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Summit ’15: Putting the “special” in specialist factual

What, exactly, does specialist factual mean any more? The field's blurred definition was the focus of a Realscreen Summit session (pictured) entitled "Putting the 'Special' in Specialist Factual," which debated what lay ahead for the field.
January 29, 2015

What, exactly, does specialist factual mean any more? The field’s blurred definition was the focus of a Realscreen Summit session entitled “Putting the ‘Special’ in Specialist Factual,” which unpacked the label and debated what lay ahead for the field.

Moderated by Earth Touch USA MD Phil Fairclough, the session on Wednesday (January 28) examined the spectrum of high-end history, science and natural history programming that generally falls under the banner of specialist factual, and how it differentiates itself within the unscripted landscape.

“‘Specialist factual’ doesn’t mean that much to an audience, but coming out from the BBC to the U.S., something that means something in the U.S. is factual specials.” said Chris Cole, senior VP of sales and coproduction factual for BBC Worldwide North America, which recently inked a multi-title copro deal with the BBC and PBS, which was represented on the panel by chief programming exec and GM for general audience programming Beth Hoppe (pictured above, second right).

“To me, the phrase ‘specialist factual’ doesn’t mean a lot – and I think in this country it generally doesn’t mean a lot – but a lot of what we do actually falls into it,” offered Hoppe.

Rick Holzman - GM and executive VP of Animal Planet – said the term generally tells him one thing immediately: “When I’m with a producer who says he’s specialist factual, it says to me that they’re on top of their material, but it tells me nothing about how they want to tell stories, how they want to grab the audience or why the audience should care about the story they’re going to tell.

“You can have all of your facts right but if you don’t give a viewer a reason to care about the story, it doesn’t matter how beautifully shot it is or anything,” the exec added.

Over at National Geographic Channels International, executive VP and head of international content Hamish Mykura (pictured above, second left) pointed out that the term – though seldom used at the company – generally refers to “big science, big technology, great stories about adventure, great stories about exploration and stories about anthropology.

“All in some way fall into the category of specialist factual, but I would never define them as that and I don’t think any viewer would feel the need to define them as that either,” he added.

Similarly, Arrow Media creative director John Smithson (pictured above, left) said he could “care less” about the labels, insisting that it was about good stories. The exec used the example of the Arrow-produced National Geographic special Live from Space, and how it represents a leap forward for both specialist factual as well as space programming, which used to be a “ratings dead zone.”

“Old specialist factual was ‘The History of Space.’ New specialist factual is what we tried to do with Live from Space,” he said. “Trying to make it sexy. Hollywood was doing it – we just had at that time Gravity – and we thought, we can do it and we can do it differently if we do it live.”

As for whether specialist factual is staying on top?

“Totally,” said Smithson. “It’s where the money is, it’s where the ambition is, it’s where the innovation is.”

Elaborating, Mykura added: “There’s been a whole arrival of being able to do scripted reconstruction storytelling, there’s been living history where people went and lived as monks… now we’re increasingly accessing user-generated content.

“Each one of these things has been a way of unlocking the storytelling in a really innovative way. I don’t think there’s any area of program-making that’s been so consistently innovative over the years and is consistently able to reinvent itself.”

The BBC’s Cole added that, because there is so much diversity within the field, the prospects for specialist factual going forward also look promising.

“Some people are interested in fishing and some people are interested in the Roosevelts and some people are interested in conservation, and that’s why specialist factual is such a successful and growing genre, because finally we’re in a place where it can be in short-form, in digital, 90 minutes, 60 minutes – I’d say we’re beginning a real Golden Age,” he said.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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