Factual commissioning executives for several networks participated in hour-long online panels at the virtual edition of the Sunny Side of the Doc film festival last week. The talks offered insight into what their networks are looking for right now for new programming, as well as some advice on how pitches to their networks can be presented.
Below, Realscreen details the key takeaways from sessions with National Geographic, the Smithsonian Channel and PBS. Sunny Side of the Doc ran virtually from June 21 to June 24. Realscreen covered a similar panel discussion from the festival last week with Netflix executives from the UK and France, which you can read here.
Even while serving global audiences, National Geographic looks for content that ties into its universal, identifiable values, said Simon Raikes, commissioning editor at the National Geographic Channel for Europe and the UK. Those values include curiosity of the world, showing viewers places and things they’ve never seen, all in an informative and illuminating way, Raikes said.
Raikes added the Nat Geo team wants stories with charismatic, passionate protagonists, meaning either characters in a documentary or presenters, who are pushed out of their comfort zone but still have agency in their surroundings. Protagonists also need to have an authentic and credible connection to their subject matter.
It’s also important for National Geographic to have series that are returnable, Raikes said.
“One of the questions that we ask when people pitch us stuff is, ‘Can you imagine what this is going to look like when you get to episode six of series five?’” Raikes said.
“It’s got to have an idea at its core that can last not just three episodes or a series of eight episodes, but can still keep going.”
Carolyn Payne, also a commissioning editor for Europe and the UK at the National Geographic Channel, said the team tries to respond quickly about interest to new pitches. They’ll then help develop the idea further with the pitch team, and go through a greenlight process within the channel, responding within a few months.
Pitches to the channel don’t need to come with anything more than a single page of notes, as long as it’s a solid idea they can build from, the panelists said. Pitching an idea with fresh talent attached is a good way to get their attention, they added, but they can also find talent for an otherwise good pitch.
Regional programming can be picked up for wider audiences at National Geographic, said Matt Taylor, VP of factual programming at the Disney Channel, if it has relatable characters or local relevance for several regions. The latter is seen in Europe From Above, which looks at several stories in a different country each episode.
National Geographic produces eight to 10 local language specials annually, mostly focused in Spain, Germany, Italy and France, Taylor said. Through these specials, Taylor said they’ve worked with more than 20 production companies in the last four to five years and produced content in nine languages.
“Specials are made first and foremost for the benefit of the local region,” Taylor said. “The rest of Europe will air after a short window, but it’s all about the local impact. And if a locally relevant story is told well, it should resonate across other regions.”
The channel is doing increasingly more coproductions, said Ben Noot, director of global acquisitions at the National Geographic Channel for Europe and the UK. Around 70 hours of coproductions were greenlit in just the last year, he said.
They’ve worked with American partners such as Discovery’s Science, as well as other international partners including Channel 4 and Channel 5 in the UK. With at least a 20% investment in coproductions, Noot said National Geographic will bring in creative teams to help shape production ideas and get them off the ground.
The team recommended anyone looking to pitch to their channel to contact Alexander Lawson, who runs the development team.
The focus of the Smithsonian Channel’s hour-long session at Sunny Side, was its recent repositioning under the ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks umbrella. This included how the conglomerate’s recently launched streaming service, Paramount+, plays a role in content development.
The panel was moderated by YUZU Productions co-founder Fabrice Esteve, and the participants were James Blue, head of the Smithsonian Channel and SVP MTV News and Docs, Rachel Watson, director of program development for Smithsonian Channel and Tim Evans, an executive producer at the channel.
Blue led much of the talk and discussed the Smithsonian Channel’s new positioning as a more dynamic and character-driven non-fiction platform than what many viewers may have associated with the brand in the past.
“We are really trying to understand the present by using history,” Blue said of the channel’s positioning, adding that one of the goals for Smithsonian is to “examine the intersection between pop culture and history.”
“Our stories should be about people, they should be about the planet, and they should be about progress,” he explained. “Those are the three broad categories that everything we do will fall into.”
Watson, who leads program development, added that Smithsonian’s place among the ViacomCBS organization offers the channel many opportunities for cross-promotional non-fiction specials and series, like an upcoming special about fighter jets made with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to coincide with the upcoming release of Paramount Pictures’ blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick.
“If we’re looking at CBS there’s a huge world of Star Trek and Twilight Zone. If you look at Paramount, Yellowstone is a huge hit,” she said, suggesting the potential for historical specials or series to line up with the planned prequel to the popular Western-themed drama.
“Just looking at these different IPs and properties and how we might create some factual programming to sit alongside them, both on the linear channels and the streaming platform [Paramount+], I think there’s a huge opportunity to co-brand and figure out some really fun and entertaining character-driven programming,” Watson added.
But Blue stressed that as valuable as co-branding opportunities are, the Smithsonian Channel is focused primarily on quality content.
“We just want good projects, and if they have people that are tied to the Smithsonian, great. If not, that’s fine too.”
Two questions inform PBS’ programming strategy, said chief programming executive Sylvia Bugg: “Why this content?” and “Why now?”
In an hour-long discussion with moderator Peter Hamilton, consultant and publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, Bugg talked about how PBS tries to combine its bread and butter non-fiction content with programming that’s timely on subject matter the network wants to focus on currently. Those focuses right now include climate and the environment, the state of democracy, and social justice stories.
Programming around these more timely topics are meant to complement the PBS staples of science, natural history and current affairs programming, alongside its well-known dramatic series.
Bugg said the team likes to think about how it can scale content, use it for educators, and translate content ideas into local engagement with more than 300 member stations around the U.S.
Currently, Bugg said PBS is looking for programming that digs into who its subjects are, presenting stories that reflect those of its viewers, and striving to find ways to relate historical moments to today.
“We’ll continue to dive into deep storytelling and find more creative ways that we can use some of these key historical moments and create more relevancy around them,” Bugg said.
Bugg added PBS can build off of the work of its news and current affairs programming with strands like ‘POV’, ‘Frontline’ and ‘Independent Lens’ also telling important stories.
Another major focus for PBS is ensuring a diverse range of perspectives in front of and behind the camera, Bugg said. PBS is looking to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in its research and development, and production support, and wants to commit more resources to projects and filmmakers at different stages of their career, in a way that’s sustainable.
“Fifty years from now, we want to be able to say we put this work in place that has created systemic change,” Bugg said. “It has to be done in a way that’s sustainable for the future.”
For programming where it makes sense to work with a streamer, PBS is open to flexibly working with non-broadcast platforms. Bugg said PBS wants to make sure the investment is favorable to the public broadcaster, where it can take the project to its digital platform. Those conversations should take place early on in the production process.
With files from Andrew Jeffrey and Justin Anderson