This spring UK terrestrial Channel 4 (C4) made its first move into brand-funded specialist factual, giving UK indie Twofour Productions a green light to produce Future Family, a five-part series partly funded by energy company E.ON.
For Twofour, the job marked the first of several major brand-backed commissions this year, including an order in August for Bumps, Babies and Beyond, an online series hosted by musician Myleene Klass for web portal Yahoo!.
Andrew Mackenzie, who quit his job as C4′s head of factual entertainment in February 2010 to become TwoFour’s group creative director, says he has noticed in a short space of time how proclivities towards branded entertainment have changed in the UK market.
“Things are moving quite quickly, and in the past couple of years broadcasters’ attitudes have changed,” Mackenzie says. “I came from a broadcaster about 18 months ago and I could feel the change happen over that period; they have become a lot less ‘sniffy’ about ad-funded programs.
“They’re no longer at the periphery of the schedule, and that’s something that [chief creative officer] Jay Hunt and [CEO] David Abraham at C4 are not shying away from; they’re seeing that you can get credible programs and they can be ad-funded or partly ad-funded, as this one is.”
In Future Family, which airs later this year, a typical 1930s British home will be refitted with the latest technology – some of which is years away from being made available to the general public – in a bid to create the ultimate environmentally friendly “home of the future.”
The project was put out to tender by GroupM Entertainment on behalf of E.ON, to which Twofour submitted a proposal. “The broad brief was about green housing and how in E.ON’s world, making houses more efficient is a key message,” Mackenzie recalls.
“That, as any commissioner or program-maker in the factual space will tell you, is quite a dry field, and quite a difficult one to turn into primetime telly.”
Twofour’s initial proposal was to create the world’s most futuristic house from the ground up, which E.ON “sort of bought into,” before instead suggesting to the prodco that they take an existing pre-war British house and transform that.
While the collaborative process proved smooth on this occasion, he acknowledges that this won’t always be the case. “When I pitch programs to broadcasters, it’s quite a simple relationship,” he offers. “They say yes or no, and then they tell me how much they’re willing to pay for it if it’s a yes.
“This, however, isn’t that simple. The more people that are involved in editorial decisions, the worst a program can be, because you can end up with a really soggy, oversold pizza of a program, and it can be a nightmare.”
Thankfully, Mackenzie says that wasn’t the case here. In addition to pleasing E.ON, there was also the question of the broadcaster. Arriving with brand money on the table did not mean carte blanche creatively.
“The head of specialist factual [at C4], Ralph Lee, said: ‘I’m only interested if I’d pay for this myself,’ which is a slightly perverse way of thinking about it,” Mackenzie recalls. “But actually, he’s got his cake and he can eat it.”
Despite the tiptoeing required, Mackenzie has high hopes for the show, and says it could even work as a format further down the line. “Potentially – who knows,” he says. “Let’s have a hit first series first.”