Simon Dickson, the deputy head of documentaries for Channel 4, chatted with realscreen about programming strategy, program budgets and following up the innovative The Family series.
In offering a bare bones summary of Channel 4′s programming strategy, Dickson says it’s all about ‘commissioning great documentaries and achieving ratings success and reputation with them.’
As for the effect of the economy on the public broadcaster, which is very publicly going through some tumultuous times, amidst budget cuts, layoffs and threats of merging? ‘Channel 4′s overall program budget for next year will be slightly smaller than this year’s, but as ever the money for the right thing is still here,’ he maintains. Ambitious series or programs that demand more money to make will be offset by scaling down budgets on other productions that might not necessarily need that much. It’s also about getting creative, so C4 is looking at more coproductions and acquisitions.
An example of recent big-budget success is The Family (see realscreen’s in-depth look at The Family here) which documented the life of a regular British family by installing 20 cameras throughout their house. Channel 4 is looking to bank on that success by following up with similar series, one in 2009 with a new family, and one in 2010 with the same technology but a new environment. ‘Those programs are phenomenally expensive, so when production companies feel that they’re getting less money for a program than they would like, it’s only as a consequence of how we’re thinking very creatively about which programs we pay more than usual for and, consequently, which ones we pay slightly less for,’ says Dickson.
For producers pitching to C4 for the first time, Dickson offers this advice: ‘Have a good idea, be persistent and be nice.’ He also sympathizes with the lot of the independent producer. ‘I think they’re rather brave and incredibly brilliant to do what they do,’ he says, and especially respects their resiliency when their ideas are rejected. ‘I think one of the tough things for them is not knowing why broadcasters accept some ideas but reject others. It must seem to some of them extremely mysterious.
‘The truth is it’s a complicated business and there are things we commission within an organization like Channel 4 … within these four walls there are different departments and some of those ideas overlap and some ideas are better made by some companies than others,’ he explains. ‘At our heart we believe in the power of brilliant television and we were created to support and nurture great storytelling content to Great Britain. [Producers] should contact me and my colleagues through the usual channels.’