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Developing Factual Ideas

Field Guide to: 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.

A narrator might set the scene and link sequences (especially in the UK), or the characters might explain to the camera what’s happening or how they’re feeling at a particular moment (more common in US programmes).

Ob docs are often run over several series, and feature the same characters week after week. They might be structured episodically – where storylines unfold over the course of one programme and are resolved by the end of the episode. Or, in a serial format, storylines carry over into future episodes, using cliff-hangers.

An episodic structure is often favoured by commissioners as they can repeat single episodes without worrying about them being transmitted out of chronological order.

However, a serialised narrative hooks in the audience to return week after week.

Characters are very carefully cast to ensure that they are charismatic and compelling enough to sustain a whole series.

· Ace of Cakes (Food Network),

· Dog the Bounty Hunter (A&E),

· American Chopper (Discovery)

Sometimes, the environment is the main character, taking the role of antagonist against an ensemble cast.

· Deadliest Catch (Discovery / Ch4),

· Trauma: Life in the ER (TLC),

· Ice Road Truckers (History Channel / Five)

· Ax Men (History / Five)

Events unfold naturally, and story producer works with the editor to pull out certain story threads and weave them into a narrative with a beginning, middle and end for each episode.

Explore more factual TV formats:

Constructed documentary

Presenter-Led Documentary Series

Character-Driven Documentary


Drama Documentary .

Point of View Documentary

Immersive Documentary

Factual Entertainment



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