Docs and C4

Carol Nahra spoke with Simon Dickson, deputy head of Channel 4's doc department, about the British factual landscape, working with indies and the climate for docs at C4
December 1, 2008

C4′s Simon Dickson on…

…British factual
There are a great many programmes where the premise is pretty similar rhythmically. You’ve got a protoganist. He’s got a particular period of time, maybe even a specific sum of money in order to achieve something. The chips are down. He’s against the clock. I guess that is the classic stuff of drama, since Roman and Greek times. It’s nice for Channel 4, particularly with our remit to innovate and do things differently, to try and find slightly different ways of dealing with subject matter and different ways of constructing narrative. We don’t have to get locked into the drama mold – he’s got just fifty minutes to do something. I think it’s sometimes hard for broadcasters to make that leap.

…Working with Indies
A lot of the times what we get offered is a reheat of what we’ve been successful with before. Part of the commissioning team’s job is to work with those indies that are still turned on by the creative challenge of doing something differently. And of course doing things differently takes a bit more time, more intellectual effort and energy, and more ambition. It means you’ve got to find a company where those values are absolutely at the heart of its commercial vision. There are some companies for whom that sort of creative ambition is more central, but the challenge is picking them out and at the same time achieving creative growth within the mainstream. It’s important to me and everyone here that we do innovative and eye-catching stuff at 9 o’clock. We’re not simply experimenting on the margins or doing innovative single docs that can play late at night or at other less visible parts of the schedule.

…the climate for Documentaries at Channel 4
Documentaries are currently the Channel’s beating heart. Their recent success, in terms of ratings and reputation, has been pretty remarkable, and we just have to keep that up. That kind of middling quality that you see from so many channels is something that documentary is in the vanguard of fighting against. We don’t want to be middling; we want to be the place where you go for stimulation and innovation. We want to be the most engaging factual television programming in the UK. This year’s been pretty good. We’ve had quite a number of things that have way outperformed the norm and far surpassed people’s expectations of them. We look forward to much more of that.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.