Pippa Considine reports on the programming needs of the specialist factual commissioners from the recent Sheffield Doc Fest

Chaired by Kim Shilllinglaw, director of Factual at Endemol Shine, the specialist factual panel at Sheffield delivered plenty of heads up for producers.

Discovery and Nat Geo talked differences. Ed Sayer, head of original commissioning for Discovery showed a clip from its latest Ed Stafford format, First Man Out where Ed catches a mammal in a trap baited with his own vomit. “We wouldn’t do vomit in trap” said Mykura, who underscored Nat Geo’s shift over last three years to make its TV in line with the magazine and its “yellow border”. This includes featuring Nat Geo’s own roster of explorers on the screen.

Discovery has also backed Salvage Hunters The Restorers. Sayers admitted that the format feels risky because it’s very slow TV, but it gives space to reveal the history behind each object.

C4 specialist factual commissioner Shaminder Nahal said:  “immersive is what we absolutely want. Narcos with Jason Fox in Columbia feels incredibly in the thick of it. …Showing people places that they haven’t been seen before in a way that hasn’t been done before is still exciting for us and immersive is what we expect.”

Nahal also underlined the interest in recent history. “It’s possible to revisit things in recent history. The Tony Martin murder story tells you about modern Britain. It’s dramatic, plays with form and story-telling, but also has huge resonance.”

Tom McDonald, the BBC’s head of specialist factual and natural history conceded that BBC 2 competition format Astronauts hadn’t been pitched quite right. “That level of construction got in the way of the content for the BBC 2 audience, while for younger viewers it wasn’t constructed enough.”

This autumn BBC2 has commissioned Voltage for The Wonderful World of Babies with new science and digital potential. “It delivers in a way that feels broad and entertaining but is going to different place,” says McDonald. Also, with robust material, they can risk new presenting talent with paediatrician Guddi Singh. “We have a premium now on people who not just know their stuff but have something different.”

Tom McDonald broke with tradition and poured praise on a rival channel: “Channel 5 specialist factual is really bloody brilliant. Sometimes we commission for each other I don’t think we spend enough time in specialist factual thinking about the pleasure for the audience.”

Lucy Willis at Channel 5 took the compliment and said that the channel is looking for shows that can be stripped for an appointment to view, but has to be a really compelling aspect. Pompeii’s Final Hours ran across three nights with three presenters appealing to different elements of the audience and  with ticking clock device to keep momentum. At the time of DocFest she said that they were looking at a new show Nocturnal Britain to decide if it had potential for similar stripping treatment.

Willis conceded that the 8-parters they had aired recently were “difficult.” Last year saw Eight Days that Made Rome and Elizabeth Our Queen. “It’s a long time to get the audience to commit.” They are now on the look out for more 3/4/6 parters.

Willis also said that she’d had two big ideas with reality /competition in them which didn’t make it through to commission. “But if you get it right it can be a good way to attract a broader audience.”

What do the specialist factual commissioners watch in down time?
Lucy Willis, Channel 5:  BBC drama A Very English Scandal
Tom McDonald, BBC: Channel 5’s Cruising with Jane McDonald and The Bridge
Hamish Mykura, National Geographic: HBO four-parter The Defiant Ones, Sky’s Patrick Melrose, History ‘s competition series Forged in Fire
Ed Sayer, Discovery : Amazon and Netflix, including an All Blacks documentary

The Televisual’s own Televisual Factual Festival will take place at Bafta once again this year on 21st and 22nd November. Details soon on televisual.com

Pippa Considine

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