WHAT WE COMMISSION
For Channel 4, Specialist Factual is the genre that explores and explains the world and makes us think about it differently. The department’s programmes encompass all the traditional SF subjects - history, science, arts, religion - but also include anthropology, psychology, criminology, economics, engineering etc. - in other words, any approach to a story, event or precinct that goes beyond simply telling personal stories and gets its teeth into how and why things work. Our biggest hits over the last couple of years have been returning series that have borrowed techniques from documentary and factual entertainment to deliver SF content: Guy Martin’s Speed and his associated specials; The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds; SAS: Who Dares Wins; Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas and Grayson Perry’s series on taste, identity and masculinity. We also commission one-off events, live or otherwise, such as Drugs Live, Richard III: The Reburial, The Vote, Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, Live from Space and The Plane Crash. We do high-impact singles that generate headlines and debate: Things We Won’t Say About Race that are True, Jamie’s Sugar Rush, The Stranger on the Bridge, The Paedophile Next Door, First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon and Interview with a Murderer. And we're proud to be the department that commissioned Gogglebox and Gogglesprogs, though those are uncategorisable pieces of brilliance that get a free pass when it comes to genre definitions and boundaries.
Hopefully the above gives a sense of our preferred approach. We're not keen on the version of Specialist Factual where it feels like homework, and where the programmes are effectively illustrated writing, with experts walking around and reading out paragraphs of information in front of thematically suitable backdrops. These programmes tend to start with a topic from the academic syllabus, then think about turning it into TV. We prefer the version where the programmes look like the rest of television and feel just as pleasurable - with a narrative, strong characters we care about, lots of actuality, a reason to keep watching ‘til the end and emotional engagement. These programmes tend to start with something that makes inherently compelling television - something you’d switch on to watch regardless of the genre - then find the Specialist Factual in it. They still contain lots of SF content – we really don’t want you to stint on the detail – but they get into it in a more enjoyable way. If you want one example that encapsulates all of the above, watch Guy Martin’s Wall of Death.
The other common theme when it comes to our choice of subjects and stories is journalism - we want programmes that say something about what’s currently going on in the world, be it explicit (The Vote marking the general election) or implicit (SAS: Who Dares Wins offering an insight into modern masculinity). So for any idea, we’ll want to know why we’d do it now and how it speaks to the themes and events of our time. If it includes a scoop, even better.
Our on-screen talent tends to be a practitioner with a day job (a lorry mechanic, an artist, a child psychologist, former member of the Special Forces, archaeologist or astronaut etc.) rather than a generalist TV professional. We don’t want to be told things down the lens in a didactic fashion - we want to learn by watching people doing stuff. So their role in the programmes is often more lead protagonist than conventional presenter. And we want as diverse a range of those people – on every axis – as possible.
Many of our programmes don’t fall neatly into one SF sub-genre, but for those that do, all the above still applies. For history programming, think modern: we’re particularly interested in very recent history, in history that makes us rethink the present, and - for Secret History - in single films with a strand of present-tense investigation and a new discovery that will make the papers. In science, we lean towards the spectacular (The Plane Crash, Mummifying Alan, Live from Space) and the challenging – often new science or technology that raises new ethical dilemmas. Natural history is hard to get an audience to on the channel, though the door isn't closed to it. And we’re not looking for Specialist Factual/ Features hybrids. But beyond that, we encourage experimentation with form - and especially with new technology. There’s a separate brief for our arts programming on the Arts page of this site.
When you’re bringing us an idea, please do think about where it would play. Our ‘home slot’ is on a Sunday at 8, but some of our biggest series play mid-week at 9 and some of our older- and upmarket-skewing titles can play on a Saturday night or on More4. There’s no point pitching us something we can’t imagine getting an audience to in peak.
Finally, when it comes to style and tone, most of us have an instinctive sense of what feels like a Channel 4 programme, but if in doubt, remember the channel’s old motto: ‘Make trouble; do it first; inspire change’.
HOW TO PITCH AND WHO TO PITCH TO
Because of the volume of ideas coming in, we need to keep meetings for ideas we know we want to develop. So the best way to pitch an idea to us is to e-mail a paragraph or two (at most) outlining the proposal and telling us what we’ll see. If it doesn’t appeal to us at that length it won’t work in the listings or the EPG; if it does, we’ll happily meet and discuss it further. Commissioners’ particular areas of interest and responsibility are listed below, and if you have an idea that falls clearly into one of them, please do approach that commissioner first. But we all rove beyond those briefs so feel free to send uncategorisable ideas to whoever you’re currently having the best conversation with - or to John Hay in the first instance.
Head of Specialist Factual and Arts
Commissioning Editor, History
Commissioning Editor, Travel and Adventure
Commissioning Executive, Topical Specialist Factual
Commissioning Editor, Science
Genre Assistant, Factual
Programme Coordinator, Specialist Factual
Team Assistant, Specialist Factual