has a destination which gives people a reason to stay,” says Payne. It’s been one of the most successful launches on Disney+

Drain the Oceans, now in season five, is another show that’s had a facelift. “The first runs felt in the context of the new landscape slightly old fashioned, top down, voice over-led and slightly specialist factual feel to it,” says Raikes. “The talking heads became the protagonists and the heroes of their own stories” Commentary has been stripped out and the individual stories have to have “a real grab to them…it has to be unmissable.”

Lost Treasures of Egypt is also following discoveries on the shoulders of archaeologists. The show is being rolled out in other territories, “it’s an effortlessly diverse set of interesting characters” says Payne.

Europe from Above has added dynamism by moving through seasons and using clever drone photography, mapping scenes with shots taken at different times, to reveal a dramatic change in the same scenery. It’s also getting a World War 2 version, using the same treatment and mapping scenes onto archive of war-time aerial reconnaissance. And for that Disney+ audience, Europe at Christmas aims to appeal to the shift in viewer profile. ”Now we have a family audience on Disney+, to do something a little shmaltzy on Nat Geo, something warm and family, we can really go for that now,” says Payne.

 

Meanwhile the commissioners for Channel 5 and Paramount+ set out their factual stall, with 15 hours left to fill in 2022 and then rolling commissioning going forward. Mostly premium factual, but some lower budget.

Perhaps the most significant thing about this new-to-the-UK streamer is that it is only looking for UK rights. It’s the only PSB with a global streamer attached. There’s a dedicated factual Paramount+ budget, but the Channel 5 team is doubling up for Paramount+ commissioning, so there’s a natural gravitation towards UK ideas, if not located in Britain, then with a British documentary sensibility and approach.

“While we have buckets of subject areas that might seem similar to other streamer, the key thing for us is to have the feel of what we do with UK commissioning and bring that to the commissioning,” says VP, factual Guy Davies.

The demographic for Paramount+ is younger. They are looking for more reality and deep dive documentary, with directors who know how to handle scale. Co-production is a given and All3Media and Endeavor are key partners.

If the show is talent-led it probably has to be big talent, giving an international dimension and definitely requiring scale and co-production funding. Fremantle is in production on a big story about a particular talent, which will run to four, or even six, episodes.

VP Unscripted Kit Morey showed a casting tape for upcoming Blowing LA from Fulwell 73 “a brilliant five minutes of extraordinary talent,” featuring two uber, hairdresser, gay couples. It promises shades of Selling Sunset. Paramount UK chief content officer Ben Frow’s love of a snappy title is in play. The original title LA Hairdressers became Blowing LA, (with potential for Blowing Miami, Blowing New York etc). Morey says, “more of that please.”

Curve Media has two series for the streamer, Chalet Girls and Hot Yachts. The latter is Miami-based and another idea that came with an irresistible casting tape. American stories seem to have come out on top, but Davies insists “what we’re after is universally appealing, they may be UK-based, or not. This is the kind of story that feels big, glossy, and when you’re on a streaming platform it’s about getting that feel.”

True crime box-set Pervert: Catching the Strip Search Caller is another US-based story, from UK indie Wage Entertainment. It continues the trend of hoax and con stories. A whodunnit, with twists and turns, cliff-hangers and an investigative feel, it unearthed 144 cases across ten years. Wag pitched it to another streamer first, then mentioned it to Channel 5/ Paramount+ commissioner Denise Seneviratne. It’s now a co-production.

Four-parter Haunted features in-depth investigations of four of the most famous cases of paranormal activity in British and American history. With familiar stories and contributors, producer Story Films is focused on delivering a fresh approach to the stories, combining testimony with archival and dramatic re-enactments.

There’s also room for stranger than truth stories, which might overlap with true crime. Girl Taken is a feature doc, based on a South African story of a girl, snatched at birth, who surfaces at the same school as her sister.

Lucy Willis talked about Fashion House, a Lambent production. Both Willis and Frow began their careers in fashion. It’s a three parter: one on Burberry; another Versace; and a third, Gucci. Finding a clear storyline has been the challenge. For Burberry, it was the chrysalis transformation from old-fashioned moth to contemporary clothing butterfly.

There are a few lower budget ideas in production, including a fully-funded series in the rom come genre, inspired by The Tinder Swindler.

Pippa Considine

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