As ever, the Sheffield DocFest commissioning sessions were rammed, with an audience keen to find out the latest twists and turns of the commissioning wheel. Pippa Considine runs through some of the highlights
The message from UKTV was that producers can expect the same continuing levels of investment, with the broadcaster commissioning originals for the seven entertainment channels that remain under BBC ownership.
“We would urge all of you to think who are the women and men in our sweet spot – between 30 and 40. Who would you stop at when you flick through a tabloid paper?” said Hilary Rosen, deputy director of commissioning. Stacey Dooley is “off the leash, a bit more herself” in her new UKTV series. Actress and reality star Emily Atack has her own series on the channel, having been petitioned by the producers as soon as she stepped of the plane returning from I’m a Celebrity. UKTV factual shows work well in the documentary space, but with a fact ent tone. Always looking for returners, always looking for shows that can play at primetime.
Speaking on the Fact Ent commissioning panel head of popular factual and fact ent at the BBC David Brindley held up Studio Lambert’s Race Across the World as one of its latest jewels in the crown. He said that BBC2 doesn’t have enough poppy doc series like Back in Time. “It’s important to have something to say, but wearing it lightly. The quality we want above all is actually humour and it’s the thing we get least of.” Brindley is inspired by the second series of Netflix’s Queer Eye. “It’s evolved so that you laugh and cry and feel uplifted. If we could bottle that, we’d be keen to do something similar.” On the subject of volume and finding enough money for the bigger ideas, he says, “it’s a moment for us to be thinking about doing fewer and bigger things and asking indies to think about finding funding.” Amongst other things, he’s looking at what a three parter might look like at 8pm on BBC One or a 12-parter two nights a week. No food and no flower arranging ideas please.
Head of documentary commissioning Clare Sillery is recommissioning Forensics: The Real CSI on BBC Two. “It’s got a driving crime narrative and I think one of the things we might have been missing in our access docs – more layers of content.” Sillery also highlighted BBC3 six-parter Hometown: A Killing from 7 Wonder. Fronted by new talent in the shape of journalist Mobeen Azhar, it’s a personal take, with a real podcast feel.
Newly appointed BBC head of TV commissioning for England Aisling O’Connor is planning to grow content for daytime, BBC3 and BBC 4. She’s keen to expand a new, exciting, edgy, diverse and local slate of content, including more short form programming. “I’m quite tired of poverty porn programming. There’s lots to celebrate in England,” she says.
The words “extreme,” “gritty” and “madness” were peppered through the commissioning sessions by Channel 4 heads.
Karl Warner, channel head at E4 is working with the docs commissioning team to find entertaining docs. “Reference Valley Cops on BBC 3,” says head of factual Danny Horan. “They need to be incredibly young skewed.”
More generally in docs, Horan points to Criminal Justice and the return of Prison, focusing on the inside of a women’s prison, as showing the channel’s direction of travel. “We want to reflect the complicated world that Channel 4 had done a bit less of,” he says. A new Jade Goody film has got him thinking about the zeitgeist ten years ago. “There’s a kind of wildness that we’ve lost.” Jade: As Seen on TV uses the immersive quality of archive to connect with the audience. Marking ten years since the reality TV star’s death, the show also demonstrates the channel’s intention to do more contemporary history.
Fatima Salaria, head of specialist factual, also talked about building on murder and crime and pointed to a show produced by a blue-chip indie, together with ex cons as an “innovative collaboration that brings a different voice.” She also wants to see more women in travelogues and adventure formats. Channel 4’s new specialist factual commissioner Nicola Brown is looking to reclaim the Saturday and Sunday 8pm slots for the genre. On Sunday, this is male skewing. Wanting to reflect the madness of the time, the channel is open for reinvention, live events, stunts, social experiments.
Meanwhile Alf Lawrie, head of factual entertainment at Channel 4 declared that he was looking for extreme ideas. Defending a second series of The Circle, he said, “I can understand why some people in this room didn’t enjoy it… We’re changing it and trying to bring it back bigger and better …But it will have to do better to come back again a third time.”
After six years of going big on factual, Channel 5 is “coming of age” with its factual content, says factual commissioning editor Guy Davies. The channel has increased originated content from 85 ideas in 2017 to 115 in 2018 and increased output in the regions by 40 per cent. In fact ent, it’s looking to increase male skewing output and moving into lifestyle change, wanting to try out new territories to play alongside its growing drama slate. Fact ent commissioner Greg Barnett says that the channel has four or five pilots on the go, two of which will go to series. Right now, it’s taking its first foray into gardening with Crackit’s six parter The Great Garden Challenge, co-presented by Carol Klein. The channel is not after any more ideas involving trains or police at the moment, and probably no more medical, says Barnett.
Talking about the channel’s impactful 90-minute docs, the latest of which tackles male suicide, Greg Davies says he’s keen to pair such issue-based single features with a follow-up half-hour that offers solutions.
In specialist factual, commissioning editor Lucy Willis is looking for new spins on blockbuster historical periods. One new treatment is a mash-up between a listing format and history; another is a single comparing Donald Trump with Henry VIII.
ITV is going through something of a purple patch with factual. Breaking Dad, The Real Full Monty, Harry’s Heroes and Island Prison all go the thumbs up from commissioners on other channels.
Sticking to its penchant for prisons, upcoming series Island Prison is a serious doc, but with shades of Love Island. “It’s hard to make documentaries with humour and real purpose, but this is prison as you’ve never seen it before,” says controller of Factual Jo Clinton-Davis. Commissioning editor for factual entertainment Nicola Lloyd is looking for ideas to play at 8:30 – “talent-led half hour doc series.” Hits in this space have included Paul O’Grady For the Love of Dogs and privileged access, such as Inside the Ritz Hotel or Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport. “Classic territories with a twist,” says Lloyd. “I always say to think of the poster for any idea. Gordon, Gino and Fred was three faces in a camper van – three big egos in one small van.”
Talent, as ever, is central to the channel. Bradley Walsh comes out number one in the channel’s talent tracker, so it’s no surprise that his series Breaking Dad has gone down a storm with viewers. But it’s not just about sticking talent on a show. Finding talent combos is one way forward. “We really appreciate it when people genuinely spend time thinking about what those combinations of talent could be,” says Lloyd.