Doc/Fest ’15: What’s working in specialist factual

The state of specialist factual and the current criteria for UK commissioning editors were discussed at a Sheffield Doc/Fest panel, revealing a focus among some on tent-pole events, while others move away from expert-driven fare. (Pictured: Channel 4's Walking the Nile)
June 9, 2015

The state of specialist factual and the current criteria among commissioning editors from National Geographic Channels International, Sky, Channel 4 and the BBC were discussed at a Sheffield Doc/Fest panel that revealed a focus among some on tent-pole events, while others move away from expert-driven fare.

Moderated by Emma Read - MD of Emporium Productions – the panel on Monday (June 8) kicked off with a question about how to define specialist factual, which often escapes a clear and accepted definition. Martin Davidson, the newly appointed head of specialist factual at the BBC, said the genre – to him – was comprised of history, science, natural history, business and religious programming, and looks to answer questions such as who are we, what do we know, what do we care about and how do we define success, adding that there needs to be a latent curiosity that merits addressing the questions.

Turning to the specialist factual climate at the BBC, Davidson explained the pubcaster is moving away from its appetite for expert-driven programming.

“Between 2010 and 2013, they rode high. There was a real audience appetite for getting ideas straight,” said Davidson. “It did thrive on the fact that there had been no presenter-led history for eight years.”

Since this time, however, audience figures have hemorrhaged, said Davidson, adding that although he likes “giving stories back to storytellers,” the pubcaster has done too much of it.

“There’s a problem particularly at the BBC where we have three channels that we commission into and you collect all of those – particularly on iPlayer – and you don’t make the distinction between those, and suddenly that’s the ninth person in a Panama hat talking to me about all the places you have to see before you die,” he said.

Davidson pointed out that the BBC has recently restructured its commissioning department and “it’s no coincidence that out of the five heads, four and a half of [them] will have the words ‘formats and features’ in [their] job title. And even if we don’t formally, we may as well do.”

Over at National Geographic Channels International (NGCI), executive VP and head of international content Hamish Mykura said the company was putting its efforts into premium programming that feels distinctive, pointing to tent-pole content such as Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey as well as the special T. Rex Autopsy, which aired on Sunday (June 7).

Speaking on the latter program, Mykura commented: “That’s another great example of using a more theatrical approach with a documentary subject matter, and tailoring it so we schedule it alongside the launch of Jurassic World.

“The idea of a successful international program with Nat Geo is it has to work in 171 countries, translated into 44 languages, so you’ve got to be pretty mainstream in what your offer is,” said the exec. “We know people like programs on dinosaurs but we’ve had hundreds of them in the past, so how do we do something new?”

Mykura added that – though it is careful about its commissions – NGCI is on the look-out for the next “huge scale project,” pointing to collaborations such as the Arrow Media-produced Live from Space.

“If you’ve got a huge-scale project and you think, ‘Oh, I can nearly afford that,’ it’s almost certainly going to be the right huge-scale project for us…Think of us as your one-stop shop for the next big specialist factual project,” he said.

Elsewhere, Siobhan Mulholland - commissioning editor for factual at Sky – explained that the pay-TV broadcaster still doesn’t do history, but has been commissioning a lot of animal-based shows as well as space ideas. In terms of arts programming, the commissioner said Sky has begun doing dedicated seasons such as June’s “sex season” and a season on the topic of failure next January and February, in order to collate the content so it doesn’t get lost in a schedule.

“I think specialist factual is just when you go a little bit deeper and there is more research into it – there is a different type of approach,” she said. “It isn’t just, ‘Ob-doc for the story, let’s cover it, let’s go.’ There are more people in the background in a way, defining what the story is.”

Finally, Channel 4′s head of specialist factual David Glover credited his team of commissioning editors for the programming strategy at the pubcaster, but said he has tried to infuse “intensity and emotion” into the content, referencing such programs as The Stranger on the Bridge, in which a suicidal man talked down from a bridge years ago reunites with the stranger who saved his life.

“I find a lot of specialist factual [to be] a bit like the script has been written out and then an actor reads it out,” said Glover. “But what we’re all really excited about is when you really don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The commissioner presented Walking the Nile (pictured) as a good example of strong programming in which audiences couldn’t immediately tell what the trajectory of the show was going to be.

“When I first saw a cut of it, I was blown away by it,” said Glover. “It was like something coming out at you every few seconds and it was quite clear they didn’t know what was going to happen.”

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.