With the Televisual Factual Festival due to begin on October 24th, Pippa Considine takes a look at the documentary landscape in the UK
The UK’s hold on documentary shows no signs of weakening. At home, Sky has been putting its money where its mouth is with a steady stream of documentary to add to its drama and entertainment commissioning. Fears about DQF have been largely quelled; it has caused minor cuts and bruises to BBC documentary, but no real body blows.
The US market seems to be increasingly keen on British documentary talent. According to the latest Pact Census, international buyers spent £625m on UK indie productions in 2011, up from £495m in 2010; undoubtedly a good wedge of this will be the US buying into UK documentary. "There are lots of British companies who are doing well selling singles or series in the US," says John Willis, chief executive of Mentorn Media. "We’re seen as a badge of quality in the US."
One of the big documentary stories of 2012 in the UK has to be Sky. Celia Taylor, the head of factual and features at Sky says, "The landscape has changed quite significantly in the last year and for the good. There’s a very wide range of content. It’s almost like the BBC, where you can pitch to them for BBC1, BBC2 or BBC3. Now you could have something very erudite, smart and intelligent for Sky Atlantic. You could have something funny and warm for Sky1. We have the capacity to take on a wide range of documentary ideas and the confidence to do big projects, whether a feature documentary on Sky Atlantic or a long form documentary on Sky Living."
Sky is about to launch its first history production with Nutopia’s The British on Atlantic and at this year’s Sheffield DocFest it announced Footprints, commissioning feature docs from high profile filmmakers. Nick Broomfield was the first to be signed up.
ITV is also keen on those big documentary specials, which add one-off vim to its returning documentary series. Leslie Woodhead’s feature length documentary 9/11: The Day that Changed the World was a hit for ITV1 this year. "ITV has a sense of what it’s for and what it wants," says Jo Clinton Davis, the channel’s head of popular factual, who says that the channel has opened up to factual over the last few years. "With 9/11, people might have thought that ITV would do the softer story and yet we didn’t, we went in hard and it felt like a thriller."
After a year of worry about DQF at the BBC, it seems to have had only minimal impact. Although there’s some concern among indies at the new focus of BBC4, with its arts and culture remit. "BBC4 feels like it’s an area that’s suffered quite hard with DQF," says Willis "and that’s one of the places where people could make the pleasing programmes that wouldn’t fit anywhere else, but were still good for the viewer." Kate Buchanan, head of documentaries at Keo Films, which brought chef Yotam Ottolenghi to the screen on BBC4, voices common concerns when she says that the new focus has "given it a rather narrow scope."
BBC commissioning editor for documentaries Charlotte Moore has added BBC3 formats and specialist factual to her responsibilities; she now works with a team of six. BBC3, which has cut back on drama, has recently announced a string of new factual shows, including six in its Body Beautiful season.
Moore has this year showed her enthusiasm for user generated content, with a number of commissions including Morgan Matthew’s Britain in a Day and two series from Firecracker Films – I Want to Change My Body and We’re Having a Baby. The shows will give cameras to the characters in the shows in the time-honoured tradition of Video Diaries and the more recent, BAFTA-winning Our War.
"The advances in technology – smartphones etc – and people’s willingness to make their lives public has meant that we’ve seen a huge increase in the volume of user generated content available," says Moore. "With docs like Our War and Britain in a Day, we’ve been able to access very private moments and raw experiences which feel all the more immediate, unmediated and authentic just because there’s no director or crew. I think we’re likely to see more and more of it used in documentaries on all the channels."
While the BBC has embraced UGC, 2012 has to be the year that the rig show came of age on Channel 4. Any doubts were cast aside as new series of 24 Hours in A&E were commissioned and Educating Essex worked for the channel. Windfall Films’ groundbreaking murder trial series currently in production will be another show with the rig at its heart. "It’s enabled us to go into familiar television territories and bring audiences something that feels fresh and modern and different in a very Channel 4 way," says Nick Mirsky, deputy head of factual at the Channel.
Mirsky joined the channel in May, taking over the documentaries remit. Emma Cooper, with whom he worked at the BBC, is now masterminding the Cutting Edge strand and Lina Prestwood, who also joined the channel earlier this year, oversees First Cut. The old guard of the department remaining are documentaries commissioning editor Mark Raphael and Anna Miralis, who continues to oversee True Stories.
Mirsky, who came from the BBC were he worked on its Wonderland strand, stresses the channel’s commitment to single documentaries. "You can trawl the BBC and find three strands overall," he says. "Here on Channel 4 there are three strands on one channel. It’s very, very committed to single docs."
There’s still a sense from producers that the slots for singles are fewer across channels. David Dugan, chairman of Windfall Films says, "I think it is quite hard to get singles off. There’s less interest and there’s possibly less interest from the bigger, more established indies as well, because the amount of effort you have to get a single off the ground sometimes can be the same as if you’re doing a four or six part series."
October Films managing director Denman Rooke agrees, pointing to the increasing trend for seasons of programming, where singles can be marketed as part of a whole, such as the BBC’s recent season on ageing. BBC3’s Body Beautiful is another example. "There’s a huge pressure on broadcasters," he says.
Markets overseas, especially the US, remain critical for indie profitability. Rooke notes that SBS in Australia has been more generous with co-production funding recently. Like other successful indies, he’s also pitching in the US. The US customers, he thinks, look to Britain for "English style". British producers are seen as having a different look and feel to home-grown stuff and we don’t necessarily want to compete with those shows that wrestle with alligators."
Dugan at Windfall has made several shows in America. "The main thing in the US is that everything has to be so character driven. It’s happening here to some extent. But if you want to get a doc series off the ground in America, you have to have shot a sizzler with those characters paced with action and sensational sound bites. Here it’s all about hospitals and institutions and over there it’s more about extreme situations." Dugan compares this with the UK. "Here in the factual arena presenters are king at the moment. It’s very hard to imagine presenting any idea without a presenter."
Willis observes that, whether they’re using rigs or UGC or traditional filming techniques, UK docs are in large part still doing what they say on the tin. "Some of the most successful docs of the last year or two have been classic documentaries that could have been made in the last 10 years at any time, Protecting Our Children or The Tube are models of access documentary making."
There’s a general downward pressure on budgets and Pact’s census showed declining net margins at 6.7 per cent in 2011, down from 13% in 2010. But producers are cutting their cloth and it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that the UK documentary landscape is flourishing.
deputy head of Factual, Channel 4
Does Channel 4 want more rig shows?
With the rig, Channel 4 has found a precinct where it is able to deliver something quite special for the viewer. They’re absolutely brilliant, but it’s really important to see where else we can take it in a rig or semi-rigged way. And we have to think about things that are different from that…Make Bradford British did very well as a formatted social experiment.
Whats happening with singles?
The move of True Stories from More 4 to Channel 4 was very successful, with films like Gypsy Blood. Emma Cooper is trying to make Cutting Edge mean cutting edge a bit more, films that reflect the zeitgeist, that describe the Britain today. With First Cut, by making it 60 minutes and putting it out late, it means that people have got a better chance to prove themselves as directors. Of course, if we get great films that don’t fit the strand definitions, we’ll take singles.
Are you after anything specific?
I’d love any ideas that feel like we’re making television a bit differently. I look back at 7 Days and I feel that we need to go back, there were a lot of things right about it…..The broadcast of a first programme and audience response to it should have a meaningful affect on the second and I’m looking for ideas that embrace that.
charlotte Moore, commissioning editor for Documentaries, BBC
What shows have worked well recently?
Ob docs are doing well across all channels, particularly BBC2. Now we want to push the genre – we’re looking for ideas with a sense of scale and purpose. Keeping Britain Alive is a great example of an ob doc super sized, looking at the entire NHS over the course of one day. But scale and ambition doesn’t always mean an eight-parter. Britain in a Day was probably our most ambitious project this year. On BBC3, Our War has led to real excitement around big, provocative ideas. Junior Doctors has renewed the channel’s appetite for series with a light construct, but very much set in the real world.
Are there specific slots you’re looking to fill?
We’ve commissioned several ob docs series for 9pm on BBC1, but the harder one to crack right now at 9pm on BBC1 is personality-led, entertaining documentary series. One slot, which I’d love to develop on BBC2, is the Sunday 9pm male skewing post Top Gear slot.
What do you want for BBC4?
We’re looking for counter intuitive takes on mainstream and familiar subjects. Whether singles (Scenes from a Teenage Killing) or series (Catholics, Sandhurst), authorship and interesting perspectives on the subject is key. We’re still in the market for contemporary history ideas. And Storyville is stronger than ever.
Celia Taylor, head of factual and features, Sky
What are you looking for on Sky Atlantic?
The big piece in our documentary strategy is Footprints, our feature documentary strand on Sky Atlantic with 12 films a year. We want to be able to work with the best talent in the world of documentary film-making. On Atlantic, you either have to have epic scale or a show fronted by a celebrity or someone with industry standing, like Hotel Secrets with Richard E Grant and Networks of Power with Sir Christopher Meyer, an intelligent take on the world, with a level of glamour and mischievousness which feels very Atlantic. The British is our massive history series a big, quality piece.
What about Sky One?
We’ve got Brize Norton as a long-running series on Sky One. It’s the first time the RAF have given access in 15 years. On Sky One, we’re looking for extraordinary access, like Brize Norton, and we’re also doing celebrity-fronted shows. We commissioned Eddie Izzard to do the Mandela Marathons and continue with Ross Kemp.
Are Sky Living and Sky Arts investing in documentary?
Obese 2 has moved from Sky One to Sky Living. It’s got the kind of scale you wouldn’t necessarily expect on Living, following people for a whole year. It shows that we are commited to something different on Living, not the slightly thinner more fluffy content that you might expect. On Sky Arts, Lily Cole has a factual series where she spends two or three days with the globe’s biggest contemporary artists. It’s not the usual middle-aged man interviewing a middle-aged man artist.
Jo Clinton Davis, controller popular factual commissioning, ITV
What has worked on ITV1 in the last year?
We had three programmes in the top five of factual across channels. There’s the whole gamut of factual on ITV, including high class observational series with remarkable access like Strangeways getting six million and the ultimate returnable format 56 Up. We were thrilled with Leslie Woodhead’s 9/11: The Day that Changed the World, an uncompromising look at the political story of the day yet told through the human narrative. It’s that human heart that needs to beat in ITV documentaries. At the other end of the spectrum, some of our specialist factual pieces, which we make on tiny budgets, like Words of Captain Scott, hold their own and are ambitiously cast, made to feel like dramas.
What are you looking for in series?
Long Lost Family is the holy grail of a returnable factual format where the format doesn’t get in the way of the emotional documentary content. The scale and ambition is fantastic. The door is always open for the next definitive returnable documentary series. And we are still looking for access if it’s extraordinary, remarkable and hard won
Are you interested in specials and singles? Top directors are now coming to us and saying "we want to work with you". That, for me, is about showcasing their work. The ITV 1 factual schedule can accommodate those singles and it gives variety, just as being able to do early evening specialist factual and the odd 10.35.
What’s coming up?
We have a special about Murdoch coming up, also made by Brook Lapping, who made 9/11: The Day that Changed the World.