With the annual Televisual Factual Festival soon to kick off next month (November 13-14), Pippa Considine takes a look at how specialist factual has embraced live events and reality TV to massively broaden its audience. But is it losing touch with its rigorous science and history roots?

Specialist factual producers are increasingly turning to large scale, high volume ideas to keep the genre alive and kicking.

Event programming is now regularly adding pizazz to the schedule for broadcasters in the UK and internationally, with channels keen to get viewers to watch TV live. In the UK, Channel 4 took viewers round the world in a live space station special, with access granted by NASA. Two hour-long specials provided a build up to the live orbit, which were all coordinated by Arrow Media.

Discovery continues to build on live highlights such as Nik Wallenda’s walk across the Grand Canyon. After Felix Baumgarten’s record-breaking space jump, the next stunt is another Wallenda high wire walk, this time between skyscrapers. According to Elizabeth McIntyre, vp production and development, factual for DNI, the broadcaster is very keen on “extraordinary, breath-taking activities or firsts that work well around the globe.”

At Pioneer Productions, they are developing a number of events-based ideas, both live and as live. But event programming isn’t for everyone. “It does take resources and it takes a lot of working through and there are very few slots,” says md Kirstie McLure. “You have to weigh up whether you have the skills to do it, whether it’s in your heartland and whether you’re going to be one of the ones who’s commissioned to do it.”

Wag TV is one indie that has decided not to pursue this line. “There’s a natural ceiling,” says Martin Durkin, md of Wag TV. “We’ve stopped chasing them as there aren’t many of them. They never seem to be as successful as they might be and they’re not big revenue earners for us.”

Live events or stunts have some severe limitations. As one-offs they need to have a big PR build up to get noticed in the schedules, they’re risky and often very expensive. Discovery’s experience on Everest in April is a case in point. As the production team was about to embark on a climb before wingsuit jumper Joby Ogwyn could leap off the world’s tallest mountain, there was an avalanche that killed 12 sherpas. The network aired a special on the tragedy instead.

As live, rather than live, is one way ahead. “It’s definitely an approach we are interested in doing more of,” says C4 head of specialist factual David Glover. “Live can be great too – but I guess it needs a degree of justification.” David Dugan is CEO at Windfall Films, which was behind Foxes Live and Easter Eggs Live for C4. He is well aware of the need for back up plans in case nothing much happens. “If the eggs aren’t hatching or the fox cubs don’t come out to play…it’s always a bit nail biting,” he says. “Sometimes the BBC, for example, prefers the aura of being live without being live, because with things like natural history it’s actually quite hard to do.”

Hardcore factual
Windfall also produced BBC2’s series on Crossrail, the Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, which aired earlier this year with good ratings. “It showed there is still an audience for those kind of pretty hardcore specialist factual shows,” says Dugan. The show had plenty of scale and jeopardy: footage of drilling tunnels within inches of another subway line, as well as the sheer size and profile of project in the UK.

With specialist factual ideas often requiring scale and size, this genre is increasingly difficult for smaller indies. Deep development pockets are invariably required, and to make money in the genre you need to think of big budget or high volume productions, so the bar to entry is getting higher.

Co-production is still a healthy way of getting bigger specialist factual ideas off the ground. Lilla Hurst and Ben Barrett are co-founders of Drive, which helps producers to find finance. They confirm the consistent need for broadcasters to have a big reason to put up money: “Big subjects that resonate internationally,” says Hurst; “something new, or an anniversary or exclusive access.”

Dan Chambers, co-founder of Blink Films, says he will always look for the big reason why. “What’s the big revelation?…Is there something that could involve a build, an excavation or a dig.” Digging or building has been a popular way of giving a specialist factual show momentum. But not just any old digging or building. Blink’s most recent project – The Real Noah’s Ark – saw it construct an Ark based on a 4,000 year-old tablet deciphered by an expert on ancient Babylon. Stitching together the £1.4m to construct it required almost the same effort as raising the Ark itself. Over 18 months, Blink found 13 broadcasters to invest, including C4 which ran the show in its Secret History strand. C4 was joined by PBS in the US, History in Canada, France 5 and NGCI. Drive helped to gather together sufficient European broadcast interest to then tap into European Union funding. “More and more companies are open to co-productions,” says Chambers, who has just co-produced with Brazil and Korea and regularly works with Canada. “That’s definitely been a change over the last five years.” Hurst and Barrett have also noted a blurring between co-production and pre-sales; backers of a project tend to be viewed more as partners.

Whether they have co-production money or not, new territories are opening up to producers. Pioneer recently made a two-hour documentary, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain. “We’re taking concepts to completely different territories which are opening up and giving us a whole new scope for filming,” says McLure who is also planning shows in a number of hitherto largely impenetrable Asian countries.

All eyes on America
But the daddy of international specialist factual production for UK producers is still the US. There haven’t been any major changes in the US factual TV landscape in the last year, but there’s widespread reports that channels are re-examining their identities. Hurst says that while Nat Geo isn’t about to abandon its drive towards factual entertainment, it is commissioning a large volume of one-off specials. Other producers report a bigger interest in ideas other than reality shows.

Elizabeth McIntyre has been moving the commissioning brief for DNI away from bellies and beards. “Alongside the heartland practical, survival and engineering problem-solving which form the natural jeopardy of our narrative arcs, we wanted to introduce some personal and moral dilemmas into Discovery Channel programming,” she says. “We’ve been experimenting with tones traditionally found in female programming – personal stories, relationships and emotions but for male subjects – and we’ve found this to be a winning combination.” She cites Extreme Car Hoarders from Nerd TV and Discovery Studios, which reveals personal dilemmas around selling much-loved cars.

A+E’s History in the UK runs 50% of the broadcaster’s US content, but has  had success with the battle of Bannockburn told in a graphic novel style, a Martians take on World War I and Shaun Ryder on UFOs. Like all channels commissioning specialist factual, History is keen to find the right personality or celebrity to bring a subject to life. Channel editor Rachel Job says: “Unfortunately history has been given this academic label when it doesn’t need to be. I hope as a channel we’re proving that it doesn’t have to be stuffy and academic.”

The commercial channels are definitely doing their best to be anything other than stuffy and academic. As well as reality shows and celebrity-fronted formats, especially in the world of survival and adventure, there have been some big hits with popular formats, often inspired by huge numbers for YouTube videos. Discovery has scored with archive based shows You Have Been Warned from October Films and What Happened Next from Twofour.

Wag TV is behind How Do They Do It?, a popular science/ engineering format which has found a big audience on Discovery’s Science channel. “It’s about industrial engineering,” says Durkin at Wag TV. “There’s a whole load of science in there but it hasn’t got its head up its own arse…You’d never have it discussed at the World Congress of Science. It’s not even deemed to be specialist factual because working class people watch it.”

Public service players
There are no signs that the public service broadcasters are in a mad rush to follow the commercial channels wholesale into a diet rich in pop science, clip shows and reality. But with the ongoing pressure to reach bigger audiences, most specialist factual commissioners would bristle at Durkin’s accusation that “specialist factual in the minds of too many people at C4 and the BBC are the things that they and their friends watch.”

At the BBC, indies are still being encouraged to merge subjects and genres. There’s been success with factual dramas, one of the more recent being Hero Productions’ Castles in the Sky, starring Eddie Izzard as radar genius Robert Watson-Watt. Living history is always of interest, in the school of Lion’s enduringly successful Farm series, as is exciting access.

And the channels are always, of course, on the look out for passionate experts to add to their specialist factual output  – think Liz Bonnin, Michael Scott, Dominic Sandbrook on the BBC or Guy Martin, Jimmy Docherty on C4.

Too much reality?
Specialist factual has been bitten by reality TV bug

Schedules on the major international factual channels are now anchored by high-rating reality TV shows. Gold Rush and Pawn Stars are jewels in the crown for Discovery and History. Turner’s Tru-TV, just launched in the UK, is also a big fan of reality shows.

But are they really specialist factual? “Channels in the US that used to do specialist factual now seem to do constructed reality shows about rednecks in swamps. It’s barely recognisable as specialist factual,” says David Glover, head of specialist factual at Channel 4.

It does, of course, depend on the specific show. Martin Durkin, md at Wag TV, cites Combat Dealers which it makes for Discovery – the series follows people who trade in military memorabilia. “It has huge amounts of history in it,” he says.

Railroad Alaska on Discovery’s Destination America channel isn’t a reality show as such, but it gets close: “On one level it’s about how you keep a railroad alive through the winter,” says David Dugan CEO of production company Windfall Films. “But you also get the weirdest characters  – they are their own subculture and very fascinating.”

While there is certainly still demand for new realities, there are signs of a renewed interest in specialist factual of other sorts from the US factual behemoths, with a number of British producers reporting an increased interest in things that aren’t reality series, as long as there’s a lighter touch to the production.

Animals act human
Broadcasters are wild about anthropomorphism

Animals acting like humans is now big business in factual TV. This year’s Wildscreen Film Festival has identified the growing trend and is organising a session around the topic of animal intelligence and relationships with people, to be led by Clare Birks, md at Oxford Scientific Films.

OSF’s Meerkat Manor (most recently on C5) was a forerunner and the production company has recently developed programming around the online fever for video where animals act in eerily familiar ways. Birks says there’s plenty of new science to underpin footage of animals apparently experiencing emotions formerly thought to be exclusively human.

“As natural history makers we could be producing classic behavioural films where the audience is now smaller all the time, but what we have to do is to be a lot more creative and explore what’s out there.” If 70m people watch a short film about the honey badger acting like a tearaway on YouTube, then it’s no surprise that it gets a good audience on BBC2.

OSF’s head of development Peter Collins worked on Animal Odd Couples, a hit for BBC1, and has moved onto other ideas to do with bonds between animals and people. The trend goes right to the top: BBC1’s new wildlife blockbuster Life Story (see page 8) is piping the same tune, following animals through critical stages in their lives, seeing how they use their tenacity and resilience to rise to challenges.

Pippa Considine

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