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Wanted: What the Specialist Factual Commissioners Want in the UK


Photo by plagel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the Intelligent Factual conference a couple of weeks ago, specialist factual channel execs talked about which programmes have recently worked well for them and what they are looking for in the future.

Channel 4 - Julia Harrington

Recent successes:

Inside Nature’s Giants – “It has a quality of spectacle that is visually, really arresting,” said Julia Harrington

Monarchy with David Starkey

The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron with Rupert Everett

Have series coming up featuring Kwame Kwei-Armah

Three types of specialist factual programmes: blue chip (Ascent of Money), controversy/spectacle doc (Inside Nature’s Giants) or popular (Sex Education Show and Embarrassing Bodies).


“Very much in commissioning mode for 2010…with the emphasis on the distinctiveness to Channel 4.”

Looking for 2-3 popular science and history series for 2010.

“Consumer-driven popular science.”

For history: ” what are the taboos? The boxes marked ‘do not open’ that you could get into for history and really create some thought-provoking television.”

“We need our stuff to be big, we don’t aspire to the niche; we don’t aspire to the marginal. We want our stuff to feel truly Channel 4, and we want it to feel distinctive for us.”

History Channel UK/Biography/Crime and Investigation - Richard Melman

What’s worked well:

102 Mintues that Changed America (History Channel) – “Every shot was taken from amateur video footage, unseen news footage, not much of if focused on the towers themselves, it was more people’s reaction to what was going on….takes a very well known subject…and did a completely new perspective on it,”said Richard Melman. It was History’s highest ever rated single documentary.(Also going to be shown on Ch4 to mark the anniversary of 9/11).

Inside the Body of Henry VIII (History Channel) – “All his medical conditions, his dietary habits, his stools, everything about him was recorded…we were able to tell the story of Henry and his power and who he became through his medical conditions, which was absolutely fascinating.” Turning this into a series doing virtual autopsies on other famous bodies.\

Crime and Investigation Network has a predominantly female audience – the more bloody and gruesome the programme, the more female the audience.


“New-ground-breaking-never-done-before-must-see-secrets-revealed type programming: we’ll never turn it down”.

Programmes that take a subject that you think you know about and make you see it from a different perspective.

Everything from one-off hours to 13-part series. Don’t commission 30′ programmes.

BBC - Cassian Harrison

What’s worked:

Moon Season (BBC2/BBC4) – “It hasn’t rated through the roof, but it’s been a fantastic example of co-ordinated broadcasting, with stuff happening on BBC2 and BBC4 and moments on BBC1, all building to a really great celebration of a seminal event in our history,” said Cassian Harrison.

The Incredible Human Journey ( BBC2) – “It took a very clear question, which is ‘where do we come from?’ and it took the viewer on a meticulously researched, extremely well argued journey through the story of the human race’s migration. it did it well, it was very well produced, but I think what was most important about it was the intellectual underpinning of it which produced a very clear, very compelling argument that produced a whole bunch of surprises.”

Victorian Farm (BBC2) – It was lightly formatted and “it had content, it had an awful lot of knowledge in it…but it wore that understanding quite lightly. You didn’t feel that you were being beaten about the head and being educated.”

Who Killed the Honey Bee? (BBC4)

Science and Islam (BBC4)


Strong journalistic stories like The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor.

On BBC1 and BBC2 – “programmes that have genuine knowledge and genuine factual content but are structured in quite a formatted way, which allows people easy access and an easy returnability that they can come back to.”

BBC4 – “strong, authored journeys” through science.

See also: What the UK Digital Channels Want and What UK Factual Entertainment Commissioners Want


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