Documentary Commissioners at the Televisual Factual Festival

On Thursday 22 November, The Whickers were at the annual Televisual Factual Festival held every year at BAFTA in central London.

The first session of the day was ‘Documentary: The Commissioner’s Word’ with panelists Alisa Pomeroy, commissioning editor for documentaries at Channel 4; Head of Commissioning for Documentaries at the BBC, Clare Sillery; Factual Commissioning Editor at Channel 5, Guy Davies; and Jo Clinton-Davis, Factual Controller at ITV. The event was moderated by Emma Wakefield, Managing Director at Lambent Productions. We heard from each of the panelists on the remit of each channel, how they innovate, and how best to pitch ideas to them.

Clare Sillery of the BBC said “documentary storytelling is a way you can engage with the complexities of the world, perhaps more so than in current affairs” – and spoke of the BBC’s aim to commission timely docs that innovate and push the boundaries in terms of tone and content. For Channel 5, Guy Davies was focused on the breadth of programmes and said he aims to temper innovation with films and series that will be popular and commercially successful. On the ITV documentary slot, controller Jo Clinton-Davis said “we don’t have the luxury of 10 o’clock, only the pain of 9 o’clock”. She explained that ITV try to make serious issues warm and entertaining without veering into “bleeding heart liberality”. While Alisa Pomeroy discussed the part innovation plays in Channel 4’s remit, with no idea being “too bonkers”. All of the commissioners said they were open to receiving pitches over email, provided that the sender explicitly understands the remit of the channel and has a strong conviction in the essence of their idea – the rest can be worked out with the commissioner.

Next up was a discussion on the growing demand from SVODs for factual programming, with panellists including Spring Films’ Managing Director, Richard Melman; Director of Factual Programming at Endemol Shine, Kim Shillinglaw; and Paul Corney, SVP of Global Digital and Co-Productions at All3Media International. The event was moderated by Holly Pye, Commercial Director at Objective Media Group. A lot of the discussion focused on Netflix, as well as the increasing percentage of work now made with SVODs rather than broadcasters in mind. Richard Melman summed this change up, “what we pitch has completely changed… we can now pitch long-form creative docs that broadcast TV wouldn’t listen to”. Although the panel discussed the transformational power of platforms such as Netflix, which has previously devoted large budgets to creative documentaries, they warned the audience that these budgets were no longer at the level they once were – and that working with an SVOD is not always the best answer for every project. The panel agreed that on the whole, the growth of SVODs had opened up the US market further for the UK, with US networks becoming increasingly interested in UK producing talent bringing something different (and potentially cheaper) to the table.