We commission more than 200 hours of documentaries every year, ranging from major multi-part series like 24 Hours In A & E and First Dates to shorter series and single films.
It is given that we always look for warmth and humour in the ideas that we take forward with independent companies, but other things we look for in documentary proposals and discuss at length with independent companies include:
- Authenticity. Do the ideas reflect the real world in a way that feels genuine and authentic? (Diary of A Junior Doctor, 999 What’s Your Emergency, Benefit Street)
- Freshness. Is there something in the proposal that is genuinely new, says something about society now and tells a story that has not been told before? (Kids on The Edge, Extremely British Muslims, Secret Life of Prisons, Gun Shop)
- Innovation. Is there something about the boldness of proposition or the use of technology that is breaking new ground? (The Trial, Hunted, UKIP First 100 Days)
- Compelling storytelling. Are we likely to be gripped by the narratives that unfold in the programme? (24 Hours in Custody, Murder Detectives, Supervet, A&E)
- Extraordinary and pleasurable access that feels like a privilege to the Channel 4 viewer (A Very British Hotel, The Mormons, Secret Life of the Zoo)
Not every idea ticks all these boxes, but we do expect a Channel 4 Documentaries commission to be distinctive and eye-catching.
Most of our ideas are present tense observational documentaries – whether they are made with self-shooting directors or 100-camera rigged shoots. We are, however, always ready to experiment with more formatted programmes (First Dates, First Dates Hotel, The Job Interview, Hunted) or factual drama (Cyberbully, The People Next Door, The Watchman) or maverick and hybrid ideas (An Immigrant’s Guide, UKIP: The First 100 Days) if there is something in the idea that expresses a documentary curiosity about the world.
We broadcast a significant number of major 9pm series and this slot is our commissioning priority for 2017/8. We are particularly interested in entertaining ideas with warmth, heart and humour which have enough substance to play at 9pm. Our returning series such as Educating, 24 Hours In A & E and First Datesare very invitational but we’re really keen to develop new ideas with that heart and humour. They could be constructs (see below). Or in some cases access based such as Diary of a Junior Doctor. We are particularly keen on returnable series which can go to scale.
9pm series have to say something about the world we live in but that doesn’t mean they have to be gritty in subject matter.
9pm Short Series
For 9pm we also commission a wide range of shorter two to four part series which tend to be director-led. Some are immersive series set in a community at a specific point in time such as The Romanians areComing (during the first year after the law changed), Extremely British Muslims (following the community who pray at Birmingham Central Mosque) and One Man, Three Wives (inside a Mormon community in Utah). Others use privileged, institutional access like Kids on the Edge (the Tavistock), Murder Detectives(Avon and Somerset Police), Bedlam (inside the Maudsley), or Tax Dodgers (inside HMRC Tax Inspectorate).
We have increased our output at 8 pm. Posh Pawn, The Secret Life of the Zoo and Supervet are established in the schedule and we are keen to develop other ideas. These sometimes (but not always) use a rig. More importantly, they always seek to offer audiences reliable narrative beats in a world that is engaging and relatable for a broad audience.
We also commission a number of two or three part series for 10 pm. These are quite likely to be targeted at younger audiences, include edgier or more adult content (than our 9 pm output), and contain scenes that get audiences talking or tweeting. Past series include Women Who Kill, Bouncers, World of Weird. There is also an opportunity for us to be a bit more experimental with form – An Immigrant’s Guide, and a real ambition to grow or commission longer running series like First Dates for 10pm.
In addition we are keen to receive fresh, surprising format ideas that feel they are served by a documentary approach to filmmaking. We are the unit that developed some of the most long-running C4 formats like Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire, and commissioning a new generation of these series is a serious ambition for the Department. First Dates and Hunted are now established, but we are keen to expand this output and have a small number of pilots in production.
CUTTING EDGE, our 9pm home for Britain's most talented documentary directors, is always looking for films that reflect contemporary Britain in a compelling and often entertaining way. Recent successes in this space include The Jihadis Next Door, Secret Life of Prisons, Gunshop and Rich Brother Poor Brother. What characterises this strand is extraordinary access, a strong instinct for the current stories that will bring a popular audience, and directorial vision.
At 10pm our documentary output includes popular documentaries with tabloid themes – Human Pups, Sex Party Secrets, Women Who Kill - and a small number of authored or more journalistic documentaries – One Killer Punch, Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, The Wedding Party, Slave Britain. It is also established as a place where Britain’s top documentary directors can take on adult themes and subjects. The acclaimed One Killer Punch, The Paedophile Hunter, Dogging Tales all express the ambition we can have with commissions for this slot.
In addition, FIRST CUT exists to launch the careers of new factual directors. It is open to anyone who has not directed a 60 minute film for broadcast on a terrestrial channel or BBC Three. It is the aim of this strand to develop the next generation of C4 documentary directors. Some of the biggest recent successes here include Angry White and Proud, Last Chance School, The Extraordinary Case of Alex Lewis, Muslim Drag Queens and I Do at 92. In commissioning these programmes, we look for up and coming directors we feel have the potential to make prime time programmes for the Channel, and subjects which give them an appropriate opportunity to show their flair and vision. Pitches should be sent to Rita Daniels, and you can read the full brief HERE.
In addition, we are always open for other arresting and entertaining single films, for fast turnaround commissions that can bring a documentary perspective to a fiercely topical subject – My Son The Jihadi - for singles which can serve as pilot programmes for potential series, and for innovative use of the documentary form – The Trial, Blackout, UKIP: The First 100 Days. And we are keen to develop more onscreen C4 talent who could become documentary faces of the Channel.
Who to contact
At the moment we are making some new appointments to the department. In the short term, please could you contact Rita Daniels with ideas for single films.