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Developing Factual Ideas

Field Guide to Factual Formats that Sell

In the US, TV producers generally talk of two kinds of factual programming – documentary and reality.

In the UK, there are documentary and reality programmes as well as at least another seven sub-genres.

Here is an attempt to describe different genres of factual programming, so that, at least on TV Mole, we all know what we’re talking about.

At its simplest, a factual programme is one that is not scripted. Or put another way, it is commissioned on the strength of a short proposal that outlines the concept and some likely scenarios.

In contrast, a drama series is commissioned after the production of a full written script.

However, that’s where things start to get complicated. Most factual programmes are ‘scripted’ to some extent – whether it’s a written format that is followed each week, or full script written and delivered by an expert such as a historian.

But all factual programmes have one thing in common – the viewer learns something by watching the programme. They might discover new facts, gain an insight into another world or learn something about human nature.

All factual programmes can be placed somewhere on a continuum which has classic documentary (emphasis on facts and intellectual argument) at one end and entertainment shows (emphasis on human drama and emotion) at the other.

While not exhaustive, and open to individual interpretation, this list provides a starting point to help you think about the best approach for your fledgling programme idea. Knowing where your idea fits will also help you write your proposal and pitch your idea to the right person at the right channel (click on the titles to go to an expanded explanation with examples).

Constructed documentary

A one-off programme that aims to teach the audience about a subject in as objective manner as possible.

Presenter-Led Documentary Series

An expert, often an academic, leads us through a subject, synthesizing all the arguments, simplifying the subject so it’s easy to understand.

Character-Driven Documentary

This kind of documentary aims to take the audience into someone else’s world, as it happens.


A factually accurate story of a person or a particular point in history (or occasionally, the future), illustrated with dramatic reconstructions that uses actors.

Drama Documentary

A fully dramatized telling of a factual story.

Point of View Documentary

A subjective film is authored, and strongly skewed towards a certain viewpoint. POV documentaries tend to be films that tackle issues.

Immersive Documentary

A presenter goes on a physical journey to investigate or discover something about the world.

Observational Documentary Series

Also known as fly-on-the-wall (in the UK), and reality (in the US). It gives us unique access into the day-to-day lives of organizations or individuals.

Factual Entertainment

Tackles lighter factual subjects, such as fashion, property or food, is usually presenter-led and has an emphasis on entertainment.


A number of people, carefully cast for the greatest diversity and conflict, are put together in a situation constructed entirely for television.


Usually studio-based competition shows with high production values and broad appeal, designed to be glamorous, aspirational and exciting. These shows play on the networks in prime-time, sometimes with several episodes per week.

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