Channel 4 Specialist Factual exists to say new, disruptive and original things about the world. We are looking for provocative and news-making ideas that combine brilliant TV with a new take on the most challenging ethical questions facing us now, the taboos we don’t talk about, vital stories that need to be revealed, and points of view we don’t hear. Big, bold factual theatre ideas, strong pieces of revisionist history and authored or investigative films that take on big targets. And most of all – big popular new series and formats that will stand the test of time and draw a big, broad audience. Great TV with a strong Specialist Factual sense of purpose and content. Our Specialist Factual department has delivered some of Channel 4’s most original and noisy programmes and that is something we now want to supercharge with fresh impetus and dynamism.
Here are the three main types of programme we are prioritising, and then the type of territories and subject matters we are interested in.
Across the different subject matters we cover – the main ones being History, Science, Adventure, Travel and Arts – we want to find big, bold, popular returning series. Many of our biggest hits have combined strong Specialist Factual purpose with techniques borrowed from documentary or factual entertainment such as SAS: Who Dares Wins, or The Secret Life of 4/5 Year Olds. The new returning series could be formats, including competitive formats, or access driven series. We are looking for big, entertaining ideas of scale. In history, science and engineering spaces, this could look like a Channel 4 twist on Who Do You Think You Are, House Through Time or Digging for Britain or some of our own hits like 1900 House, Mutiny, Time Team or Scrap Heap might provide inspiration. Coming up, we have commissioned a popular science competition format (Richard Hammond’s Crazy Contraptions) which explores he world of chain reaction machines and the scientific principles they employ. Or we could look at access-lead pieces, that give us a returning territory to explore, like Forensics.
Grayson’s Art Club, our popular returning arts show, approaching art in a uniquely democratic way, uses a rig in Grayson’s studio and interaction with the public, to create a record of the state we’re in. We’re keen to explore whether we can apply the freshness of this approach to other areas of Specialist Factual. In the adventure space – we are keen to find a bold new format, and in travel, to build returning brands that help us explore and understand the world in new ways and give fresh context about the places we are going to. Talent have always been a huge part of our returning slate – from Guy Martin to Grayson Perry – and we are keen to find others – new and established. We want to start building up some new voices especially in history and science. And across the slate, we’re keen to see how we can work with other co-production partners to deliver high quality pieces.
HIGH IMPACT/EVENTS/FACTUAL THEATRE
A second big priority is high-impact, provocative and challenging schedule-piercing events. These could be spectacular, surprising pieces of factual theatre – examples would be The Autopsy, or Drugs Live. Or pieces of scale and ambition like Gay Wedding: The Musical or Death of Klinghoffer in arts. What we really want is event programmes that feel new in form, that spark debate, make trouble and intervene in the national conversation.
REVELATORY SINGLES AND SERIES
The third priority is strong single films and series. Single films should be revelatory and ideally deliver a scoop. Think Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview or Grenfell: The Untold Story. Or noisy, distinctive and accessible films – in the vein of 100 Vaginas, or Me and My Penis. As with all our content, we want to tackle complex ethical questions, difficult issues and offer different points of view not often heard, so these may be strongly authored. For our Secret History strand the films need to break a new story or offer up a revisionist take such as The Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes. In science, we want big and bold approaches such as our upcoming Who Killed the Whale?
Specialist Factual series should tell us something new about the world, offer privileged access and unpack a system or precinct to explain how it works. The “how does it work” approach also lends itself well to big engineering projects, trains, ships and infrastructure. We are keen to find popular precincts to explore in a new way and with innovative techniques. In history, we have had strong limited series examining Trump, Putin and Osama Bin Laden, also Sathnam Sanghera’s Empire Sate of Mind. Where next should we be looking? And in science, how do we find high impact and revelatory series that feel distinctive, accessible and impactful.
THE SPECIFIC SUBJECT AREAS:
In history we are very interested in contemporary post-war history. We want history that makes us rethink the present and engages with current issues and events, and has real salience. How for instance can we make sense of the war going on now? We want big scoops and revelations, and have the stomach to take on big targets. What access can we fight for to interrogate the past and present? We are not just looking at contemporary history through the popular culture prism, but want new ideas about which areas of modern history we can re-imagine, in a definitive way, as we have done with Trump and Putin, and which was done so brilliantly in Once Upon a Time in Iraq, and the Blair/Brown series.
As mentioned we would like to find a new popular returning series – which could take us to all the historical periods – in the way House Through Time does for instance. In the factual theatre and event space, we are very interested in how we can scale up our approach to history and really make waves.
Finding new ways of talking about climate change and the environment is our main priority. But we would love new ideas about how to approach this huge subject, so it doesn’t feel like a turn-off. How can we be really arresting and break through as we did in a uniquely Channel 4 as with Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giants. We want to approach climate change in popular, surprising and ambitious ways. We want to hold power to account and investigate how we got here, and who is responsible. And we want to find big event pieces which feel noisy and exciting. Science, engineering, and invention underpin lots of the stuff we love about the modern world and our programming should reflect some of that joy and excitement.
We are interested in the intersection of science and history, and science and crime as ways to find a high-rating, high impact new series that approach science (think Forensics) – and this may come through creatively thinking about access. 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. We encourage experimentation with form - and especially with new technology.
TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE
Travel is a massive priority for us. Recently we had Sue Perkins in her camper van, exploring the dark side of the American dream. We’d love to do more in this space. Talent of course is key. In terms of tone think, Lev Wood meets Simon Reeve, crossed with Romesh and Sue Perkins. But who could we grow as our own talent who owns clever travel on 4? Where will they go, and crucially what will they say? Anthropology, geography, climate change, travel is a brilliant vehicle for doing crunchy topics in a fun, accessible way.
Adventure is another huge priority. There’s clearly often some overlap here with travel. What we are not looking for is well-intentioned, but slightly worthy trips and treks to various far-flung places. But if you do have something with a genuine first, or real innovation – like the hunt for Shackleton’s ship – we would love to hear about it.
Our approach to arts is very ground up and democratic as exemplified by Grayson’s Art Club. We want to find ways engaging people in art, and for it to find its way into the real world as with the accompanying exhibitions. Rather than doing lots of pieces ABOUT something, we are interested in artists taking us into popular precincts and places. Ideas for artists across the board who could be great on TV would be welcome. Very keen to work with amazing talent – either in performance or directing to make us think in a new way. We are also interested in arts event pieces which are genuinely controversial, ground-breaking or unsettling – think of Channel 4’s Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Death of Klinghoffer, the Battle of Orgreave, Gay Wedding: The Musical – or pieces which scale up the identity/body ideas explored in films like 100 Vaginas and Boobs.
We’ve talked about science, history and arts but some of the best programmes commissioned by this department don’t fall neatly into one sub-genre. They could just be uncategorisable pieces of brilliance that defy genre definitions and boundaries, are just driven by a sense of ambition, fun and iconoclasm. Not homework, but full of actuality, characters we care about, and emotional engagement, as well as deep underlying purpose and detail in the content.
Head of Specialist Factual:
Contact for topical, history and arts
Science Travel and Adventure