The documentary department of the U.K.’s Channel 4 is advising doc-makers to expect a ‘ruthless’ year, with increased pressure to secure ratings. ‘Next year will be much more competitive,’ department head Peter Dale told independent producers at an information session in January. Dale said most docs will be expected to perform well in weekday 9 P.M. and 10 P.M. slots, earning upwards of 2.5 million viewers. One exception is the Independent Film and Video unit, headed by commissioning editor Jess Search.
The broadcaster suffered a difficult year, shedding more than 200 jobs and streamlining the commissioning process in 2002. Financial pressures are reflected in their comments at the session, where department executives emphasized the need for popular films with broad appeal.
Dale said that ‘nice-to-have’ docs, considered worthy but unlikely to garner high ratings, would probably not be commissioned. As an example he cited the award-winning House of War: Uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif, produced by London-based Diverse Productions for C4 and U.S. cablecaster CNN. ‘We took a deep breath, raised coproduction and went for it,’ Dale said, immediately adding, ‘But, those opportunities are much more scarce than they were two years ago.’
Hilary Bell, commissioning editor, ‘Cutting Edge’ and series, said C4 will keep looking for winning formats, such as Faking It, which has been hugely successful, and the recent hit Wife Swap, both produced by London-based RDF Media.
In Wife Swap, women from two very different backgrounds switch places for 10 days, taking on all the duties of the adopted household (minus sex) in the first five days and imposing their own rules during the remaining time. Bell praised the programs, stating, ‘I get incredibly irritated by sniffy attitudes towards formats… In fact, when formats work well they act as a catalyst for change.’
Bell said she is also now looking for up to 18 single films about contemporary life, including films that are ‘anxiety-provoking tales for the middle class.’ She dubbed such programs ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ films. Similarly, Sam Bickley, who oversees multicultural commissions for the department, said she is seeking films to ‘play into white, anxious-liberal feelings when dealing with race.’