Docs of all stripes are bringing in the numbers and the rig show goes from strength to strength. Televisual Factual Festival producer Pippa Considine reports

Serious factual in 2015 is in a good place. Factual TV has been a big success story for broadcasters globally and for producers, particularly in the UK. Documentary has always been at the table, but there’s been a recent upswing in commissioning documentary makers to make hybrid factual entertainment and lighter formats, as well as the serious factual that they know best.

“Everybody is really looking to documentaries again,” says Debbie Manners, ceo of Keo Films, who also reports transatlantic demand. “The US Channels like Nat Geo and Discovery are going back to big, expensive, often auteur-led documentary series or one-off seasons and away from formatted more derivative stuff.”

In the UK, the one less certain area is the BBC, with the impending move online by BBC3 and the interregnum at the top of documentaries commissioning at a time when Kim Shillinglaw was just establishing herself at BBC2, all in the shadow of charter renewal uncertainty. “Opportunities elsewhere are really blooming,” says Nick Kent, creative director at Oxford Film and TV. “Channel 4 really feels like it knows what it is, ITV is very robust, Channel 5 is in the process of raising its game quite significantly.”

Patrick Holland’s arrival from Boundless to head of documentaries at the BBC is widely welcomed. It’s early days for him to make a mark, but speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June he said that he was keen on making documentaries into events, citing Minnow Films’ three-parter The Detectives that followed sex offence investigators. Scheduled across three nights on BBC2, it brought in an audience of two million.  It’s a move, however, that might come as bad news to indies trying to land five-or six-parters like The Met, with their promise of more impact in the schedule, as well as economies of scale.

Holland also agreed on a need to grow new directing talent. There’s a dearth of directors with the experience and vision required to take on challenging authorial documentary projects, in part caused by the big rig series. Channel 4 this year launched a new Cutting Edge documentary training scheme that aims to redress the gap and help to feed the channel’s singles strands.

BBC3 has been a place to experiment with ideas and talent for a younger audience. Its migration online has been viewed with an air of finality; there’s certainly cynicism about future budgets. “One thing BBC 3 did really well was find great factual content for that age group,” says Manners at Keo. Wary of this, controller of BBC3 Damian Kavanagh has sought to quell fears, asserting that if the BBC Trust gives the go ahead, the channel plans to spend even more of its £30m content budget on documentary than before and that new shows will run on BBC1 and 2, as well as BBC3 online.

The BBC has finally bitten the bullet with the rig, commissioning Wild Pictures to put cameras into a divorce clinic for BBC1 and Keo Films to use the rig to record lives of people coping with cancer for BBC2. The move will help to keep Channel 4 on its toes.  “It’s our job to experiment and innovate, the rig is not [a form] in and of itself anymore,” says Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at Channel 4, who likens the BBC’s absence of rig documentaries to continuing to shoot in black and white when colour TV arrived. The technique has, he believes, shed new light. “It felt to me that putting the rig in The Tribe was a completely different way of making anthropological programmes.” The latest subject is fishing fleets, with The Catch from Blast Films! and the next iteration of Twofour’s Educating, this time in Cardiff.

“It’s worth noting that The Island, Gogglebox and First Dates that have got rising audiences are constructed,” says Mirsky.  “We’re thinking about what we can learn from those.” He says that The Island works, despite being having the tripod marks of former formats, because “they went in and made it with energy and pushed everything to greater heights of intensity, so the whole experience felt much more modern, fresher and more extreme and dramatic.”

Over at ITV, controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis points out that the top 20 factual shows at 9pm are all Gogglebox, MasterChef and Long Lost Family. ITV’s new attempts to win the prize for next great format lie with The Garden’s Saved, telling the stories of people rescued by strangers, and The Miracle from Optomen, which draws confidence from massive online hits for films showing personal transformations. Clinton-Davis says about winning formats: “They all do what they say on the tin, they’re all bleedingly obvious in hindsight.”

While the BBC has become slower to give the green light to commissions, Clinton-Davis has a reputation for speedy decisions. But there’s some doubt about what the channel really wants in factual. Celebrity-fronted travelogues are central: going forward, Trevor MacDonald moves from the Mafia to exploring Vegas, Joanna Lumley is now seeking the story of her heartthrob Elvis and Alexander Armstrong – a new talent for the channel – heads to the Arctic. “There’s a sniffiness sometimes that you’re defaulting to presenter led,” says Clinton-Davis. “But it can enhance the content and deliver something fresh about the life of the presenter and if it works for the audience…”

Clinton Davis’ watchwords are “emotion, drama, character.” Police shows Rookies and The Nick have both been winners for the channel. Clinton puts the success down to a sense of humanity, a journalistic approach and drama. “The Nick is done completely differently. It feels like you’re in the room with a human drama with a beating heart.”

Drama is more and more key to the success of documentary. At Sky, where entertainment is at the core of everything, the big cinematic approach of David Attenborough: Conquest of the Skies hits the spot. Its first rig series, about children learning the skills of debating, was The Kings and Queens of Speech. “We were keen to do something about social mobility, with heart and warmth and big emotional stuff,” said Celia Taylor at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

The rig allows for more drama. “If you’ve got an interaction between a kid and a teacher, you might have three cameras on him,” says Mirsky. “All of a sudden the rig has enabled you to to cut actuality like drama.”
Documentary makers have proven their cross-genre abilities, making compelling features with narrative arcs as strong as anything in drama. At Blast Films! chief executive Ed Coulthard has experience as a drama director. “It’s story-telling and there are big lessons of narrative story-telling that apply to factual in the same way as drama.”

Documentary’s ability to deliver is reflected in its deployment in more unexpected schedules. Discovery’s TLC is behind singles First Heartbeat, a self-shot personal account of miscarriages and Tina Malone: My New Body, about her experience of surgically removing 12lbs.

This year’s Grierson shortlist included newcomers and CNN and the reappearance of Channel 5 after five years, with Knickerbockerglory obdoc GPs: Behind Closed Doors. “It’s a very honest take on what life is like in general practice, and as such is probably a very pure form of documentary film making, “ says Jonathan Stadlen, md of Knickerbockerglory.

Channel 5 has been using smaller independents, a move which in part accounts for PACT figures showing a significant rise in smaller company commissions. This goes some way to reassuring the smaller players in the industry, not only unnerved by the increasing consolidation, but by the perceived threat of ITV Studios and now BBC production gearing up.

There are also new opportunities from online, which are more eagerly seized by small operations, given the nascent budgets. Stadlen believes that online provides a great platform for testing new ideas. But there is also now money available for straight documentary commissions online. At The Guardian, the documentaries department hopes to soon commission one documentary short each week. However budgets are pegged at about £1K per minute, in line with other web content budgets. Channel 4 is on the hunt for online content alongside BBC3. And Red Bull is looking for content for a TV service launch in the UK in 2016.

Despite the PACT census this year showing a decline in international revenues, many indies rely on returns from outside the UK and are positive about US interest. “The US is a fantastic opportunity for UK programme makers,” says Coulthard. “We are welcomed in America and in some ways they are much more straightforward to deal with than our own broadcasters.” Kent at Oxford Film and TV sees the US as a definite area of growth. And UK indies are forging relationships with different cable channels across America.

One of the less expected areas of growth is how far the documentary sensibility is being stretched into other areas of the schedule. Perhaps most surprising so far is Mentorn bringing its serious factual experience of Question Time to bear in TLC’s new format If Katie Hopkins Ruled the World.

A changing skillset?
A new sort of doc talent rises to the top
Great documentary makers need to have a voice, but the stars of today are also supremo organisers with commercial acumen. Volume series and big rig require more than just one creative leader. It’s increasingly rare that a single creative genius director rules a production; the role of exec producer, series producer and edit producer have gathered more magic dust, alongside the heavy lifting.

The trend towards unmediated shows puts a new spin on the role of the film-makers: if the documentary is self-shot by the contributors the roles of director and producer change again. Alisa Pomeroy is a rising talent brought up in the new tradition. Nominated for a BAFTA and two Griersons this year and recently hired by C4, she’s worked as series director on The Garden’s 24 Hours in Police Custody and as series producer on the BBC’s obdoc on Iceland: Life in the Freezer Cabinet. She’s more than able to find her authorial voice; but she can also master the organisation and savvy that will be required as a commissioning editor.

Vision is still crucial. Chief executive at Blast Films! Ed Coulthard describes how its new rig series The Catch for Channel 4 has key team leaders in the shape of series producer Jo Hughes and himself and Nick Hornby as exec producers, but there’s still a single vision: “With series director James Incledon it’s a very authored series; he’s been the one living on the boats and forming relationships with the key contributors.”

The Televisual Factual Festival runs on 11th and 12th November at Bafta. More details here

New directions
Channel 4 and 
Shine’s Hunted
The pressure is on with Channel 4’s new format Hunted, being made by the same team at Shine that worked on The Island. The idea is bang in the middle of the sweet spot where an unmediated format with documentary sensibility finds an audience that includes the elusive YouTube generation.

The cast of individuals, recruited from the general public, have attempted to stay off grid, while self-shooting their efforts to evade capture from a team of expert hunters.

At first glance it might not be obvious, but it follows in the tradition of the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off and Channel 4’s First Dates. It’s no accident that it’s officially a co-commission between the formats and documentary departments.

“Formats that really work often have quite a lot of documentary in them, a realness that can make them feel that bit more genuine,” says Nick Mirsky, the head of documentaries at Channel 4. “The audience on First Dates is quite happy to accept that we’ve made it happen, but there’s something quite authentic, it feels real.”

Described by the channel as ‘part documentary, part thriller,’ it could even have been a three-way commission, including the drama department, with a heightened sense of jeopardy cut to give it shades of Blair Witch. And it’s a natural for multi-platform, since it’s predicated on an internet society where people can be traced via their digital footprint.

Pippa Considine

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