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Developing Factual Ideas

How to Turn One Subject Area into Ten Programme Ideas

10 by psd10 by psd

Do you think that some subject areas are off limits because you develop TV programme ideas within in a certain genre? Do you avoid a specialist subject because you think it has already been covered? Are there some subjects that are so unfashionable that they can’t be done on TV? You could be missing a trick.

Commissioners are always looking for ‘fresh’ take on a subject – so give them what they’re looking for. All you need to do is find a neglected subject area and bring it up to date, or put a new twist on a well-worn idea and your proposal will catch the eye of a commissioner.

This could mean applying a competition format to a specialist factual subject, or introducing a presenter into an environment usually associated with an observational documentary approach.

For example, consider anthropology. Sounds dry, doesn’t it?

Focus on tribes, and it gets a bit more interesting – but we still don’t know what the programme might look like.

Now imagine working up a proposal for a particular channel – this forces you to apply some limitations to the subject. Different channels have different audiences, tone and programme styles. What works on one would flop on another (or never get commissioned). These constraints force you to be more creative when thinking about your subject matter, especially if, at first sight, it doesn’t seem like a natural fit for your target channel.

Even better, one subject can be spun a number of ways, giving you several ideas for the price of one.

Here’s how nine producers have tackled the subject of tribes (from documentary through fact ent to reality):

The Tribe in the Picture1×60’

Essential Film and Television / Nat Geo

Essential’s founder Richard Wawman and director Ben Young search the Amazon for a previously unknown tribe who were photographed firing arrows at a passing plane.


BBC Productions/Discovery Channel on BBC2/Discovery (as Going Tribal)

Bruce Parry, a former British Royal Marine, spends a month living with six remote tribes, interacting with his hosts and participating in their rituals.

Living with the Tribes: The Adventures of Mark and Olly 8×60’

Cicada Productions / Travel Channel

Explorers Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds travel deep into the West Papuan rainforest to live with the remote Mek tribe.

Tribal Wife 6×60’

Diverse / BBC2

Six British women give up their comfortable lives to experience life as a tribal wife in some of the world’s remotest tribes in Tanzania, Namibia, Ethiopia, Panama, Indonesia or Namibia.

Return of the Tribe 3×60’

Tigress Productions / Five

Donal McIntyre guides six members of a Papua New Guinean tribe on a visit around Britain. During their two-week trip, they experience their first snow and master the art of the snowball fight.

Meet the Natives 3x 60’

KEO Films / Channel 4

Five men from the South Pacific island of Tanna travel to the UK to meet and explore the culture of three strange tribes: the working class, the middle class and the upper class.

Fat Men Can’t Hunt 4×60’

Cheetah Television / BBC3

Eight clinically obese men and women spend three weeks living in the Kalahari desert with the Ju’/ Hoansi people. They are only allowed to eat what they harvest, hunt and kill themselves.

Last Man Standing 10×60’

BBC Productions / BBC3, aka Last One Standing, Discovery, USA

Six hardcore athletes compete in extreme sporting events with the remotest tribes on earth.

Survivor 15×60’

Castaway Television/ CBS

Competition reality show where members of different ‘tribes’ compete in a number of challenges to win immunity to being voted off the show by other tribe members. The last survivor wins $1million.

I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!15×60’

ITV Productions / ITV. One series aired on ABC in the US

Ten D-list celebrities live together in the jungle without luxury and on meagre rations. The audience votes which celebrity must undertake a stomach-churning bush tucker trial in an attempt to win food for the group. The series is stripped across three weeks (one show every night) on several channels and online. Celebrities are voted off one by one until one is crowned King or Queen of the Jungle.

There are, to borrow Russell Brand’s phrase, other tribe shows available – feel free to shout out with any glaring omissions (and visit Russell’s interactive website to rifle through his drawers).

Get more development and pitching tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch


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