The Documentary Channel in New Zealand is just coming up on its third birthday, and though it functions as an independent channel making money mostly from subscriber revenue through Sky, it currently acquires from 150 distributors and countless producers internationally. Realscreen spoke with the founder of the channel, Richard Driver, about the types of programs that are working for the small channel and got advice for producers and distributors who would like to get on their airwaves.
What kinds of programs are you looking for?
The controlling idea behind the channel is we’re driven by personal narratives. We don’t deal in sharks or Nazis or engineering feats or wildlife or standard history lessons. We have a slate of content which is health and medical stories, investigative, biography, travel and adventure – the heart of which is someone’s personal adventure. We play festival documentaries and there’s a reasonable amount of family viewing as well. I think you’d call it ethnological, the kind of stuff National Geographic used to do when I read the magazine as a kid.
We operate as what I would call a pan-commonwealth channel; we specifically look to programming commissioned for terrestrial broadcast out of the UK. That’s probably our single biggest source of content. New Zealand is still a very Anglicized country; where Australia might look more towards North America, I think we’re a small nation which grew up watching English television because that’s what broadcasters played all our lives. So we look to UK distributors and producers predominantly, but we’ve also been licensing from Canadian, Australian, even South African sources, and a lot of English content made by European producers. We go to MIP once a year and we work a little bit under the radar because we’re a very small, privately-owned company; we’re not part of any major group. It’s baby steps, but it’s working.
How many programs do you acquire in a given year and what is the balance you keep between series and documentaries?
We program roughly 750 hours a year. I think for the first two years it was very much dominated by single documentaries, because we found the larger more established broadcasters were focusing on series and there were a lot more single documentaries available to us. But I think it’s a very equitable split between series and singles at the moment.
What types of programs work best for you right now?
What has done very well for us is a series called Trails from the East which was a 13-part, really low-key series which took a filmmaker on a train journey from Vietnam all the way back to Austria in Europe over 13 weeks. It didn’t come with any big history attached to it, we licensed it from First Hand Films, and it was one of our most successful and most watched shows over the third quarter of this year. So it’s really hard to predict in some ways what’s going to work for us.
What advice do you have for producers or distributors who would like their work on your channel?
This is a very small market. We have a nation of four million people, and we operate on the Sky pay-TV digital platform which has 750,000 subscribers, so it’s a great channel, it’s just very small.
I can’t really offer any advice other than look at the controlling ideas, check out our website and if you have a program that at the heart of it is a personal narrative, it’s worth contacting us. If it’s strictly wildlife or something that’s not painting a canvas of the human experience, it’s probably not something we’d look at seriously.