Several weeks ago, present and past delegates of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers learned that long-time editorial director, Alison Leigh, was stepping down from the post. At the time, the former Australia Broadcasting Corporation executive, who had worked as an exec producer with its science unit, said that she wanted to hand the baton to newer talent, while remaining on hand to act as a consultant to the event. In this Q&A, Leigh addresses her upcoming departure from the Congress, and how the conference has evolved over her tenure.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Given the news that you are leaving your post as editorial director at WCSFP after more than a decade, the first question has to be what led to your decision… with the follow-up being, what do you plan on doing next? Are you planning on increasing your production work, or are there other areas you’re looking to move into?
It’s quite simple, I’ve been doing this for a very long time. We only have one life and for me, it’s time for another chapter.
I have a lot of ideas about what I may do next. I am certainly open to offers, but I am in no rush and I shall choose carefully.
Over the period in which you’ve overseen the editorial direction for the event, what have been the key aspects of its evolution?
I would have to say growth in numbers and sophistication of the editorial program.
In the last decade we have gradually broadened the scope from exclusively science to include history and quality high-end factual television and documentary. And in the last two or three years, we have expanded further to include content creators and distributors across all visual media.
The editorial goal has always been to hear from the creative teams behind the outstanding programs of the year and to encourage honest debate about industry issues by creating highly entertaining sessions. Because I commission session producers who are generally the most creative producers in the factual space, many of the sessions have become returnable formats, like mini TV productions. In the last few years we have enhanced the program by bringing in guest speakers — writers, thinkers, innovators, game changers and visionaries — to help us think laterally about the world and our industry and to inspire us.
Twenty years ago, Congress was attended by 100 or maybe 150 delegates of mostly public broadcasters and a few independent producers passionate about science and science programming. The passion hasn’t changed but the numbers have. For the last few years we have sold out, closing the doors when demand has exceeded available registrations.
In conjunction with that, how do you feel specialist factual genres have evolved?
In the 1990s, when I ran the Science Unit at ABC TV, science programming was very much the prerogative of the public broadcasters. These programs were largely presenter-led documentary and magazine style, informational and educational. By the turn of the millennium the commercial and cable channels were re-inventing the science genre with the introduction of reality and competition shows. For example, Channel 4′s 1900s House, which spawned 20 years of “Living History,” was a science show initially devised to illustrate how ordinary people lived without modern technology — everything from labor-saving gadgets to pharmaceuticals. And competitions like Scrapheap Challenge and Junkyard Wars in the U.S. a wonderful series about engineering that ran for about a decade, where teams competed to build something useful from scrap.
Now, with the online video explosion, there is a smorgasbord of science and history in every format you can imagine. I can go to YouTube and type in “Joan of Arc” and get dozens of options, from longform documentaries to a drunk actress telling me Joan’s story in Drunk History. Same thing if I type in “why is the sky blue?” The video options are endless. And increasingly, I can go to a niche SVOD channel like Curiosity Stream and pick hundreds of science and history programs to watch at my convenience. In the “History Smorgasbord” session in Brisbane this year we will be looking at the choices that are now available to global audiences, and what the data is showing us about their preferences.
What do you think has been the most significant development regarding how content is produced and consumed impacting WCSFP delegates over the course of the past decade, and why?
I would say mobile phones and online streaming video, without question. It’s created a fragmented market resulting in traditional broadcasters being faced with a massive contraction in audience share, and producers of science and factual having to operate on tighter budgets. Co-production has kept the show on the road. This year’s session “Hands Across the World” will showcase some of this year’s most successful coproductions, while “Creative Funding and Distribution Models” will explore strategies for attracting investment.
Moving specifically to this year, tell me about some of the highlights planned, and any sort of editorial focus or theme that you wanted to incorporate within the agenda.
Our theme this year is “New Frontiers” and “Diverse Voices.” We will be showcasing a number of works that are breaking new ground in how we tell science and history stories. I’m especially thrilled that Emmy award-winning artist/filmmaker Lynette Wallworth is going to talk about her latest work, a next generation VR/mixed reality non-fiction experience that explores gender, respect for diverse peoples and the environment.
Throughout the event we are going to touch on the lack of representation of female and non-white voices in science and factual and why we should be concerned beyond political correctness, and delegates will be able to air these and other issues that are keeping them awake at night in the session “On the Therapist’s Couch, “which returns by popular demand.
A panel of content creators with significant followings will share their secrets of success in “The Media Companies of Tomorrow,” and in “Working with Dinosaurs” a panel of millennials will challenge a bunch of factual TV commissioners to come up with programming that they would be keen to watch. In “Michael 2.0″ decision makers from the world’s online platforms and the producers who’ve successfully cracked them will be on hand to advise the much-loved and erstwhile BBC presenter Dr. Michael Mosley on how to maximize his chances of becoming an international multi-platform success now that he has cut loose from Aunty’s apron strings.
And last, but absolutely not least, our “Spark of Inspiration” will be Lord David Puttnam, who will encourage us to carry on making great programs because he passionately believes that film can change the world.
What are, or what have been, the key challenges in overseeing the editorial direction of the event?
I would say the most challenging aspect of overseeing the editorial direction is maintaining the level of open and honest debate and irreverence that Congress is famous for. Everybody — producers, broadcasters and especially SVODs — are much more wary than they used to be of breaking ranks with the corporate line. Mobile phones and Twitter and the like have killed off the spontaneous rant.
Lastly, in an earlier interview with us, you said: “The people who come to the Congress are looking for more than a market.” In an industry that’s becoming ever more global yet ever more unpredictable, what do you think they are looking for now, and how do you think the event will deliver that in the future?
I still think they are still looking for more than a market. The feedback I had last year from one young development producer says it all; she said it was her first Congress and that it was “a breath of fresh air; mind-bending topics, fiery panels, a peek behind the scenes of other producers/networks — absolutely inspiring.” It would be naïve to suggest that Congress delegates are not interested in looking for new markets and new methods of reaching new audiences, but they are also looking for ideas and inspiration for their next projects.
The upcoming edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers takes place in Brisbane, Australia from November 27-30.