Eye on the U.K.

In 1998, television in the U.K. was dogged by uncertainty, as senior industry executives played a protracted game of musical chairs. The result was a hiatus in the commissioning process, as program chiefs reviewed their strategy for '99....
November 1, 1999

In 1998, television in the U.K. was dogged by uncertainty, as senior industry executives played a protracted game of musical chairs. The result was a hiatus in the commissioning process, as program chiefs reviewed their strategy for ’99.

A year on, things have settled down. New commissioners have stamped their personality on schedules and producers are back to making programs. On the whole, the result is a boost for factual – which has landed a key audience-grabbing role in U.K. primetime.

ITV: Under the microscope

A lot of attention has been centered on the editorial policy of the U.K.’s largest commercial channel, ITV – which appointed Grant Mansfield as commissioning editor of documentaries and features last year. Recently, ITV has been the whipping boy for documentary purists who pine for the days when strands like Viewpoint, First Tuesday and Disappearing World commanded regular slots.

This past May, the influential Campaign For Quality Television (CQTV) published a report called Serious Documentaries on ITV: An Endangered Species. Its main concern was that, despite a substantial increase in factual hours on ITV, few films tackled tough issues.

The CQTV’s position appeared to be borne out by ITV’s controversial decision to move its flagship News at Ten to 11 p.m., and place greater emphasis on primetime movies. Mansfield’s move to ramp up populist factual strands like …From Hell, Totally Out of Control and Britain’s Worst (all from various producers) seemed to confirm ITV’s retreat from quality TV.

This fall, however, ITV is fighting back. A key result of moving the news is that the network can now schedule factual events at 10 p.m. There was a hint of what was to come on June 24 when ITV aired a 90-minute film about Alzheimer’s by Paul Watson called Malcolm and Barbara at 10 p.m. The film attracted 5.25 million viewers.

This fall, ITV’s new approach has been exemplified by World War II in Colour (Carlton/TWI for ITV) – a heavily-trailed three-part series using rare color footage. Subsequently, ITV repeated the exercise with Manhunt – a two-parter from Ray Fitzwalter looking at 13 gruesome killings committed by the Yorkshire Ripper.

The films underline ITV’s desire for popular, domestic subjects to cut through multichannel clutter, but they also show a desire to reclaim some high ground in factual filmmaking. Further evidence of a revitalized approach is the 12 x 60-minute strand Real Life, which began airing in September. In an unusual arrangement, Mansfield appointed Stephen Lambert, director of programs at indie producer RDF Television, to run the strand. Lambert, who was previously editor of BBC2′s Modern Times strand, says Real Life ‘is a showcase for the U.K.’s best doc talent.’

Real Life airs at 10 p.m. on Mondays – opposite the BBC’s flagship current affairs strand Panorama. The first films in the run were Teenage Pregnant Sisters and My Son Murdered his Mother. Forthcoming films include Drivers Who Kill, Bedroom Secrets, My Dad’s a Villain, Marry Me in Vegas and an international piece called City of Murder and Mayhem which focuses on organized crime in Moscow.

The tabloid titles are a deliberate device to attract higher audiences, says Lambert, but the films themselves are ‘intelligent, intense, layered, subtle pieces from top filmmakers like Brian Hill, Jenny Crowther, James Cohen, James Alexander and Norman Hill.’ Many are directors that Lambert worked with while running Modern Times.

Lambert thinks ITV was right to use popular factual strands to boost ratings in peak time, but he stresses that the likes of ‘…From Hell and Britain’s Worst are not the home of Britain’s best documentary-makers. ITV needed a strand like Real Life in a popular slot.’ Mansfield has already committed himself to a further run of 18 shows – which Lambert is now commissioning.

ITV is also lining up other flagship factual projects – two of which will come from RDF. The first is what Lambert loosely describes as a ‘three-part post-war social history series.’ The second, Many Happy Returns, is produced and directed by Jemma Jupp at RDF, and will look at a group of ten children on their tenth birthdays. It will then revisit them every five years for a progress report. The decision to commission the latter series follows ITV’s loss of Michael Apted’s classic UP series to the BBC last year. Produced by Granada, 7UP to 35UP aired on ITV – but 42UP was dropped – only for the BBC to snap it up and air it to great acclaim.

Channel 4: Bigger is better

ITV is not the only network to have rediscovered a taste for factual events. Channel 4 director of programs Tim Gardam – who took up his role last fall – is placing renewed emphasis on landmark factual television. Says Gardam: ‘Channel 4 does best when it puts big pieces on the chess board.’

Central to Gardam’s mission has been a desire to bring a more contemporary feel to the schedule. From 1999, he singles out Tina Goes Shopping (Blast Films), Staying Lost (October Films) and the channel’s coverage of the Kosovo crisis – notably through The Valley (Suspect Device). Other hard-hitting films in the fall line-up included Brook Lapping’s 3 x 50-minute Can’t Pay Won’t Pay – looking at the U.K.’s Child Support Agency, the mechanism whereby absent fathers are made to pay for the upkeep of their offspring.

‘I’m determined to bring the schedule up to date and encourage new terms of engagement from producers,’ says Gardam. ‘I want exuberant programs that reflect the strange, modern world we inhabit – rather than clone series that chart the demise of the old.’

As part of that drive, Gardam has sanctioned the creation of a late night experimental factual slot on Fridays – provisionally entitled Future TV. The idea of the US$2.5 million venture is to encourage new program-making talent to develop innovative styles of production in the shape of single films and short series. Budgets are likely to be about US$130,000 per hour.

While Gardam looks to the future, some of the most prominent pieces in his fall schedule have been historical. These include a series on the Boer War, a forensic archaeology strand called Secrets of the Dead and a factual format called The 1900 House (1 hour plus 8 x 30-minutes, produced by Wall to Wall), in which a modern family lives in an authentically re-created, middle-class, turn-of-the-century home.

Gardam claims that C4′s factual output this fall is as diverse as it has ever been. Divorce Iranian Style (20th Century Vixen) went out in peak time – partly subtitled – and attracted 1.5 million. Grand Designs (Talkback Productions) took a thoughtful look at a range of individuals who built their own dream homes while Hidden Love (Optomen Television) dealt with Japan’s geishas. One-off films have looked at pop star Geri Halliwell and recently-deceased head of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, Cardinal Hume.

Gardam’s previous job was head of factual programs at start-up network Channel 5 – where budgets for programming are smaller and the editorial mindset is more commercial. At C5, he learned that ‘it is possible to produce very good shows on small amounts of money – and that the market is not necessarily the enemy of the good.’

This has relevance in his new role – where he is hoping to cut costs on some series to release funds for landmark films. ‘The contemporary documentary is at a crossroads. Genres like docusoaps have extended themselves to the point where we are seeing a dangerous replication of ideas. For series which are just fine, C4 will look at lower budgets so it can fully fund intelligent films which stand tall in the schedule.’

Gardam is pleased with the way strands like Secret History, Secrets of the Dead and Equinox have performed recently – but is backing away from six to eight-part half-hour series. ‘We aired a very good series called Stepkids [from ZKK Films] earlier this year which possessed a real sense of truth and intimacy. But it didn’t rate as well as it might have done. I think it would have been better received by audiences if it had been aired as a series of one-hours.’

Gardam claims to be doing more joint venture programming with U.S. broadcasters than ever – but is anxious his schedule not be swamped with homogenized output. ‘The key is for us to find editorial subjects which interest us both but can be turned into versions that suit our audiences.’

C4′s line-up during Gardam’s first year didn’t rate very well and forthcoming projects on women’s health and deafness don’t look like obvious audience-pullers either. Gardam claims, however, that his new season has started off ‘ridiculously well.’ ‘Ratings aren’t all we are about – but they are important to us,’ he says. ‘My attitude is that good ratings means more income which means better programs.’

Channel 5: More with less

Channel 5′s tight budget has made it hard for the channel to commission major blue-chip factual series. Its key scheduling successes have been regular movies at 11 p.m., high-profile soccer matches and one-off events like The Miss World Contest.

It has had success with gritty observational documentaries, like Family Confidential (produced by United). United director of programs John Willis says C5 ‘hasn’t got the money for original drama. But it has worked out that you can tackle mainstream audiences on minority budgets by making popular factual series. If it can get one million viewers in early evening then it is doing okay.’

Post-watershed adult films like Swindon Superbabes and The Real Monty underline the network’s desire to be viewed as a cheeky channel. Key acquisitions, such as Strippers from HBO, have also secured 25% share for C5. Recent productions like the film A Thong For Europe and The Female Orgasm reinforced this saucy approach.

Given the budgetary constraints, C5 is more flexible on funding than either itv or C4. It aired the Wall to Wall/HBO/ITEL/C5 series Into the Flames and a disaster series Avalanche. It has also been quick to link up with producers on advertiser-funded series like Bazal/Unilever’s Animal Alert and The Pepsi Chart Show.

BBC: Doing more with more

One name which appears on every short list for senior managerial posts is that of Paul Hamann – the BBC’s head of docs and history. As head of a 300-strong department producing 200 hours a year, he is one of the most powerful decision-makers in U.K. TV.

As the main provider of factual programs to BBC1 and BBC2, Hamann oversees a huge range of output – and claims to have about 40 productions on the go at any one time. His own personal highlights reflect that diversity.

Among popular documentaries, he singles out bbc1′s continued success with Lion Television’s Airport, ‘an intelligent, popular documentary series which attracted 9.3 million on Saturday night.’

He is also highly complimentary of Jenny Abbott’s Nurse which attracted an average audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. ‘Jenny followed a group of trainees over a four year training period – tackling a range of issues along the way. Not many companies have the critical mass to support that level of dedication. But the result was beautifully shot. It really fired on all cylinders.’

There has been criticism – particularly aimed at BBC1 controller Peter Salmon – that too many popular documentaries have been commissioned in the U.K. Hamann accepts that, but says: ‘I’d like to think the schlocky ones didn’t come from this department. Long-runners like Airport and Children’s Hospital [from Lion Television] are carefully crafted – and not vulgar.’

Hamann’s department is also home to some of the most challenging documentaries to emerge from the U.K. He singles out The Mayfair Set – the latest work from highly-rated director Adam Curtis – for its ‘authorship. It was a pulsating piece of journalism which investigated a group of entrepreneurs seeking to overthrow governments.’ Other highlights include a series of films on poverty called Eyes of a Child and Olivia Lichtenstein’s Tongue-Tied.

Coming up in the fall schedule are numerous series, which Hamann expects to keep up the quality of his department’s output. In The Talking Cure, the BBC looks at leading psychotherapy unit, The Tavistock Clinic. Another highlight in the fall schedule is Laurence Rees’ War of the Century – a series which looks at the Russian front in WWII.

Hamann says the BBC’s major factual strands – which include Modern Times, Inside Story, Timewatch and Reputations – continue to employ ‘talented teams on high quality productions.’ But he is equally effusive about experimental outfit The Production Village – which consists of 50 young filmmakers producing programs at low cost for the corporation’s diginets.

‘DV cameras are providing a real opportunity for all young people in factual TV to demonstrate authorship,’ explains Hamann. ‘They are able to make more passionate films because no one is diluting the creative process.’ He also singles out the low-budget work of the community and disability units – the latter recently creating acclaimed three-parter The Disabled Century.

Hamann is keen to ensure his department is alert to new opportunities. Recently, it oversaw a BBC2 themed evening celebrating the 30th anniversary of Monty Python, ‘a project which could easily have come out of the entertainment department.’ His outfit is also in the process of producing dramas using narrative and technical skills honed in the factual environment.

Coproduction is also on the agenda. Although not willing to discuss detail, Hamann claims to be well down the road on collaborations with Discovery Channel’s Mike Quattrone.

The Monty Python evening is evidence that event programming is moving up the agenda at the BBC, says Hamann. He also points out that BBC2 recently cleared three hours to show the whole of a landmark factual mini-series called Gulag. The NHU’s long-awaited Walking with Dinosaurs was also heavily trailed in the build-up to its debut on BBC1.

During ’98/’99, factual TV accounted for 50% of BBC1 and BBC2′s schedules. Hamann is not complacent about his department’s role in providing a large share of that output. But with new director general Greg Dyke now in place he is confident that going forward, ‘factual and history will continue to play a key role in fulfilling our public service remit.’

While blue chip series continue to do well, BBC1′s controller Peter Salmon has a lot to prove after a lackluster year. Although he had £752 million to spend on programming last year, he told the Edinburgh TV Festival that his cash was stretched. He also admitted there had been too many docusoaps, saying ‘the genre has been overplayed.’ In its annual review, the BBC said it would make more effort to schedule current affairs, music and arts in the heart of the schedule.


As for non-terrestrial…

Discovery Europe

Among non-terrestrials, Sky and Discovery are still the major commissioners of factual programs. Sky recently released an extra £20 million for original production, while Discovery has managed to generate four new series from a summer project called Pilots – in which ten indies provided one show each on different subjects.

Discovery Europe commissioning chief Peter Weil says: ‘The ten one-offs did okay in ratings terms, considering they were budgeted at £15,000 each. But the real benefit has been that we’re able to commission Wildlife Sanctuary from Real Life Productions, Confessions of from Lion TV, Tales of the Black Moon from Carey Street and an astronomy series.’

Weil is also keen to introduce events into the schedule, and had great ratings success in August with Discovery Europe’s live coverage of the Eclipse of the Sun (produced by itn Factual). He has another major event lined up for next spring. Other recent successes include War Stories, a series from London Weekend Television’s The Lab which talked to some unusual survivors of WWII.

This fall, Weil’s most ambitious venture is the launch of a daily news bulletin called Discovery Today. Airing at 4:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., the bulletins combine news, reviews and previews relating to Discovery-type topics. Material will be supplied by the likes of ITN, ABC, Cafe and Discovery itself. ‘The idea is to give the schedule a spine – and allow us to be more topical.’

Weil is looking to mix up his commissions by working with established companies like ITN and Lion and by introducing new talent. In the latter camp is a series about the history of the camera called Eyes on the World from Precise Media.

Weil also plans to bring on new talent by repeating his pilot exercise – though next time it will be more focused. Key slots like the late night Power Zone will be singled out for attention in each budgetary year.

Although Weil’s primary goal is to feed the European network, some series have been picked up by the U.S. Tales from the Black Moon has been commissioned by TLC, and NMTV’s magazine series Plane Crazy will air on Discovery Wings. An LWT film about Madam Tussaud’s went out on Discovery’s On the Inside strand. In a separate development, Weil has commissioned Roger Bolton Productions to make a film about two sectarian killers in Northern Ireland for DCI’s proposed `Hate’ season next year. AF


Looking for opportunities

In September, Granada Media unveiled plans to launch a U.S. factual production base in partnership with The New York Times. Granada’s interests are represented by Charles Tremayne who becomes VP of Granada Factuals USA – although he also continues in his current role as controller of factual programs for Granada Television.

According to Tremayne, ‘To create a worldwide factual business you need an ongoing relationship with the U.S. market where a large proportion of funding comes from. In many cases, we need a primary sell to the U.S. to make a project viable – and have been looking to create an East Coast base for a while.’

The joint venture, engineered by the William Morris agency, creates a strong fit, says Tremayne. ‘The NYT needed quality program-making muscle. We needed an intelligent partner which could give us insights into areas like science, culture, business and lifestyle. Producers depend on newspapers for ideas and, with this access to the NYT, we should see a step change in our U.S. business.’

In practise, the deal means that Granada will have an on-site development team working with the paper’s journalists on a day-to-day basis. If an idea comes to fruition, then NYT will have real editorial input in areas such as scripting.

Tremayne says the deal allows financial scope to add a NYT journalist to the joint venture production team. Their primary journalistic function would then be supported by bringing in additional staff. ‘The bottom line is that Granada and the NYT have got to be proud of shows that the JV produces under their names.’

The JV is expected to be the key conduit through which Granada produces factual programs in North America. But Tremayne stresses it is a non-exclusive arrangement.

Alongside Tremayne, Granada Media International’s John Drury will work as factual coproduction executive – uncovering ideas and potential partners for all three Granada production outfits: Granada, London Weekend Television and Yorkshire.

Drury will also whip up support in territories like Germany, Japan, Italy and France, says Tremayne. ‘The whole international structure should give us more muscle and make us less introverted. Increasingly, we will be able to sell to the U.K. at acquisition prices.’

In addition to U.S.-based activities, Granada departments in the U.K. will continue to nurture their own coproduction partnerships. The science unit in Manchester has its own ideas, says Tremayne, highlighting Bill Jones’ Savage franchise (created in partnership with PBS). Granada produced an Edward and Sophie bio for A&E and is talking to HBO about working together with signature directors. Even Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet continue to have ‘a huge appetite for programming,’ despite their own JV with the BBC, he adds.

At MIP, Yorkshire showed its own ambition overseas by launching YAP, a factual joint venture with Canada’s Associated Producers. YAP, which combines the talents of Pauline Duffy, Elliott Halpern and Simcha Jacobovici, has already revealed an extensive slate. Yorkshire is also planning a push into natural history.

Tremayne believes Granada’s international vision has allowed it to make quality films that would otherwise not been funded. He cites The Crossing, a wartime story which attracted 40% of funding from The History Channel in the U.S. Subsequently, it was sold back to BBC’s Timewatch strand as an acquisition.

But he stresses overseas activities are not at the expense of domestic production activity. The company’s three production units make factual shows for all main U.K. outlets. Recent credits include Tonight with Trevor MacDonald for ITV, Blood Red Roses for C4, Battlestripes and Flying Vets for C5 and the recently-revived anthropological strand Disappearing World for Discovery Europe. Tremayne says Granada has also been commissioned to make some films for ITV’s Real Life strand.

Despite losing Paul Watson to United, Tremayne claims he is committed to keeping top-talent in-house. ‘We had four great years with Paul – but couldn’t give him the wider brief he wanted. It is important for us to work with great directors and we are actively seeking senior filmmakers to join the company.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.