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What are UK documentary commissioners looking for this season?

BaftaEarlier this week at BAFTA in London, some of the top documentary commissioners in the UK told us all about what they are looking for in 2013/14 – valuable information if you’re looking to pitch an idea.

“A country without documentaries is like a family without a photo album,” said Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman. And it’s true – we view and review our country’s history through archive film and use it to educate, entertain, shock and kick-start debates.

Even in the age of unlimited digitalisation we rely on pure imagery to tell us what is going on – and also why it is going on. This explains therefore that documentaries remain popular among broadcasters, even though the formats and topics they choose to screen might change from time to time.

In terms of creating hard-hitting, high profile programmes, documentaries never fail to impress. Think of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields by Channel 4, the BBC’s 7/7: One Day in London or the global hit series Frozen Planet. Each has their own agenda.

So how will the genre evolve over the next two years? What is it that broadcasters are looking for?

At BAFTA we heard from Jo Clinton-Davis, ITV’s popular factual controller; Nick Mirsky, deputy head of factual at Channel 4; Charlotte Moore, commissioning editor documentaries for the BBC; Siobhan Mulholland, commissioning editor, factual and features at Sky; and Simon Raikes, Channel 5’s commissioning editor for factual. The panel was hosted by journalist Benji Wilson.

Channel 5 and ITV

The first comment came from Simon Raikes who states Channel 5 wants to see “compelling human narratives”. A broad comment, but looking into the network’s history, could it mean docs such as their Extraordinary People strand or the Born to Kill series? In short, the more populist approach to uncovering a story by means of featuring highly charged emotional and/or shocking content.

ITV goes for a much more broader – often news related – angle. Jo Clinton-Davis from ITV would like to see documentary pitches “that excite the curiosity for a broad audience”. Again, looking at their regular programming these are more straightforward, factual-led, mild investigative docs on subjects such as the Queen, or – an example of the year gone by – Jimmy Savile.

BBC and Channel 4

The BBC traditionally has a good mix between the creative-led documentaries that focus on a niche audience as well as the hard-hitting investigative documentaries that appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers. Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s factual commissioner, said she sees this as an exciting time for the genre and would like to see pitches that are “ambitious as well as challenging”.  She also said she would like to “give access to voices that haven’t been heard before”.

Channel 4’s Nick Mirsky wants audiences to immerse themselves in the subject and therefore calls upon documentarians to come up with pitches that “take you as close as possible to the action”. Again, the channel’s documentaries cover a wide range but unlike the BBC, these vary from the entertaining to the shocking, to deep, investigative news programmes.

Hits have included My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Embarrassing Bodies as well as Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – a documentary so powerful it helped shaped policy on the matter. The network’s docs often require a documentary filmmaker with stamina, balls (yes, female docmakers included!) and a creative eye.

Mirsky also adds that the importance of humour in docs shouldn’t be underestimated. It is certainly a fact that humour in docs creates the entertainment factor for a large chunk of the channel’s audience and makes heavy subjects easier to digest; however being subtle is often the best way forward.

Though the panel argued that the use of well-known people presenting docs must only limit itself to using those who are actually passionate about the subject (think of Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die), Siobhan Mulholland from Sky says she likes to see talent reinvented for documentaries, as was the case with Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets. She also prefers documentary series (at least six episodes) from feature length docs.

The panel concluded by saying they are looking for documentaries for 2014 but, if something really strikes them, they are flexible to produce for 2013.

So people, there you go: a little guidance on what to pitch and who to pitch it to. Make sure you are part of our nation’s history by creating fresh content that is set for our future audiences.

This article was previously published on The Knowledge website.

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Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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