We commission more than 200 hours of documentaries every year, ranging from major multi-part series like 24 Hours in Police Custody, 24 Hours in A & E and First Dates to shorter series like Crime & Punishment, Snackmasters, Jade: The Reality Star That Changed Britain and single films like Barrymore: Body in the Pool and The Family Secret.
We passionately believe in revelation, innovation and compelling story-telling. We want to provoke thought, make our audience laugh, inspire change and make trouble. In our new era, we want to reflect more stories from around the UK by commissioning more authentic diverse voices. We also want the department to be the home of the authored voice - so would welcome emerging and established voices to bring us the best stories they want to make. We are especially keen on hearing from female and diverse voices.
Even though we are dealing with the financial effects of Covid-19 on our budgets, we are keen to maintain premium factual programmes at 9pm, commission single films from young, diverse and female voices and consider lower tariff access series at 8pm.
It’s fair to say the world has changed our views under lockdown and dealing with the effects of the global pandemic. So what will audiences want to watch and what will they expect from Channel 4?
In Documentaries we feel our priority territories are family and relationships, holiday/travel, money, business, housing… the question is how we tackle these subjects that move away from a Current Affairs approach. Could they be a format? Could they be a piece of access which speaks more indirectly to the fallout? Or should we be thinking now about what sector or community will be deeply impacted later down the line?
We broadcast a significant number of major 9pm series - returning and some new series that we have ambition to return at a higher volume. Next year we are especially looking for a non-blue flashing light series that could be part of the next generation of big returners. We are particularly interested in ideas that question the world around us - this may come with access, to an institution, a community or even a business - but approached in an entertaining or innovative way. Access alone is never enough. Story, character and contemporaneousness are key. I would also think about lighter subject areas – what could work in the holiday space here? In the family/community space? Heart and humour should be key indicators.
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, like The Great British School Swap, some are in an institution, like Losing It. Some are ‘investigative documentary’ series – for example we have a series coming soon inside a paedophile unit, and one about human trafficking. And, of course, we have started to look at historical documentary series, after the huge success of Jade: The Reality Star That Changed Britain and Leaving Neverland. We would love to hear your ideas in these territories. It’s a high bar – the reason Jade hit the mark is because it’s a tabloid headline with a broadsheet approach. She was someone who affected politics, the media, television and class. Lastly we want to commission more true crime following on from the success of Murder in the Outback. It’s important these aren’t just a retelling. Ideally they need to have something new at the heart of the story – a question around a miscarriage of justice, a piece of new evidence, a new suspect or witness. Largely they should be a reasonably well known case and be able to have co-pro.
The Dog House is returning for a second series. We also have a natural history series with the story tropes of The Secret Life of the Zoo airing soon which is a hybrid and hope it lands with a broad audience. Additionally we are looking for a returnable series that is more docusoap in tone – memorable returning characters, lighter in tone and in a familiar territory. It could be a high street store, access to a well known household brand or an interesting community, given how differently much of the country feels about this subject. I am especially interested to hear about ideas in underrepresented areas – I was inspired by the Sky series, Desi Rascals, set in a community of British-Asians and wondered if you could think in this space.
Currently we have two areas that are of interest - entertaining precincts that have potential for numerous and varied stories, and films or series that are edgier in subject and or more adult content. Historically we have commissioned Women Who Kill, Human Pups and Bouncers and many of the noisy single films looking at sex, identity, drugs, crime. We are keen to return to these areas at 10pm made mostly by underrepresented directors and nations/regions and BAME led companies.
We are looking for a new face to front a number of films a year. We believe that person should have an extraordinarily enquiring mind, insight, warmth and wit. We have launched a search which Fozia Khan is leading on.
Additionally we are also keen to make one-off films that might be fronted by a famous face who has a particular point of view or personal story they want to tell.
We want to commission 6x mini series of shorts a year that reflects the mood of the nation and captures a pressing subject, following on from Ramadan in Lockdown Diaries and Take Your Knee Off My Neck. This will be a place to nurture new on and off-screen talent especially from BAME-led indies and N&R companies.
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. My strong note is to think about ideas grounded in the real world – for example The Great British School Swap was a real-world project we made into a format.
We want to be the home for Britain's most talented documentary directors. We are looking for films that reflect contemporary Britain in a compelling and often entertaining way. We plan to commission at least 6 films at 9pm for 2021. Three should be in the vein of Barrymore, so be able to pierce the schedule, make headlines, get a big audience. And we are looking for at least three films that offer a distinctive voice or view. I am especially keen to commission films from female directors and those from underrepresented backgrounds.
We are very keen to strengthen our relationship with partners – this could be international networks, streamers, SVODs, advertiser funded… It would be very good to be thinking about this at the point of pitching an idea but please don’t worry if you don’t have experience in this area. We can tell you more and introduce you to the right people.
Note on the team
Danny Horan heads up the Documentaries team. All of the commissioning editors can commission across all slots and areas. Rita Daniels, Alisa Pomeroy, Fozia Khan are all London based. If you are an indie outside London you should pitch to the commissioning editors based in Leeds, Harjeet Chhokar and Will Rowson, and Bristol, Sacha Mirzoeff. They are Factual commissioning editors and pitch across the entire slate including Specialist Factual. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, the Leeds team look after companies north of the M25 and Scotland; Sacha looks after the west of England and Wales and London commissioning editors look after Northern Ireland.