UK factual commissioners from the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, ITV and Channel 5 convened virtually yesterday (June 8) during Sheffield Doc/Fest to talk upcoming programming and opportunities for producers and talent.
Chaired by David DeHaney, creative director of Proper Content, the session featured Guy Davies, commissioning editor, VP of factual, Channel 5; Jo Clinton-Davis, factual entertainment controller, ITV; Poppy Dixon, director, documentaries and factual, Sky; Alisa Pomeroy, senior commissioning editor, factual, Channel 4; and Clare Sillery, head of documentary commissioning, content, BBC.
Below, Realscreen presents a run down of the doc content each broadcaster is looking to commission.
After a tumultuous year and a half, Pomeroy said viewers are looking to escape, but not always with lighter fare.
“People find great escapism in much darker areas like true crime. True crime and our police procedurals have done really, really well during the pandemic,” she said.
“I actually think that that thirst for escapism will remain, but we also need to try and make sense of our post-pandemic world, and we’ll be looking to commission films that really try and grapple with who are we now that we’ve come up blinking into the sunlight. So that will be the main change. We now need to urgently reflect Britain beyond the pandemic.”
Limited series with strong access also perform well on the pubcaster. Pomeroy pointed to the upcoming three-parter The Sex Traffickers (w/t; Story Films) as one recent example of this kind of series that they recently commissioned.
She said C4 is interested in innovative twists on popular formats. The broadcaster’s forthcoming six-part series Murder Island (a coproduction between STV Studios and Motion Content Group) blends factual entertainment and drama as participants step into the role of detective in a murder mystery investigation.
“The key thing is we have a really urgent need for new returners… and we’ve changed our strategy on how we’re going to find those. In the past we would commission maybe two or three new things, and we would wait to see how they did and it would take a year or a year and a half, and if they don’t land you’re back to square one,” Pomeroy explained. “Instead… We’re going to make six or seven swings on things that we think could go to scale, but commission four- to six-parters instead.”
Right now, she’s looking for some projects in the police and medical spaces, as well as male-skewed programming, such as military access.
“In terms of singles, we really want to regain the mantle of being the home of documentary,” Pomeroy said, adding the broadcaster is more open to 90-minute films.
“The subject matter has to really cut through at 9 p.m., so they need to be quite high impact… And then the other thing that we’re really keen to get is more diversity of thought on the channel. There’s a stereotype that TV is very metropolitan, left leaning in its outlook, and we want voices on the channel and films led by people who have opinions that are the polar opposite to that… We would really love to hear people’s ideas in that space.”
Channel 5′s biggest hits of the past year — Our Yorkshire Farm, Inside Chernobyl with Ben Fogel, 999: Critical Condition and The Disappearance of Shannon Matthews — reflect the types of content the ViacomCBS-owned broadcaster is looking to commission.
“True crime, boxsetting, warm and inviting human documentary… That’s the tone. That’s the feel of where we’re going,” Davies said. “We’ve also got to keep our returnables running.”
Shows such as Police: Hour of Duty and A&E After Dark — which Davies called “bedrocks” of C5′s schedule — remain strong. But moving forward, Davies is interested in rounding out the lineup with event programming.
“As a result of streamers, as a result of the last year, I think there’s a lot more event TV that we can do,” he said.
Another area of interest, the commissioner told attendees, is stories that are “populist at heart” but present a larger narrative that is challenging, innovative and interesting.
C5 has a number of programs in the pipeline that fit the bill: a series about the tabloids, a series from Proper Content about guarding the queen, a project with Nick Knowles, as well as some unannounced projects and plenty of true crime.
“And then there’s access,” Davies said. “The male-skewed audience is the one I think we most need to address.”
“I think travelogue and journeys are something people have been missing. We’ve got quite a few big names coming up in terms of travel which we’re now shooting and I think that’ll be important for us… It’s about using that talent, in a way as a weapon against the streamers… Names are going to be really important.”
It’s been a busy year for Clinton-Davis, who said the challenges of the pandemic created an opportunity to think outside the box.
“You look at the constraints on creativity and you find ways to work within them and to create something actually more interesting,” she said.
As for the content she’s looking to commission in the months ahead, Clinton-Davis said the broadcaster can’t afford to serve just a niche audience.
“We love men — of course we love men, 16 to 34 men — but we need to keep our core,” she said. “We need programs that absolutely scream ‘watch me.’ They’ve got to have inclusivity and breadth.”
She described ITV’s slate as “inherent drama and inherent factual.” Gordon, Gino and Fred’s Road Trip is one of the broadcaster’s most popular factual entertainment series.
Clinton-Davis said the program, which first premiered in 2018, contains the elements of a hit fact-ent format: a strong talent combination, high production values, and emotion, warmth and heart.
“We would really like those documentary returnable formats,” she added, pointing to the success of ITV’s Long Lost Family. “There’s a premium on finding a slightly new way in.”
ITV’s factual entertainment formats need to hold their own in a competitive environment, and keep viewers coming back for more, she added.
“We’re also looking for competitions in the real world,” she said. “I want really shiny real world competitions.”
On ITV2, Clinton-Davis said there’s some opportunity for factual programming, as well as authored, immersive documentaries with an “ITV2-type personality.”
Comcast-owned telco Sky launched Sky Documentaries last year, along with Sky Nature and Sky History, a co-branded venture between the company and A+E Networks.
“There’s been a proven, huge appetite for documentaries, especially docs that unfold like a drama and take you on a twisty-turny journey,” Dixon said. “That’s exactly what we’ve been looking for for Sky Docs.”
The pay-TV channel is still growing its originals lineup, while acquisitions such as Framing Britney Spears, Tina and Bruno v Tyson have proven successful among viewers.
“We’re really looking at those big, definitive biographies that peel back the layers and reveal somebody as you perhap didn’t know them before,” Dixon said.
She noted recently announced originals, including the 90-minute feature documentary Hawking: Can You Hear Me? (Atlantic Productions in association with Sky Studios), chronicling the life of world-famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking; and three-hour investigative special Ghislaine Maxwell: Epstein’s Shadow (Blue Ant Studios in collaboration with Sky UK and Peacock) as two examples.
“At Sky Docs, we’re looking for white-collar crime, heist… drugs, the business of Me Too, sexual abuse stories. For Sky Crime, we’re very much looking for stories of unsolved murders or violent crimes against ordinary people.”
As for what she’s not looking for, Dixon advised viewers against pitching current affairs documentaries, presenter-led projects or constructed formats.
“We’re very much looking for narrative-driven, story-driven films,” she said. “Unlike everyone else, I’m not actually looking for a returnable series.”
The Beeb, meanwhile, has been restructuring its TV division in recent months as it looks to fuel the growth of its VOD service, iPlayer.
“We’ve emerged in commissioning at the BBC pointing in a slightly different direction which is that now it’s iPlayer-first commissioning,” Sillery said.
The BBC2 documentary Katie Price: Harvey and Me pulled in five million viewers when it premiered in February, Sillery said, with half of those watching on iPlayer, home to a much younger audience.
“The two questions that all the commissioners will be asking themselves… is, who else is this going to bring to the BBC, to iPlayer? And is this the best way to tell this story?
“There are three categories that we would be commissioning into: there are what I would describe as big brands… There are the short, limited narrative series, and then there are single films.”
Sillery said she’s looking for unique access and topicality. BBC2′s upcoming three-parter The Fall of the House of Maxwell, produced by Expectation, about the family of Ghislaine Maxwell, is one example.
“Largely they are British stories, they have layers, they have some sort of unique access. It’s not just retelling the story for the sake of telling the story. There has to be more to it than that. We are very oversubscribed in the crime space, I would say, because so many of our big brands are in the crime space already,” she said.
Those “big brands,” such as Ambulance, are critical to iPlayer’s documentary offering. Sillery said the pubcaster is looking to commission the next big brand from an indie outside London, with the opportunity to co-commission with one of the BBC Nations.
“These are big observational British access series that show Britain and show us where we live,” she said.
A recent big brand commission heading to BBC1 and iPlayer is All at Sea: Fishing for Britain. The 6 x 60-minute series, produced by Frank Films, follows the scope and work of the British fishing fleet, intercut with fishermen’s stories in dangerous, high-stakes jobs.
“Everyone is always looking for a big brand that’s not in the blue flashing light space. We’re hoping this might be one.”