Sheffield Doc/Fest ’20: Commissioners talk COVID-19 challenges, opportunities

Factual commissioners from the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV gathered virtually July 9 to talk about the challenges and opportunities of making work through the pandemic as part ...
July 14, 2020

Factual commissioners from the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV gathered virtually July 9 to talk about the challenges and opportunities of making work through the pandemic as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital program.

The session, “Factual Television in Times of Economic Crisis,” was moderated by Renegade Pictures’ Alex Cooke (pictured, top center), chair of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s board of trustees.

Panelists included Clare Sillery (top right), BBC head of documentary commissioning; Danny Horan (bottom left), Channel 4 head of factual; Guy Davies (bottom right), commissioning editor, factual, Channel 5; and Satmohan Panesar (top left), commissioning editor, factual entertainment, ITV.

Cooke opened the discussion by framing the unrest gripping the world in the past few “shocking and very unsettling” months. She cited the anxieties and tensions emerging in the wake of the pandemic, unfolding economic uncertainty and the societal reckoning concerning racism, magnified by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Where does this leave us as documentary filmmakers? Where should we be pointing our cameras? What do we want to say? How do we effect change? How do we nurture talent? And how do we tackle structural racism head on? How do we ensure unheard voices are heard? Or are only privileged filmmakers going to make films this year? How do we reach big audiences? And what is the role of broadcasters in these times?”

The executives discussed how they and their respective channels are responding to the health crisis and its economic repercussions, how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped their approach, and where the opportunities lie for filmmakers and indies.


The onset of the pandemic presented a “massive change” for Channel 5, Davies said. As production ground to a halt, the broadcaster was focused on keeping the wheels turning.

“How are we going to get through this? How are we going to work from home?” Davies said. “I have to thank the producers, actually, who were just incredible in making things happen. We really appreciated that.”

The focus, he explained, then shifted to the broadcaster’s schedule, and what programming could run in the wake of the production stoppage.

“When you’re looking at a drop in advertising or revenue, we’re a commercial broadcaster, so suddenly the economic factors would kick in,” he said. “That has prompted us to think about utility programming — How adaptable can it be? What shapes can it work in?”

When the possibility of re-entering production emerged in recent weeks, Davies said C5 was focused on “safety first.”

“Once the industry-wide and government regulations and guidance had been agreed, we just went for it and tried to get as much as we could possibly get into production. One of the worries is, of course, how long that production window will be, if there’s a second spike, if there are regional lockdowns?

“We have managed to get most of our slate back up and running. So we are in production. We are commissioning. We are looking at next year…. We’re trying to balance all those things together at this stage and just come through with the best programming.”

For Sillery, the BBC had a “very particular road as a public service broadcaster.”

“That initial scramble about what can we put on air, how can we serve the audience, meant that the normal roles that there would be in factual between different genres just collapsed,” she explained. “So it becomes a great big unscripted effort with daytime and factual together, and entertainment together. It was about identifying what we could get on air and how it might work.

“The next phase was about, ‘What can we commission? What can we make now?’”

At Channel 4, like many broadcasters, declines in advertising revenue mean less money in its coffers this year and next.

“That, of course, is a killer. When you are a broadcaster, like most people on here, you’re made up of the indie community. So that’s painful all around. We have had to cancel some shows because we’ve been left with quite a big hole,” Horan said.

He called the situation a “complicated jigsaw.”

“I’d say the one good thing is the forecast is looking slightly better than we hoped. It’s very dependent on what happens in the world. If we go into a second spike and go into lockdown again, that makes it more complicated,” he added.

Horan said C4 is focused on programming that captures the current global climate, as well as longer-term projects and programming that keeps audiences entertainment.

For Panesar, the situation is “supremely unique.”

“From our perspective on ITV, we scrambled around like everyone else did at the beginning because we had no idea how long this was going to last, how it was going to really affect both us as a channel and therefore the indies going forward. We’re still working that out. The repercussions of this are going to be huge. Next year, recession, etcetera,” he said. “We have been quite fortunate in the sense that we got up and running quite quickly with our own development funds… We’re heading back towards business as usual.”


Early on in the crisis, Davies said C5 opted to not produce a ton of COVID-related programming, instead focusing on “familiarity.”

When commissioning for the future, and gauging what audiences are looking for tonally, he said it’s a “difficult question.” The broadcaster is now shoring up its schedule for the next six months.

Davies said C5 has had a number of “big hits” over the past three months, such as Inside the Force: 24/7, A&E After Dark and other genre pieces. “That has buoyed us up.”

Sillery said the industry should expect “fluidity” among the channels. For example, she explained, The Repair Shop moved from daytime to the heart of BBC1′s schedule, and the pubcaster is moving other titles from BBC4 to BBC2.

“When you’re pitching to us at the moment, when it comes to BBC1 and BBC2, don’t think so much about which channel and think more about, ‘How will this perform on iPlayer?’” Sillery said.

She added categories that do perform well on the streaming platform are “big, access brands” like Ambulance; series offering “pleasure and the promise of escape,” like Spun Gold’s Inside Monaco: Playground of the Rich; and shows such as Murder 24/7 that are built especially for iPlayer.

“This applies across the board — it applies in history, it applies in science, it applies in docs –  things which have a real sense of scale and ambition,” Sillery said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a greater appetite for documentary than there is right now… I think that applies across the slates.”

For filmmakers and producers, she said there’s “huge opportunities” on BBC3 in the factual entertainment space, which is expanding its funding closer to 2014 levels.

“We’re looking for premium doc series on BBC3. That means box sets, inevitably, because they have to sit on iPlayer. With box sets on BBC3, they all need an incredibly compelling narrative, lots of twists and turns, minimum of four episodes,” she said.

For BBC doc strand ‘Storyville,’ Sillery said commissioning editor Mandy Chang is looking to potentially include less films next year with more investment for each. The strand primarily comprises coproductions, and Chang is particularly interested in “big, geo-political” stories — though Sillery adds Chang’s “prize” is unfolding narrative and strong characters.

Meanwhile, at C4, Horan said the broadcaster is exploring collaborations with U.S. networks and different funding models to keep money rolling in.

“I think we have to do that to maintain the amount of hours to get enough freelancers, production companies working and also maintain quality as well. We are really up for interesting conversations about how we can collaborate in very different ways  with other broadcasters and advertisers and brands as well,” he said. “The balance is always this thing of, how do you keep your editorial quality bar high, but also sometimes it feels like you’re sleeping with the enemy by getting into a slightly more commercial world. That is the balance we have to strike… It’s heightened now. We are trying to pivot to get more money into the channel but maintain that quality bar.”

Panesar said the pandemic has informed ITV’s future plans for the factual genre.

“It’s presented a huge amount of opportunity for factual and doc makers because next year, drama is really going to not deliver. So quarter one is really over to factual and unscripted. We have hours and hours and hours to fill and we are looking to the factual communities to deliver on that,” he said. “A lot of money has come out of the schedule this year, but it has been deferred to next year. So I think we’re in a good scenario as far as that.

“We rely on the commercial to bring in the money. So we are nervously watching how that situation unfolds, especially next year with the slight doom and gloom of the recession coming.”

Still, he said ITV is “all systems go” and ready to commission and pilot — with particular interest in doc formats and two programs piloting at the moment with plans to “rapidly” convert into series.

“We’re looking to commission in volume…. So there is a lot of opportunity.”

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