People/Biz

Sheffield Doc/Fest ’21: Sky, UKTV talk pitching and commissioning

UK factual commissioning executives from the likes of National Geographic, ESPN, UKTV and Sky participated in a series of talks last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest that offered producers some insight ...
June 16, 2021

UK factual commissioning executives from the likes of National Geographic, ESPN, UKTV and Sky participated in a series of talks last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest that offered producers some insight into how they can fine-tune their pitches and potentially secure greenlights.

Realscreen detailed the key takeaways from sessions with Nat Geo and ESPN in part one of our report. Below, we’ve included what we learned from commissioners at Sky and UKTV, for the second half of our report.

Sheffield Doc/Fest ran virtually June 4 to 13. To read Realscreen‘s coverage of another Sheffield panel that saw execs from the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Channel 5 divulge their programming wishlists, click here.

Sky UK

Poppy Dixon (director of documentaries and factual commissioning), Hayley Reynolds (commissioning editor) and Jamie Morris (director of programs for UK and Ireland) gathered for a panel moderated by Edmund Coulthard from Blast Films at Sheffield Doc/Fest to discuss working with the British satcaster.

The conversation specifically focused on Sky Documentaries, a factual channel launched last year.

Dixon said the reception from viewers and audience numbers has shown it was a good decision to launch a documentary channel. She said Sky is looking to commission roughly 12 original series and 12 feature documentaries per year, alongside the acquisitions they regularly make, which include a steady stream of content from HBO.

But the focus of Sky Documentaries’ content is narrative-driven, Dixon said. The team is not as interested in presenter-led, science or current affairs documentaries without a strong story. Success stories thus far include the music biography documentary Tina and the sports documentary Bruno vs. Tyson. Dixon added they generally measure the success of their content on 28-day cumulative numbers and general audience value of the channel as a whole.

Reynolds said the content Sky Documentaries primarily looks for includes biographies on sports and cultural icons that are celebratory while being challenging, crime and scandal documentaries, topical news-adjacent and contemporary history docs, and stranger than fiction stories about extraordinary individuals or stories.

Dixon added that they’d like to see more sports content, possibly some football-based films or series ahead of next year’s World Cup.

“The key is that it has a broad appeal beyond something that would just speak to the fans of that particular sport,” Dixon said.

“Another area that we’re actually key to commission in is Irish stories, whether that’s based there or involving Irish contributors.”

They’re also always looking for big-name biographies and stories or films that exemplify Britain’s diversity, noting that including people with disabilities either on camera or as creators is an area where Sky could improve.

Dixon said they like to look for feature-length documentaries, but like them to be less than 100 minutes in length. She said they also prefer three-to-four-episode series, and are unlikely to want a series longer than five or six episodes.

Reynolds added that they like for originals to be UK-facing — either by having a character or narrative thread in the UK, or to have a universal relevance that will appeal to a UK audience.

The execs said Sky likes to come on board new projects early in their development. Sky can fully finance projects, which usually means working with Sky Studios on distribution. They’re also open to coproduce with one or more partners, or to acquire and come on board at a rough cut or late stage of a film or series.

Dixon said they’re also willing to take pitches with a director attached, or work with producers to find the right director for a project, and are also open to working with emerging talent or big name filmmakers.

The best way to reach them with pitches and treatments, Reynolds said, is to email them at skyfactual@sky.uk. Reynolds said they aim to acknowledge all pitches within a couple days.

“Try and pitch us the story and the characters that are going to take you into that particular issue or subject, rather than just a general area,” Reynolds said.

“We’re really keen to find out what your approach is, and why you think it’s right for Sky Docs.”

UKTV

Hilary Rosen, head of factual entertainment, and Helen Nightingale, senior commissioning editor, shared insider tips for producers hoping to pitch to the multi-channel broadcaster.

UKTV’s network of channels — including popular factual channels W, Yesterday and Gold — reach some 30 million viewers each month, and the commissioning team is working with their biggest-ever budget over the next year.


Related: Richard Watsham on UKTV’s commission spend, 2022 plans


In addition to Rosen and Nightingale, the factual commissioning team includes Kirsty Hanson and new hire Emile Nawagamuwa.

Rosen and Nightingale commission everything from “blue light shows” to specialist series and work with both high profile and emerging talent.

The team discourages pitches from solo producers. Rosen advised creators with a great idea to partner with an indie — even a small, regional outfit.

For those looking to pitch to the BBC Studios-owned broadcaster, the best route is to first read each channel’s commissioning brief. First-timers can send through proposals to submissions@uktv.co.uk, which will be filtered by Jennifer Procter, commissioning researcher.

Producers with an established relationship can email the commissioning team directly with a topline. Rosen and Nightingale emphasized the importance of building a relationship with the commissioners.

For projects with a solid topline or talent connection, the idea doesn’t need to be entirely developed. Those coming to the table with a fully formed treatment should be confident the project works for UKTV. And while tape and talent can give your pitch a boost, it doesn’t guarantee a greenlight.

Rosen and Nightingale describe the internal process as highly collaborative. Each channel has a channel director, and all pitches are discussed as a team. Projects with potential will eventually land on the desks of Richard Watsham, director of commissioning, and Steve North, genre general manager for comedy and entertainment.

On the subject of rates, Nightingale said, “We pay market rates, we pay just as other broadcasters do, we pay the right money for the right show.”

Delving into each individual channel, Nightingale said Gold — which skews older — is about “hero-ing” the archive. It’s a paywalled channel, so the content needs to be premium, and the team commission pitches that examine the archive in a fresh way.

Dave, meanwhile, attracts a young demographic (16 to 34 years old), with a chunk of commissioning spend going towards comedy entertainment — though there’s some opportunity for factual, factual entertainment and travelogue.

Over at Yesterday, Nightingale is primarily after observational documentaries that educate the audience in an entertaining way. Producers should be able to think creatively on a budget. The channel doesn’t commission pilots. Instead, Yesterday will order in runs of 10 episodes, and if the program is successful, the team will bring it back for additional seasons.

Finally, W is UKTV’s paywalled, premium entertainment, female-skewing channel, but Nightingale said programming should still capture a broader audience and she’s interested in projects with co-viewing potential.

“The most important thing is establishing a relationship with one commissioner on our team,” Nightingale concluded. “Stick at it. We commission so broadly… We can work with anybody, bring us your best ideas.”

Rosen added: “Think about diversity, think about inclusivity, think about those fresh voices, those diverse faces — that’s the challenge for the whole industry and we, like all other broadcasters, are really trying to have a real proper commitment.”

With files from Jillian Morgan and Andrew Jeffrey

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.

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