Just the Facts

With the MIPDoc and MIPTV markets in mind, realscreen solicited input from four top decision-makers in factual TV, to find out what's working for their networks, what they'd like to program more of, and what they see for the immediate future of factual
March 1, 2010

George Entwistle, Controller, Knowledge Commissioning, BBC

What’s been working well across the BBC channels in terms of factual programming?

We’ve had a very good spell for factual across all our channels in recent months. On BBC One, our arts landmark series Seven Ages of Britain [coproduced by The Open University] has been a treat from start to finish and has played to healthy audiences. Documentary has been strong too, with Evan Davis’ provocative film The Day the Immigrants Left getting a massive audience. We’ve had a sequence of exceptional output on BBC Two including The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best; Mastercrafts [Ricochet]; Empire of the Seas; How Earth Made Us [a BBC/NGC/ZDF copro]; Seven Wonders of the Solar System and Lambing Live. On BBC Four, our music programming remains strong: Heavy Metal Britannia and the forthcoming Sacred Music II [coproduced with The Open University] carrying the standard; and Michael Cockerell’s Great Offices of State was a model of its kind.

What were you especially proud of airing over the past year?

Rosa Monckton’s documentary for BBC One, When A Mother’s Love is Not Enough, was a brave and moving film. Likewise, BBC Two’s recent Why Did You Kill My Dad? tackled the painful but highly important subject of murders committed by the mentally ill. A recent edition of ‘Horizon’ – about infinity, directed by Stephen Cooter – was a welcome reminder for me of that great strand’s capacity to deliver complex ideas in superb filmic form. BBC Three’s factual output gets serious ideas to the harder-to-reach young audience in a way I’m very proud of – Blood, Sweat and Takeaways [Ricochet] and World’s Strictest Parents [ Twenty Twenty] were standouts.

What contemporary or specialist factual program(s) do you wish you had for your channels?

Factual TV programs with real content and serious underlying purpose are rarer and rarer in British television. I’m very proud of the range the BBC continues to make – from the best of our factual entertainment shows like Hairy Bikers to the most demanding of our BBC Four science series like Chemistry: A Volatile History. I would have been proud to have commissioned Channel 4′s Inside Nature’s Giants [produced by Windfall Films]. And One Born Every Minute [produced by Dragonfly, from C4], is a strong, attractive series.

How do you think the recent findings of the Putting Quality First report will impact factual commissioning, in particular the 360-degree approach?

Even before Putting Quality First we were doing rather fewer 360-degree commissions. We’ve learnt quite a lot about what works best online for factual ideas and we want to invest more in 24/7 products like Wildlife Finder which work on their own but which also underpin a range of natural history programs. 360s remain an important part of what we do, but they need to be exceptional. Springwatch is a perfect example – the audience interaction and community involvement are as important to the idea as the linear TV components. We’ve been providing automatically generated websites for all BBC TV programs for some time, and the next phase of that work will aim to put the necessary tools in producers’ hands to enrich their own websites.

What is the biggest challenge facing factual programmers and producers now?

The song remains the same – money.

Barry Walsh

Julie Bristow, Executive Director of Factual Entertainment, CBC

How would you describe the CBC’s approach to factual programming?

In a way, being a public broadcaster, we have a very unique niche. It’s been predominantly a documentary and news culture. In terms of our factual programming, what really works are shows that feel like they naturally come out of [that] strong history, layered with entertainment values.

Because we’re a public broadcaster, any program that gives us the opportunity to create a national conversation about a topic or a subject, whether it’s in a docusoap format or in a game show, is really what distinguishes the factual programs we do from other channels.

For example, when we did The Week the Women Went [produced by Paperny Films] it was a format that we bought from the BBC, but I think why it worked for us was because it was [about] real people in small-town Canada, and people really responded to seeing that in a highly constructed format. It started a discussion about gender politics in the country which was really interesting. As funny as it was, people were always looking at it and saying, ‘I wonder how that plays out in my household?’

When you’re seeking out new programs, what are you looking for?

We’re definitely looking for things that will create national movements in our country, that will reflect the country and its people back to themselves. We’re particularly looking for new ways of telling those stories.

When we’re looking for shows, we’re looking for the most universally appealing concepts because essentially, unlike some of the specialty channels, we’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Mostly the family audience – we’re looking for that co-viewing, multi-generational viewing experience, which is the only way to get large audiences in primetime.

What were you especially proud of airing over the past year?

I was really proud of Battle of the Blades, which was our skating/hockey show [see MIPTV Picks, pg. 58]. It was wonderful to work with Insight Productions, and when they first came in with the idea it was pretty much bang on. It was a perfect pitch for the public broadcaster who also obviously has the hockey franchise [Hockey Night in Canada] and supports figure skating as well.

We’re slightly preoccupied with season two for this fall, but it’ll definitely appear in other territories; it’s just figuring out how to do it. The challenge with that one is that Insight has such a specialty with doing skating shows that it’s not like you can replicate that anywhere in the world.

What factual program do you wish you had?

I would like to have any of what I call the modern day talent shows. Whether it’s The X Factor, a Canada’s Got Talent or Idol. I think those big-time, modern day talent shows belong on the CBC.

Final Word:

We’re really growing. Right now I’m in the midst of trying to hire more good people to work with us. We started at the CBC as a very small division and now, coming up on four years this summer, we actually have a lot of hours of programming on the air. So it’s a good-news story.

Lindsay Gibb

Christine Shipton, SVP, Drama and Factual Content, Canwest Broadcasting

What are you looking for right now in factual?

We’re looking for a number of things. Our real bread and butter in factual lives in History Television Canada and we’ve made great strides in the last year in taking on programming [beyond] WWII documentaries. We’re always looking for ways to make history relevant to today’s audience and that means broadening the relevance to a younger audience and a female audience. History Television Canada has been traditionally seen as very male-dominated and we’ve managed to even out the demographic this past year to 50-50 men and women.

Sometimes that’s done with more emotionally-based programming, like Ancestors in the Attic [produced by Primitive Entertainment] where we’re telling very emotional stories, but we find that women have responded just as much to Ice Pilots NWT [Omni Film] because it’s something that is so character-driven. Character is key to us.

We create factual programming for Mystery Television and for [broadcast net] Global. Global is quite specific; we need shorter-run factual series that are episodic. When a series is too serialized or has too many episodes, we can’t always find that time slot. Our series Cold Blood [Cineflix Productions] and our social documentary series ‘Global Current’ are all episodic but have a brand to them. We’re very open to those pitches about what a brand could be for a limited series.

We also look for more reality-type programming that is episodic. I hate to use the word ‘format,’ because we’re not trolling the world looking for formats. We’re very open to original ideas that still deliver on that genre of programming. Mystery is a really fun channel to commission for; it has a lot factual programming.

What were you especially proud of airing over the past year?

Ice Pilots NWT. No question. It just broke through for History Television Canada. Omni Film did a fantastic job. All the stars aligned for us on that project and they’re well into the second season on that show.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing factual programming right now?

I think it’s the blurring of the definition of what is factual programming. It’s sort of a big clump right now that’s not scripted. Even under the genre of reality television, there are so many styles of it, then the docusoap, then the pure documentaries… I think it’s a real challenge for producers and filmmakers to identify what style of programming they can do and make sure they’re pitching and selling to the right buyer within that genre.

Kelly Anderson

Jane Mote, Director of Factual, Lifestyle and New Media, UKTV

You’re responsible for a number of channels at UKTV (Eden, Blighty, Yesterday, Home, Really and Good Food). When you’re seeking out new factual programs for each, what are you looking for?

Our commissions have to fit the brand of our channels because they become flagships for what those channels represent. They have to almost be the essence of what we’re trying to achieve with the brand for each channel.

Blighty celebrates modern Britain. It does make it difficult, considerably, getting things outside of Britain. [The programs] would be about British heritage, landscapes and looking at the obvious institutions – all strong journalistic narratives.

There’s a lot of humor and journeying in the Blighty programs, whereas Eden is our big global [channel] and it’s all about the breathtaking world we live in. It is about that wonder and amazement around the higher end of natural history, earth science or storytelling around wildlife and the environment. We’re more likely to be pre-investing there or looking at copros with companies around the world to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Yesterday is a slightly broader channel. We’re looking at the past but trying to give it a prism of the contemporary. What we learned from the past, what parallels are there, and how do people relate and feel about the past. [One] piece that we worked on this year, which we’re looking to do more on, was Ration Book Britain which we did with Optomen. Valentine Warner, who’s actually a food presenter, took what people might have had to eat during the war years under ration and he recreated some of the recipes of the time, made them and tasted them and some of them were pretty horrendous. It actually has been our highest performing factual program. We’re looking to tap into that sort of bridge though the past with some connection to the present.

With Good Food we like things that involve discovery and travel and the sociability of the food. Food is such a vibrant genre now. There’s a lot of it out there, and our food [programming] has to have some core of authenticity about it because it has to appeal to our foodies as well as being entertaining.

[With] our Home channel… we’re looking to push what a Home channel can be doing. Food has really accelerated [into] much more than a niche, it’s central to people’s lives. I think ‘home’ is the next ‘food.’ We went through a Changing Rooms bubble, and then it burst, and then we went through the recession. But I think food and shelter are two of the most important things in people’s lives… and I think there’s an emotional thread there that we can re-own and recapture. I’m really looking at new ideas for Home.

Our final channel is Really, which just launched, and it’s targeted at young women. It is for programs that make you go ‘really?’ The style of the channel is pop art, we run a lot of BBC content on it like Spendaholics, but we also try to add quite a lot of U.S. acquisitions [such as] Tool Academy. That relies exclusively on acquisition at the moment.

I suppose the message is to not be afraid to come to us with something different, but really look at what our brands mean because generally speaking we want to stay really tight on what our brands are about.

Complete this sentence: The biggest challenge facing factual programming is…?

I think it’s competing for viewers. There’s more excitement and creativity around factual than there’s ever been, but in some areas of factual it’s so hard to get the audience there, because you’re usually further down the EPG. So it’s cutting through and getting the audience to sample, because when you get them there, they love it.

Lindsay Gibb

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.