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Arts Documentary: Moving to More Authored Approaches

(Photo courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest – Jacqui Bellamy)

 Moving away from a magazine style approach to more authored programmes, especially by artists themselves seems to be the way that arts programming is moving at the moment according to a panel of arts commissioners at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Partnerships with arts institutions and co-pros with other channels are also de rigeur.

In a session chaired by Guardian journalist, Liese Spencer, the commissioners outlined what they were looking for, what they viewed as particular successes, their key challenges and what they were most jealous of.

Mandy Chang, Head of Arts, ABC

Mandy kicked off her stint with a clip showing the successful The Divorce, a ‘television opera” which was a co-production with Opera Australia and a sneaky clip of Mystify Me, a forthcoming documentary on Australia’s favourite rock star, Michael Hutchence. She talked about wanting to commission niche, experimental programmes led by artists, while at the same having popular family type shows such as Matilda and Me about Australian comedian Tim Minchin composing a musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s classic. Mandy would like to introduce new faces on the channel and also do co-pros with C4 and Sky.

John Hay, Head of Specialist Factual, Channel 4

John Hay was responsible for commissioning many of the Grayson Perry programmes, which all his fellow panellists seemed to be jealous of! In terms of successes on other channels he cited Waldemar Januszczak arts programmes on the BBC. And for his own channel he cited the example of Random Acts, a £6m partnership over 3 years between Channel 4 and Arts Council England to commission 200 creative short films a year. He explained how Channel 4 are commissioning programmes tackling contemporary issues such as industrialisation and climate change through the eyes of artists. “We are asking artists what matters.” And he also explained that he would love to be “brought factual talent”.

Celia Taylor, Head of Non-Scripted Commissioning for Sky Entertainment

Asked to talk about a Sky Arts show that she was particularly proud of Celia cited the Computer Says Show, which asks whether or not computers can be creative. She explained that this was because the programme demonstrated intellectual rigour and also appealed to the mainstream, which is a key objective of the channel. Like the other panellists Celia cited examples of partnerships with arts institutions as a particular success of her channel. She talked about Sky’s partnership with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and explained how the channel is keen to do more of these partnerships, especially given big arts institutions’ capacity for press and marketing. Celia explained that it’s not just about the ratings as arts is critical for the nation’s health and that she is interested in programming that shows people ‘doing’ rather than ‘critiquing”. She urged programme makers to not be scared of of big, crazy ideas as they can be co-pros with other channels.

Mark Bell, Head of Arts Commissioning, BBC

Mark outlined that across the BBC platforms the channel wants to move away from magazine review shows to more authored programmes and that the different styles of authorship can be as much from the director as the presenter. For BBC1 its about hitting more mainstream audiences; he wants to establish BBC2 as the cultural destination on Saturdays (both for docs and artistic performances) and to be more experimental with conceptual art for BBC4. He is looking to attract audiences who are already interested in the arts and those who don’t realise that they are. And the channel would like to build on the success of Performance Live where the BBC joined forces with Arts Council England and Battersea Arts Centre to broadcast a night of performance. Mark would like to see new faces as presenters, especially those who wouldn’t normally be associated with presenting and he is looking for new programmes that will “break through”.

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