In order to be successful when pitching to TV commissioners, it’s vital to know what they are looking for. This is harder than it sounds, despite many broadcasters now sharing their commissioning briefs online (via their commissioning portals), because they are often vague and sometimes out of date.
Another way to get a sense of what commissioners want is to attend a panel in which they outline their current needs. These panels are common at TV conferences and festivals around the world. Some commissioners are refreshingly candid, whilst other remain coy and seemingly reluctant to give away their secrets; others appear more interested in scoring political points against their co-panelists than helping the audience of producers understand what they should pitch. So they can be a mixed bag.
And so it was with the Arts Commissioning panel at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015. On this occasion, Mark Bell, arts commissioner at the BBC seemed more interested in indulging in an intellectual sparring match with the other panelists than enlightening the audience. Despite these distractions, it is usually possible, in amongst the buzzword bingo, to work out some general trends and themes that can help you focus your development efforts. The rest of the panel, Mandy Chang (ABC Australia), Celia Taylor (Sky Arts), John Hay (Channel 4) and Donald Thoms (PBS) were enthusiastic about their own, and their competitor networks’, arts programming, but the themes seem similar to those expressed at the same festival in 2014. They still all much prefer to show people doing art, rather than showing people talking about art (although the BBC still seems to favour experts telling/teaching the audience about art).
Celia Taylor pointed to Sky Arts’ Guitar Star as an example of how the channel likes to show the technique of a craft conjunction with showcasing an artist’s talent. The show, a competition that searched UK and Ireland to find “extraordinary guitar talent of all ages”, was inclusive and showed musicians “doing it, not talking about it”. Sky don’t see themselves as catering only to the cultural elite: heavy metal and classical ballet are both valid on Sky Arts and they want to nurture this kind of diversity. Their mission is to re-energize the arts to stop arts programmes feeling like ‘homework’ that you should watch rather than really want to watch. They want to capture the attention of all the people who go to see the live arts – in all their forms – and engage them to watch the arts on TV. Sky Arts has ambitions beyond their budgets so they are willing to enter into co-productions with other broadcasters, so the advice was, “don’t self censor – go big”, and the money would come for the right ideas.
John Hay noted that Channel 4 wants its arts programmes to stand out and be different to, and more focused than, the offerings on other channels. He cited – Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, Grayson Perry’s Dream House, Random Acts, and Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes, as good examples of this ambition. In Channel 4, artists are the authors of arts docs rather than the subjects of them; their arts documentaries have access to artists and their process at their core, and the audience is immersed in their world. The advice to producers was to look at the front pages of newspapers and see if you can come up with an arts angle to what’s in news. Proposals must answer the questions: why make this programme now? How is this story relevant to what’s going on in the wider world?
Donald Thoms’ oversees the most conservative of all the channels represented on the panel. PBS tends to focus on familiar names and high-end musical and theatrical performance. He pointed to the annual Fall Arts Festival as an example of the kind of arts that PBS showcases. The 2015 Arts Fall Festival features Unity -The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson and a performance of Billy Elliot the Musical. A key cornerstone of the schedule is the long-running American Masters biography series. Whilst many viewers are located in NYC and will watch any arts programme, the audience in middle America will not tune in if they don’t know who the artist is, so name recognition is paramount. PBS’s challenge is to find a way of bringing this audience to arts content they haven’t seen before.
Mandy Chang is a fan of the flamboyant reality show performance piece, and pointed to Grayson Perry and Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, and feature-length documentary Hockney as having the kind of content and tone that appeals to her audience. However for ABC to commission an arts programme it must have some kind of Australian content.
Mark Bells said that the BBC’s brief was to “understand, explain and contextualize art”, and for arts programmes on the various BBC channels to take the audience “inside the art world but not in an exclusive way”. His more comprehensive overview of BBC arts commissioning can be seen in this video: