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Focus on Factual

22 May 2017

John Plunkett reflects on some of the highlights from our recent Breakfast with Specialist Factual Commissioners, where commissioners from a range of broadcasters explained their commissioning strategies and talked through the opportunities for producers.

In a world of “alternative facts” - the memorable phrase used by key Donald Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway - the role of specialist factual programme makers has never felt more important.

Four of the most influential people in the genre gathered at BAFTA to discuss the current state of specialist factual - and where it might go next.

Tom McDonald, the BBC’s head of natural history and specialist factual commissioning, said the genre had bounced back after a period a few years ago when it had felt “slightly on the back foot” and overshadowed by the box set appeal of big budget drama. “It’s in fine fettle,” he said.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the phenomenal success of David Attenborough’s epic natural history sequel, Planet Earth 2, the BBC’s second highest rating show of 2016 across all genres, beaten only by The Great British Bake Off.

“What Planet Earth 2 showed … is that factual can compete with drama and entertainment in terms of both audiences and the reputational dividend it gives back to the broadcaster,” said McDonald. “That’s game changing.”

Channel 4’s head of specialist factual, John Hay said a quarter of Channel 4’s 20 top rating shows are specialist factual. 

“If you get it right and do it with enough ambition it can compete with every other genre,” said Hay. “We don’t get BBC1 numbers but we found the same with The Plane Crash, Live From Space, and Richard III: The King in the Car Park.”

Specialist factual spans history, science, natural history, arts and religion but is perhaps better defined, as Channel 4 does, as the “genre that explores and explains the world and makes us think about it differently”. Hay described it as “TV in analytical mode”.

Over the last few years it has broadened its appeal by absorbing some of the tropes of factual entertainment and reality TV. But it has to retain its “depth of content” if it is to get it right, said the BBC’s McDonald. 

Calling for more “splashy one off-specials” and “factual theatre” to sit alongside the BBC’s returnable hits, McDonald said: “I think loads of good things in specialist have come from factual entertainment and reality TV which is compelling characters, real world precincts and an actual story you want to watch for an hour.

“If it borrows more of the trappings of other genres it means it moves a bit quicker, it engages a bit faster and speaks to the head and the heart at the same time.”

What Planet Earth 2 showed … is that factual can compete with drama and entertainment in terms of both audiences and the reputational dividend it gives back to the broadcaster... That’s game changing.

Sky’s commissioning editor, factual, Siobhan Mulholland said she was looking for “clever boldness” in new programming ideas and suggested people weren’t being “playful enough” with their ideas. 

Using Sky’s mould-breaking dance-documentary hybrid, Pineapple Studios, as an example, Mulholland said “We’re trying to encourage people to think, is there something bonkers, something really different we can do to make arts as fun as it possibly can be, to move away from the traditional take on it.”

Hay echoed similar sentiments when called on programme makers to experiment more with forms and formats. “It feels like there has been a bit of a lack of physical innovation, new camera techniques, playing with the forms of programmes, new hybridisation,” he said.

“I look back on The Great Sperm Race, Walking With Dinosaurs… I wold like to get a little bit more of that on the books. A different flavour alongside everything else that is coming back.”

There is a devotion to authenticity that has to run like a thread through everything we do

One example of this innovation is a trend towards “purism” and “pure testimony” in specialist factual, letting the material, whether its archive footage or contemporary filming, speak for itself. So-called “slow TV” is one example. 

Another very different example is National Geographic’s LA 92, which will source unseen footage, news archives and testimonies to tell the in-depth story of America’s first on-camera race riots in Los Angeles in 1992.

Simon Young, senior director of development and production at National Geographic, said the documentary is made up entirely of archive material with no voiceovers or interviews and only a handful of on-screen titles. 

“This devotion to the raw material and the authenticity that the raw material conveys, that is something I am really focused on in this day and age,” said Young. 

“When someone working for the US president starts talking about ‘alternative facts’ that is something we need to be thinking about as a factual TV community site a lot. There is a devotion to authenticity that has to run like a thread through everything we do.”

BAFTA-supported sessions at Sheffield Doc/Fest (9-14 June 2017)

BAFTA & Virtual Reality
Monday 12 June - 12.00

Members of BAFTA’s VR advisory group will explore and share their initial findings on supporting the VR community and connecting creators to commissioning and funding opportunities.

BAFTA Masterclass: Making True Crime Docs and Series
Tuesday 13 June - 12.00

From blue flashing crime scenes to tense interrogations, the thirst for True Crime is insatiable. So how do content creators keep one of the longest running documentary genres fresh and exciting? How do US crime docs compare to the UK? And in a world when every move can be publicly scrutinized, how do you navigate press teams, consent and full open access from those trying to make our cities safe?