Leading broadcast factual commissioners took to the stage to discuss their programming needs, coproduction aspirations and reveal their budget allocations in front of a packed audience at the latest Broadcast Intelligence (BI) Commissioner Index Breakfast.
The UK’s factual television community gathered in London on Tuesday, October 1st, to hear from arguably the most insightful BI panel to date, comprising Lucy Willis, Commissioning Editor of Factual at Channel 5 (C5); Laura Crowson, Senior Director of Development for Discovery Channel US and Science Channel US; and Bernadette McDaid, Commissioning Editor – International at National Geographic Channel.
Willis, the former Head of UK Factual at London-based indie Raw, used the occasion to reveal that C5 is now “on the hunt for coproduction opportunities” with US broadcasters to create larger-scale factual series.
“We will put in £150k to £200k (an hour) and will be probably looking to an American funder to match these funds so we can actually do two or three series of real scale. It’s not Nat Geo’s kind of one or two million scale but for us it’s series of scale and those would feel like big, landmark projects,” said Willis, who will be travelling Stateside to meet potential US partners in two weeks’ time.
The move marks an ambitious shift for the Viacom-owned UK commercial broadcaster, which Willis said usually had budgets ranging from “low-end £70k” to around £200k for larger-scale projects. However, Willis, whose past commissions include ‘Inside the Tower of London’, admitted budgets could be stretched for the right project: “We’ve very occasionally gone higher than that.”
While National Geographic doesn’t disclose its programming spend in public forums, McDaid pointed out the broadcaster’s budgets were “significantly higher than other broadcasters and are very very decent budgets indeed.” “As you can see from the serious sparkle on the sizzle earlier, we are not cheap,” said the former Science Channel Head of Current Production. McDaid said Nat Geo, whose high-end documentary roster includes ‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’, does have a dedicated acquisitions and coproduction team. However, the exec added that any co production projects were assessed on a “case by case basis” because there are “some territories we just won’t give up.”
Discovery’s Crowson said she would like to be pitched “big, bold ideas that grab headlines” with budgets ranging from around the US$200k to US$600k an hour mark, with some “premium shows” going above and beyond that. Asked about coproduction opportunities, Crowson, a former Gurney Productions executive, replied: “We tend to commission globally and hold the rights. But with Science Channel there is a bit more opportunity for coproductions.”
All three panellists mapped out their latest programming needs to producers sitting in the audience.
Willis said C5 was looking to “build up specialist factual” on its schedule in 2020 and invited pitches for 60-, 90- and 120-minute programmes. “I’ve been hunting for contemporary history ideas that are going to work well for our channel that are going to rate…it’s interesting to look at Channel 4’s Jade Goody series.” The exec added that she wasn’t interested in shows that “feel like homework”. “Our overarching brief for specialist factual is that it’s got to be broad – we are not BBC4, it’s a broad populist channel. It’s got to be accessible and it needs to feel intelligent, and if it’s entertaining so much the better.”
Meanwhile, McDaid said Nat Geo currently has “multiple slots open” with opportunities ranging from “Marquee content” – usually with attached A-list talent attached – to shows requiring a much lower budget. That said, the exec encouraged producers to “think globally” when pitching content to Nat Geo, which operated across 173 countries and in 43 different languages. “Everything is about marketing and cutting through the clutter,” she added.
Discovery’s Crowson told audience members she currently has 500 hours to fill across Discovery Channel US and Science Channel US and was looking for content that portrayed “escapism” and was “enriching”. “We are really trying to push forward and find bold premises,” she said.
The panel was chaired by Broadcast Intelligence Managing Editor Alexandra Zeevalkink.