The Sheffield DocFest Broadcast Commissioners panel heard from Channel 5 commissioning editor Denise Seneviratne.

Picking one of her favourite recent shows, Seneviratne named October Films’ Endurance: Race to the Pole with Ben Fogle and polar explorer Dwayne Fields, as “immersive… soft history, told in a different way through their experience.” She added Wife on Strike from Proper Content as “different… about domestic injustice …and it’s fun.”

What Channel 5 wants
“For Channel 5 you’ve got to have really broad appeal, recognisable, relatable,” said Seneviratne. Shows need to be informative, entertaining, but also feel not too much like homework.

Familiar is good, but that doesn’t mean that the audience need to be experts. Warship: Life At Sea is a returner.

There’s also a place for reputational documentary, such as Anorexic or The Abused.

In crime, “we want new documentaries where you can look at an issue and tell a story.” Crime and blue light work well on the channel – 999: Police Hour of Duty and Night Shift 999. And crime box sets.

Medical is another category that works well for Channel 5, such as 999: Critical Condition. Stories need to be compelling. With Critical Condition it’s a matter of life and death. “We’re looking for unique life-saving cases, and warts and all. We know that medical works for the channel.”

Talent-led travel ideas usually use established talent. The Channel 5 talent fold includes Michael Palin, Alexander Armstrong, Susan Calman, Jane Mcdonald, Jay Blades.

With talent, the channel looks to take known faces and give them a different brief. The Repair Shop’s Jay Blades becoming a soft historian is one example.

In history, they’re also looking at ideas that might strip across a week like The Great Smog.

At weekends there’s a focus on nostalgia. While Friday nights can be a place for the bucolic, like Worlds Most Scenic Railway Journeys, 5 is trying to find the next thing instead of royals on Saturday night. “What is our new thing on a Saturday where people can sit back, enjoy, get information, but is also a real treat?” asks Seneviratne.

The Channel 5 audience has been growing and moving to a more ABC1 profile. “Maybe we have to shift the dial a bit and give our audience what they want.”

In the immediate future, Channel 5 is looking for new access, with a great entry point, not too niche. Obdocs that could run at 9pm on a Saturday, or weekdays. “We know crime works, so does farming and animals. What else could we do to develop those stories that we know our audience loves?”

Cause of Death has been recommissioned. The show starts with a body and has access to a coroner. “We look at what’s working and see how can we get a different way into that area.”

While the Channel 5 audience is in the UK, with large audiences in Scotland and the North East, it will still look at international stories. It has had success with Air Crash: Disaster Revealed or Alexander Armstrong in Sri Lanka. Often it’s talent that takes audiences to international stories.

Channel 5 is also commissioning cross-platform, with Paramount +. The US true crime story behind Pervert: Hunting the Strip Search Caller was an early example. “We do a lot of true crime and this was a crime story but not with dead bodies,” says Seneviratne. “We’re looking for more.”

Pippa Considine

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