What makes specialist factual special? How can broadcasters make it relatable? How do we best use talent? To what extent can broadcasters take risks and what kind of special factual content punches through? These were just some of the key questions in the Specialist Factual session at Sheffield Doc/Fest chaired by filmmaker and journalist Ruth Pitt. We also heard about channels blurring genres with a recent surge of interest in celebrity-led drama docs, with both C5 and Channel 4 running a series on Henry VII and his six wives, with C5 keen to point out they got there first!
The five commissioning editors all showed clips of what they feel embodies great modern special factual programming and unseen clips from their upcoming slates.
John Hay, Head of Specialist Factual, Channel 4
John chose C5’s Wall of Death for his favourite SF programme as it’s the ‘ultimate show not tell’ which is exactly where C4 wants to go. For him, good SF is always wanting to look round the corner and finding out how things work. Like the Grayson Perry shows, ‘we learn by watching people doing things’, rather than just telling us things.
He showed a clip from the forthcoming second series of SAS: Who Dares Wins which is the documentary team taking on specialist factual territory and an interesting innovation for the channel. C4 is interested in broadening its tone and taking on core history and science subjects and doing things differently.
Rachel Job, Director of Programming, HISTORY & H2, A+E Networks UK
Rachel talked about A&E building on the strength of programmes like Vikings with the new Barbarians Rising, a big budget series made by October Films. They have used a mixture of recognisable faces (to attract audiences) and newer faces (who are much more keen to cooperate on publicity). They are looking to make SF more relatable by working with ‘everyday experts’ like Johnny Vaughan, Sean Bean and Ozzy Osbourne and his son Jack, rather than more traditional experts where the programmes might seem more like a history lesson at school.
Ed Sayer, VP Production & Development, Discovery Networks International
Ed chose the Murder Detectives on C4 as his exemplary SF programme, mainly because of the innovative narrative techniques David Nath used. He recorded interviews with a DAT recorder and no camera and overlaid the audio over the pictures, which managed to get the audience into the heart of the characters. He explained that SF programmes on DNI have to be ‘big and ambitious, it’s all about the scale’. The big pockets mean that DNI can go to places that many other broadcasters cannot afford and can use different ways of telling the story, like new programmes, Everest Rescue and Life of Dogs. Talent is important as for the other channels, but it’s all about how you use them. No Limits is a four part series with Idris Elba, as you’ve never seen him before – bruised and in pain after breaking a board in an episode on martial arts.
Lucy Willis, Commissioning Editor, Factual, C5
Lucy chose her own channel’s Henry VIII and His Six Wives as a model specialist factual programme, as a fresh take on a familiar story, with exciting drama, big names and a blurring of genres. As for the other channels, it’s all about attracting audiences who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a programme about history.
C5 recently put out a tender for an 8 part series on Rome, asking production companies to come up with exciting new ways to look at Rome that would work for C5 audiences. And they are looking to do two-hour specials on history.
The audience were treated to a preview clip of a brand new 3-part series featuring Carol Vorderman’s attempt to fly solo around the world.
Channel 5 is looking to build on the success of Henry VIII and His Six Wives with more blurring between drama and specialist factual and are also particularly interested in male-skewed formats.
Tom McDonald, Head of Natural History and Specialist Factual Formats, BBC
Tom also chose Wall of Death as his exemplary SF show as it ‘wasn’t a spectacle for the sake of it, had a real sense of purpose’ and managed to keep people watching to the very end. He explained that good SF programmes have the ability to help make sense of your place in the world, should have a sense of theatre and not be constrained to a particular form. BBC is looking for different ways of telling the audience this is worth watching, rather than beautifully made potted lectures.
He is particularly proud of their new programme Big Live Fix It made by Studio Lambert with Simon Reeve and ‘super, clever people using science and engineering to transform people’s lives in extraordinary ways.’ Tom explained that the secret of the programme is that audiences are more interested in the characters and their goals than the actual science itself. He added that the BBC is not going to walk away from landmark presented docs but is looking for a balance of popular returning titles and ones they can take risks with.