Speaking at the Broadcast Commissioners session at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Channel 4 head of Documentary Alisa Pomeroy was keen to update the audience on Channel 4 factual, after being new in post at last year’s DocFest, as part of a restructure of Documentaries commissioning at the broadcaster.

Asked to name a recent show that has worked well for the channel, she singled out 141 Productions’ My Dead Body, commissioned by Anna Miralis: “It does everything a Channel 4 doc should do…Nearly a million watched it at 10 o’clock on linear. It’s told us people still want to watch difficult stuff and young people. It doesn’t have to all be light and fluffy.”

Addressing the concerns of the factual production community about the reduction in commissioning, she said: “There are big macro-economic factors, and a downturn in the ad market, which means there’s a slowdown at the moment.” But she insisted that in documentary, with commissioning happening twelve to 18 months ahead “we are really lucky…We’re well placed to weather that storm.” That said, they are currently focusing on development, with plans for detailed briefings in September.

She did give several heads up.

“We’re going to be doing a really big push for singles,” said Pomeroy. “In an increasingly crowded marketplace singles can have tremendous impact.” She cited Patrick Forbes’ feature doc The Price of Truth, from Oxford Films, commissioned by Sacha Mirzoeff.

“We’ve seen over the last year that a lot of directors we lost to streamers have come back to us,” said Pomeroy. “They want to see their films back on Channel 4, they don’t want them to be lost in an algorithm.”

Another push is planned into “spiky investigative series, like Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime.”

And the channel is also looking for ways to talk about the modern world, major issues such as the cost of living crisis, the Ukraine war. “I’m fascinated by AI and this existential threat to humanity,” said Pomeroy.

What’s been working well?
Having doubled down on Channel 4 core values while the threat of privatisation was still extant, the channel has seen the power of focus. “The things that are working on Channel 4 are the things that only Channel 4 could do,” she said.

Around the Coronation two shows stood out: Frankie Boyle’s Farewell to the Monarchy, from Two Rivers Media and Andrew: The problem Prince, produced by Candle True Stories and Bitachon365. “They did really well for us because Channel 4 is there to provide an alternative.” Similarly, the Jeremy Kyle documentary, “I don’t think any other broadcaster would touch that story.”

In the pipeline is a two-part documentary about Kevin Spacey, from Kira Phillips and Roast Beef Productions. And The Real AC 12, a three-parter from Story Films that has been cooking since 2020. “They will both unsettle and unturn stones that a lot of people don’t want to touch and that’s where we’re at our best.”

One recent documentary commission – Consent, about rap culture in schools – was made as dramatic reconstruction, owing to the need for anonymity for the young people featured.

What makes Channel 4 documentaries original?
“We take a slightly different, left field approach.” Pomeroy cites how Channel 4 used the story of Jade Goody to tell the story of the noughties. Announced earlier this year, half doc, half drama Partygate the True Story (w/t) is in production with Halcyon Hearts. “It goes close to the bone, speaks truth to power.”

She hinted at upcoming productions with “really breathtaking access” and played a clip from Evacuation – a new three-parter from Wonderhood about the evacuation of Kabul airport, as “a case in point. They were given access all areas to all levels of the MoD.” It’s also innovative in its form. “It’s a military box set that unfolds second by second.”

Janine Thomas has recently returned to Channel 4 from Sky as a commissioner in Documentary. She is working on bringing new talent to the screen. Pomeroy named Yinka Bokinni and Alice Levine, saying:  “Watch this space, we’re currently developing with a few new names.”

There are also opportunities for breaking new stories with established faces, but that’s very story dependent, “we’re not looking for established faces.”

The channel continues to be really open to co pros, “it’s really good to be inventive with revenue streams,” said Pomeroy.

Pippa Considine

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