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Commissioning Singles, Specials and Series

(Photo courtesy of Sheffield/Docfest - Jacqui Bellamy)

Nick Mirsky, Guy Davies, Emma Read, Jo Clinton-Davis, Patrick Holland (Photo courtesy of Sheffield/Docfest – Jacqui Bellamy)

Parting of the waves after the ‘changing of the guard’?

At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016, a panel explored looked at how the commissioning of singles, specials and series has changed in recent months. Chair of the panel, Emma Read (Emporium Productions), introduced the session by explaining how there has been many changes in the world of documentaries in the past year with BBC3 going online, Netflix, Vice and Buzzfeed streaming popular documentaries and a ‘changing of the guard’ at the BBC and ITV. She feels that there is much more clear blue water between the channels this year than in the last few years, largely because of this ‘changing of the guard’.  Emma asked a panel of commissioning editors how these changes have influenced their commissioning decisions and what programmes they are particularly looking for.

Channel 4

Nick Mirsky, Head of Documentaries of Channel 4 explained how he wants to cover important subjects in an entertaining way, that particularly works with young people. A new documentary that is coming out soon, featuring David Baddiel and his father suffering from a rare form of dementia that causes him to lose his inhibitions, is a perfect example of this. He said that the most successful documentary series on C4 at the moment is 24 Hours in Police Custody, a seemingly popular documentary series that deals with important issues such as immigration and rape. Nick explained that documentaries don’t have to be all about younger people and have to have young people in them to appeal to a younger audience.

The channel is making a big push for singles with authored angles and three parters as well as programmes that will grow into the next First Dates and 24 Hours in A&E. Nick explained that C4 exists to innovate and experiment and that the channel is essentially looking for innovative, good quality and relevant ideas that entertain.

Channel 5

Guy Davies, Channel 5’s Commissioning Editor for Factual explained how that Channel 5 is determined to grow up and move away from essentially being about benefits documentaries.  He added that the channel is becoming ‘less dark’, citing examples such as Yorkshire Vets and GPs.

Guy explained how Channel 5 had broadened its scope of documentaries while retaining its popular edge, with Body Donors and the Special Needs Employment Agency and how they were taking risks with more left-field programmes, like Inside the Gang, a new two part documentary series about street gangs in London. Another big commission for the channel is a 120 minute drama documentary on Freddie Mercury.

Guy added that Channel 5 is more driven by its audience than other channels as it has to fight hard for them and therefore the entertaining titles are still extremely important. Guy Davies’ favourite one is Tantastic: 50 Shades of Orange. He also added that C5 is keen to work with small production outfits and that C5 had worked with more smaller production companies than any other channel.


Jo Clinton-Davis, Controller of Factual at ITV talked about the misunderstanding that documentaries are separate from entertainment. And how we need to tell stories that covey a sense of the personal in a broader piece. She is looking for simple propositions with strong, direct titles that attract both a younger and older audience. Long Lost Families was cited as a good example of what ITV is looking for, with a ‘range of emotional shifts so that it feels like in a drama in its own right’. Talent is important as it will get people to come to an issue but it’s not the only way. ITV is looking for different ways into stories that surprise people and create revelatory moments. For example, Rookies is about new recruits which aren’t just young people; they come from the whole spectrum of society.

Crime stories work for ITV, with good examples including The Mafia with Trevor McDonald and the new Undercover Prisoner which offers a first hand insight into the experience of convicts inside the closed world of prison. Jo concluded by saying that ‘our job is to think about the national conversation’ and how programmes can further this discussion.


Patrick Holland, head of documentaries at the BBC explained that he has had a busy first year with lots to be proud of, including How to Die: Simon’s Choice and Abused: The Untold Story and the forthcoming Exodus: Breaking Into Britain and the Divorce Clinic. The channel is interested in authored films, especially by new directors. He added that the tone doesn’t need to be serious, citing The Real Marigold Hotel as an example because of its ‘warmth and cheekiness’. The documentaries should take a risk, be distinctive and represent something new.

Patrick explained that the BBC is not interested in access for access sake. The filmmaker and his/her perspective on the film is important. In The Hospital: Life And Death In A Week (working title), a 6x 60’ series for BBC Two, exec produced by Simon Dickson, the focus of the story is the crisis of the NHS, for example. He added that the new insider doc on ‘Vogue’ has a very distinctive and funny perspective. “Access never gets a commission but is an interesting starting point,” says Patrick.



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