When it comes to a motto for the documentary department at British pubcaster Channel 4, its head of documentaries, Hamish Mykura, has stated the following: “Inspire change, do it first, make trouble.” It’s a motto that Mykura and deputy head of documentaries Simon Dickson have seemingly turned to repeatedly over the past few years.
Whether it’s through reinvigorating the observational doc through innovative production techniques (with series such as One Born Every Minute and The Family, which plant specially-designed camera rigs in homes and hospitals to capture as much as possible), or through tackling topics of the day through button-pushing docudramas (see 2010′s The Taking of Prince Harry), Mykura and Dickson make a point of commissioning loud, watercooler-worthy factual television.
But such moves can, and do, raise the hackles of those who consider themselves documentary purists and average viewers alike, not to mention the occasional Member of Parliament. “I think that documentary on TV should always be evolving, trying new things and offending the purists,” says Mykura, who oversees C4′s doc strand ‘The Cutting Edge’ as well as digital channel More4. He cites Darlow Smithson’s The Falling Man, which attempted to find the identity of a man pictured plunging from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and ITN Factual’s Diana: the Witnesses in the Tunnel as two programs that may have tackled “taboo” subjects, but have since gained appreciation internationally and at home.
“Both were very controversial shows before transmission and faced calls to be withdrawn, but a couple of years on, it’s clear that these films were influential and evidently worthwhile,” he says. “That’s the case with a lot of the best documentary commissions on Channel 4.” However, he says the pubcaster is still in the business of airing more traditional (ie: safer) documentaries as well as international projects.
Dickson, whose remit covers documentary series, has commissioned programs that revamp the idea of the access-driven, institutional factual series (such as The Hospital and Coppers), as well as series that aim to take the idea of reality programming to a new, interactive level. Seven Days, produced by Studio Lambert, generated much buzz for its approach to “real-time’ reality (each episode was shot, edited and aired over the course of a week), but ratings failed to live up to the hype.
“I bear some of the responsibility for it not becoming a smash hit,” Dickson says now. “I don’t think we got episode one right, and the audience was, initially, confused about what it was we were offering them.” Still, he’s pleased with the response to the series from Channel 4′s online audience.
“Week after week, Seven Days would be the program with the largest number of comments on our website – sometimes twice as many as all our other programs put together,” he says. “This isn’t a substitute for a large traditional TV audience, but it’s a fascinating foretaste of the converged TV and online adventures that lie ahead.”
Dickson goes as far as to say that Channel 4 “must now go beyond creating straightforward program ideas,” with a move towards “creating new interactive services that our audience will enjoy, all the while ensuring that they have Channel 4 values at their heart.” However the programs find their audiences, both Mykura and Dickson want the viewers to be engaged and ultimately challenged by the material.
Looking forward, how do you see Channel 4′s documentary programming, and doc programming in general, evolving over the next couple of years?
Mykura: Three years ago most documentary series were three or four hours. Now our series are usually eight, 10 or even 14 hours long. Now, with a distinctive feel and moving and entertaining characters, I think documentary can be in the absolute mainstream of popular TV, rather than at the margins.
What makes a doc series or project perfect for C4?
Dickson: I start with a clear strategic sense of [where] the channel needs to be headed, then experiment, continually, within that framework, until I come up with an idea that I think no one else will have, either inside, or outside, of our building. I try to think about the sorts of things that our audience will have on their mind and then find a creatively distinct way of tapping into them.
Channel 4 was created to offer an alternative to the established broadcast networks in the UK – primarily the BBC and ITV. I try to be the “alternative within the alternative,” but always with an eye on ratings performance.