Let's hear it from the documentary commissioners

A panel of TV documentary commissioners revealed last week what they were looking for in a filmmaker's pitch. The Knowledge attended the session and here we list some of the highlights.

Are we living in the golden age for ob-docs? There is no denying that it is an incredibly strong time for documentary makers with people having more access to information and an ever growing curiosity about the world around us. Documentaries work well to explain things on a micro-level.

Four of the nation’s biggest broadcasters were represented at a panel at Sheffield Doc/Fest last week, discussing the latest trend in programming. Attending were Ralph Lee for Channel4, Emma Willis for the BBC, BSkyB's Celia Taylor and ITV's Jo Clinton-Davis.

The panel, chaired by Helen Scott from Clear Focus Productions, said it was all about finding “the best home for your programme”. Personal tastes and fitting in a broadcaster’s wider schedule of programmes should not be mixed up.


Clinton-Davis said that ITV had room for a wide mix of programmes. Though mainly presenter led, the documentaries fit for broadcast by the channel should not be limited to this. “Think about the hit programme Our Queen, this wasn’t presenter led. What I am interested in are three things: it has to have a broad appeal, have journalistic value and be able to reach a lot of people,” the commissioner said.

As an example she gave Inside Death Row with Trevor McDonald. “Audiences like prisons and want to find out what happens behind the walls. It also wasn’t too dark because of McDonald.”

Asked what the place of celebrity presenters was on the channel Clinton-Davis said they remained to be considered as treats in the schedule, “we shouldn’t and we don’t want to, rely on them as driving our programming”.

On average the broadcaster spends 37K on shows.

Channel 4

Over at Channel 4, where Ralph Lee decides on what gets commissioned, format seems to be considered an almost dirty word.

“Format is out. Programmes such as One Born Every Minute and Educating Yorkshire are brands using a fixed capture. People know what they get and when they get it, but they aren’t formats as such.

“We have a clear identity at Channel 4,” Lee said. “We’re cutting edge and attract young people in large numbers. You know when a programme is Channel 4.”

The fact that a good pitch sometimes isn’t enough is highlighted by Lee’s story on how Leo Maguire’s Dogging Tales got commissioned. “Leo made Gypsy Blood and then came to me a year later with a taster tape of what was to become Dogging Tales. Without the tape the idea wouldn’t have sounded right.”

In general the commissioner likes to see new evidence and/or a new take on an already explored subject which is in line with the tone of voice of the broadcaster.


Celia Taylor, speaking for Sky, explained that as the commercial broadcaster doesn’t consider itself to have viewers but customers, their outlook on what should be commissioned often varies from the broadcaster’s colleagues.

“We aren’t too risk taking in terms of topics – such as dogging – but we focus all the more on a format, and how a programme is made. Take a programme like An Idiot Abroad. It’s new, untraditional and appeals to a large audience.”


The BBC’s Emma Willis focussed in her talk on programming for BBC Two, which she said “is currently all about the places you know by name but know nothing about. We don’t rely on topics involving the police or general health.

“Think about the hit series Inside Claridge’s. It shows a hidden world, it’s observational and shows a real new side to something which is familiar to you in some way.

“I really feel like this is the golden age of ob-docs.”

Format fatigue

But there was room for caution as well as praise during the hour-long session. All commissioners on the panel have seen the dangers of the audience suffering from format fatigue. Their advice? Follow a genuine narrative but then enhance it. Don’t, whatever you do, make it too predictable.

Think about a broad subject, that we all want to know about, and which you can present in an interesting format. With the latter don’t just think in terms of the format of the programme itself but even more so about how you can structure your storyline in an unexpected fashion.

One of the things the panel warned for was that, as documentary filmmakers are often so story and real-life focussed, they sometimes struggle to think outside the box. But, in order to sell your idea, you need to “make it more than just another six-parter”.


Have you sold or tried to sell your documentary to any of these broadcasters? Let us know about your experiences via our Facebook page or LinkedIn group.