The documentaries team at the BBC has a new boss, a new structure and a new mindset going into 2016.
Since former Boundless Productions MD Patrick Holland started working as head of documentaries in September – replacing Emma Willis who left in 2014 – he has hired former Indus Films exec Jamie Balment and former Voltage TV exec Danny Horan as commissioning editors and promoted Clare Sillery to commissioning editor.
Holland’s goal is to develop a pan-BBC strategy that encourages independent and in-house producers to bring projects to the doc commissioners who will then determine the timeslot and whether it is a fit for BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 or BBC4.
“What was happening before was a commissioner would say, ‘We’re looking for short series at 9 o’clock,’ and that is a way to drive ambition down,” he explains. “Rather than people thinking, ‘How can I make a story about the biggest, most important subject in the UK today,’ producers were thinking, ‘How can I make a three-part series for £180,000 an episode that would fit on BBC2 at 9 o’clock?’
“I haven’t got single commissioning editors working to single channels,” he adds. “There are no silos.”
Holland’s team commissions more than 50 hours for BBC1, upwards of 80 hours for BBC2 and 50 hours for BBC3.
BBC1 airs dramatic character-led documentary series that give viewers exclusive access into a particular world, such as The Met: Policing London. Execs are interested in reputational series and documentaries and will air four or five big 90-minute documentaries a year.
One such doc will be director Olly Lambert and Minnow Films’ Abused: The Untold Story (working title), a film about child abuse in the UK and the cultural impact of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
The network also airs formatted documentary and competition series, such as The Great British Bake Off. Although that series is a ratings hit, Holland is sensing that many big formats are feeling tired in the UK.
“Heart, warmth and a sense of purpose are really important to competition formats,” he says. “Audiences are feeling alienated by formats where there’s a sense of the heavy hand of the producer or an over-reliance on rules.”
In general, Holland wants to see BBC2 to move away from docs that describe the world to commission projects that “actively engage with it.”
BBC2 docs should have a vibrancy and storytelling device that draws viewers into a story, with Holland citing The Detectives, which took viewers inside the sex crimes unit of the Manchester police, as an example. “That means we’re looking for present-tense series that put the audience up close to how the world is changing in the UK,” says Holland.
BBC3 is moving online but some of its long-form docs will also air across the terrestrial networks. Holland’s team will also commission five and 10-minute interstitial programs to air around films and series that will be released online “like a box-set” for viewers who prefer to binge-watch as they please.
“There has been a sense at the BBC that commissioning is a passive role and that we take ideas from producers and just deliver them to the channels,” says Holland. “I’m much keener on the team working collaboratively with producers so that we work with you on the best ideas to give them the best chance.”
While the majority of the BBC’s output is commissioned in the UK, Holland also wants to have coproduction conversations earlier on for feature documentaries that require substantial secondary rights investment. The pubcaster is in talks with a U.S. broadcaster to coproduce a big-name documentary filmmaker’s next project.
“Increasingly we’re going to be having those sorts of discussions,” he says. “We would be interested in being involved at an earlier stage. Projects like Amy or Virunga – we would love to be talking copro with other people around the world on projects like that.”
Diversity is another issue that is top of mind for Holland. He wants to build on director Robb Leech’s Welcome to the Mosque, about an East London mosque that is often at the center of radical Islam news coverage. A doc series about immigration and a series about the housing crisis in London are also in the works at BBC2.
Holland maintains he also wants more working class voices in the mix at the BBC.
“There are a lot of middle-class white people making television,” he says. “There is a new talent scheme we’re bringing in early next year that is going to be a talent ladder through BBC Documentary. We’re actively looking for people who come from different backgrounds.”
- This story, part of our Commissioning Report, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.