Structural Reinforcements

There have been widespread changes to commissioning departments recently, and it's hard for indie producers to keep up. Aware that you're probably focused on holiday plans and the credit crunch, realscreen did the legwork to get the lowdown on revamped commissioning structures at key broadcasters
November 1, 2008


Since Jane Rogerson was appointed director of commissioning for factual and factual entertainment at UKTV about a year ago, the amount of commissions at UKTV – a commercial joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Virgin Media Television – has roughly doubled. Eight of UKTV’s 10 channels do factual-related commissions, and roughly 800 hours per year are commissioned from indies, with some UKTV channels, such as Food and Style, commissioning a higher level of content than others.

UKTV is on a rebranding run that will see its entire factual portfolio get an overhaul in 2009. To start off, Rogerson says two new factual channels will launch early next year: Blighty will celebrate all things British, and Eden will focus on the beauty of the natural world. ‘As those rebrands have been coming through, we’ve been increasing our commissions to offer more originality and creativity to each of the channel brands,’ says Rogerson. Four or five series will be commissioned next year for Blighty, and later in 2009 Food and Style will also be rebranded with Rogerson looking for stand-out projects. ‘Anything we commission has to feel as if there’s enough noise to it to get a big marketing campaign behind it,’ she says.

With all of this new programming to come down the pipeline, it’s a good thing Rogerson reconfigured the commissioning structure when she came onboard. ‘We put more senior people into commissioning and we sit at an equal level alongside the other directors in the company,’ says Rogerson.

‘We wanted to build up a team who had a reputation for being creative, ambitious and hungry for stand-out content,’ she says. ‘I think commissioning could be seen by producers as a fringe activity at UKTV before, whereas now it’s absolutely central to all of the channels, both in terms of what we commission, how much we pay and how many commissions we’re doing – that’s all taken a massive leap forward.’

It’s best for producers with ideas for a UKTV channel to pitch either the commissioning coordinator or development producer first. Shortlisted ideas are then taken to one of the three commissioning editors that take care of all 10 UKTV channels. If they’re interested in your idea, things move along quite quickly. ‘We’re a small team and we all sit together in an open plan so it’s a pretty easy, open dialog,’ says Rogerson.

As for budgets, Rogerson says they are almost entirely dependent on the idea, as well as which channel the show will go on. ‘Food is quite a small channel in terms of audience reach, but fairly high profile in terms of ABC1 reach,’ says Rogerson, ‘so we will look at the lowest at £40,000 an hour, whereas when you get into the freeview channels like Dave and Gold, you’re talking about an average of £100,000 or £110,000 an hour.


For a long time, BBC commissioning was set up entirely by genre, regardless of who was producing it. But there’s been a major change: now the commissioning is split between in-house and independents, with a separate team looking after each of the two groups. ‘Before it was set up entirely by genre, so the documentary commissioning editor would do in-house and independent, and now we have two commissioning editors for documentary: one for in-house, and one for independent,’ says Richard Klein, head of independent commissioning for BBC Knowledge.

The independent team has four commissioning editors who look after the documentary, specialist factual, features and arts/music/religion genres. (Of the non-fiction content BBC airs, 25% is from indies, 25% is Window of Creative Competition, and 50% is done in-house.)

The benefits of changing the way the department is set up is that independents and the in-house sides have dedicated teams of commissioning editors. ‘Indies feel it’s nice to have their own team looking after them,’ says Klein. ‘And since I only look after independents, there can be no question that I’m overlooking in-house for an independent or vice versa. It’s a fairer system, some might say.’

There’s another benefit, says Klein. ‘It’s a system geared to ensure the best ideas come to the right people and you’ve got a variety of entry points coming into the department.’

The downside, it may be argued, is that it’s very challenging to have an overall genre view, ‘so who actually has the strategic overview on documentary or specialist factual?’ ponders Klein. ‘It’s more difficult now.’


Before Canwest bought Alliance Atlantis and its raft of channels in January 2007, Canwest was structured in a way that original content was embodied in one team of executives. Under Christine Shipton and her team, who were focused on original content, fell documentary, entertainment and drama.

The system worked well since original content was always represented when it came to big group scheduling and budget meetings. So when Canwest integrated the 13 Alliance Atlantis channels, the existing structure was kept in place and expanded on. ‘My whole team is a content team only,’ says Shipton, who is now SVP of drama and factual content. ‘We’re not doing scheduling, we’re not doing buying – we’re purely devoted to creating content.’ Still, Shipton and her two VPs do work closely with those who buy for different channels to keep in the loop about the programming mix. ‘But we’re like a mini-studio inside our company: we deliver content to our channels that require factual content,’ she says.

Within Shipton’s group, the factual team, which is run by Michael Kot, knows what it needs to commission for factual-focused channels like History, Mystery, E! and Global. ‘That allows for a really nice mix of programming,’ says Shipton. ‘Executives are working on more than one kind of program, not solely things for History or solely for Global, so they have different strengths and relationships within the production community.’

The first point of entry for producers with factual content to pitch is Kot’s team, which consists of a director and four production executives. ‘I think sometimes people see us as a big company and forget that all you need is to come through one person’s door,’ says Shipton. ‘They will shepherd you and your project wherever it needs to go through the whole company.’

Shipton gives a quick breakdown of the specific needs of some of Canwest’s factual channels: for History Television, the commissioners want limited series and series more so than one-offs. ‘We look for highly promotable event one-offs,’ says Shipton. For Global, they’re looking for one-offs for the doc strand ‘Global Currents.’ They also want doc series and some episodic reality shows. On Mystery TV, the team has been doing some commissioning ‘on fun stuff that fits into Mystery’s brand,’ says Shipton. ‘Give us something intriguing that’s about mystery: it needs to be ‘the mystery of…’ What is a mystery you want our audience to stay and uncover?’

Her last bit of advice to producers is that while it’s fine to target your project pitch to one Canwest channel, the Canwest team will know best where to direct your show. ‘If you pitch a great show, we’re the ones that say ‘That would work really great over there,” says Shipton. ‘We don’t need producers to have all the answers when they come in – they just need to have a great idea.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.