Doc/Fest ’15: Four lessons from doc commissioners

A panel of documentary commissioners (pictured) from Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC gathered at Sheffield's Crucible Studio on Monday (June 8) to discuss ways in which the craft of documentary making is shifting, and how the broadcasters and pubcasters set themselves apart in a crowded landscape.
June 9, 2015

A panel of documentary commissioners (pictured) from Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC gathered at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio on Monday (June 8) to discuss how the craft of documentary making is shifting, and how broadcasters and pubcasters are setting themselves apart in a crowded market.

The 90-minute session, moderated by freelance producer Ruth Pitt, covered a range of topics, including the state of fixed rig content, the push to define channels with distinctive – and often controversial – content, and pushing for diversity in programming.

Here, realscreen presents four take-aways from the panel:

1. Fixed rig fatigue

In a discussion on how the craft is changing, Pitt noted that while fixed rig shows were popular among the doc community two years ago, she’s noticed fewer programs using the technique. When asked whether fixed rig has had its moment, Sky commissioner Celia Taylor said there continued to be some “brilliant” rig shows, but most were concentrated on UK pubcaster Channel 4.

“I think that’s beginning to feel like it’s getting [old] because you get a lot of it and I think whenever you get a lot of one type of thing you start to get fatigue,” said Taylor. “When you feel you’re in a mature market with a technique or method of storytelling, you need to be mindful of how you take it to the next level, because I think you continue doing the work everybody else is doing.”

At this point, ITV controller for factual Jo Clinton-Davis said doc makers should ask themselves what is the best way of exploring and exploiting their content.

“If the rig is the best way to answer that, that’s great,” she said. “You don’t set out – we don’t set out – with, ‘Oh let’s do a rig show.’ What’s the story, first and foremost, what’s going to be the dramatic hook for the audience?”

2. Defining channels with distinctive content

In a bid to ensure a channel’s output is distinctive, how do broadcasters set themselves apart? Pitt used the example of the controversial Channel 4 series Benefits Street, asking head of docs Nick Mirsky if the success of the show was a case of “milking the topic” due to a number of shows trying to emulate the program.

“It’s a really, really important subject for today’s Britain – poverty, benefits – and it’s absolutely right that Channel 4 should be making programs in that space,” said Mirsky.

When asked about the beginning of the series, which focused on the media backlash against the show’s airing, Pitt asked if boundaries were crossed when the response to the program was inserted into the series itself, to which Mirsky responded that the level of media attention warranted a storyline.

“What we were doing was reflecting what happened to that community over a period of some months, and because it reflected their experience, it felt right,” he said.

3. Commissioners call for more representative programming

When asked how well the BBC is representing a modern, diverse Britain, Patrick Holland - the former Boundless Productions MD who was in May appointed head of docs at the pubcaster – said greater attention needs to be paid across the board to TV audiences.

“I think we’ve got to try much, much harder,” he told the room, adding that the BBC is developing more schemes around hiring diverse talent. “What we have to do is find ways of bringing people through.”

Over at ITV, Clinton-Davis echoed Holland, adding it was important to make programs “with people from a great, great deal of backgrounds and make programs that speak to the whole nation.”

“It should have been part of what we were doing years ago,” said Clinton-Davis. “I can’t believe it’s taken this long, but thank goodness it has…It’s got to be on an ongoing, constant basis where every program you make is reflecting the wider world. It’s so obvious, it’s sad [that] it’s needed all these initiatives.”

4. Nurturing doc-making talent is key

Mirsky said there’s an appetite for more single documentaries on Channel 4, and the pubcaster is intent on “building a cadre” of documentary makers for either features or docuseries. “We feel it’s a way to find that next generation or top, award-winning documentary makers, so we’re committed to that,” he said.

Holland added: “It’s so exciting when someone goes from being promising to being an out-and-out talent…Something I’ll look at at the BBC is how we do all we can to find, nurture and progress people who are at that level where there is a distinctive voice.”

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