Op-ed: Think outside the slot

Richard Melman, managing director and executive producer at Spring Films, argues that broadcasters need to think outside the common one-hour slot when it comes to factual titles.

Broadcasters have told us for years that one-hour factual slots work best for viewers – and by default schedulers and advertisers – hence the almost complete lack of feature docs on TV. But the same people also used to tell us that nobody would watch a foreign language drama with subtitles.

Now, in the UK, international titles pepper the schedules, produced in languages ranging from Spanish to Icelandic. The big SVOD players such as Netflix and Amazon have been instrumental in challenging the perceived wisdom for drama and I’m delighted to say that their influence is starting to breathe new life into the factual market.

Feature docs, and even individual series episodes, can vary in length on these platforms. Netflix gave us a sole requirement for a feature doc as simply “must exceed 80 minutes”.

This gave us great creative freedom, allowing the director to tell the story he wanted, without being constrained by – or editing to fit – slot lengths that were established maybe 50 or 60 years ago and whose running times have been rapidly diminishing ever since.

These new platforms are typically quick to respond to pitches too, so that good ideas are not left languishing in commissioner in-boxes until when you finally get the email that says “sorry, we did India last year”- you’d actually forgotten you’d sent it to them.

And let’s not forget they also have money; which means a producer can quickly move into production on a feature doc after a direct commission, without the lengthy process of piecing together co-production finance from a multiplicity of sources.

So, with a few more opportunities in the mix, producers of high-end factual may feel they are entering a bit of a golden age, but it’s no time to be complacent.

It’s still early days and while there is more of a market opening up the bar has also been raised by the SVOD platforms, with storytelling and unique access more crucial than ever.

Spring Films receives numerous feature doc ideas every month but very few stand up. Feature docs require universally attractive stories with natural scale and depth. They need to be more of an experience to watch, cinematic, and have a pace that keeps the viewer hooked and invested until the very end.

With the collective experience of the Spring Films team, which includes documentary doyens André Singer and Werner Herzog, we instinctively know whether a story idea can be best told through a feature doc, an hour or a series – but sometimes we still need to show our commitment without the funding in place.

For both the award-winning Night Will Fall and Meeting Gorbachev (pictured right), which we are finalising now, the initial filming was paid for with our own hard-earned cash in order to show potential commissioners and financiers the strength of what we had, and to demonstrate our unwavering belief in each story.

In both these instances our own risk-taking paid off, although with such incredible access, a thorough understanding of the marketplace for these films, and our innate confidence in finding the money, we viewed this activity as investment rather than risk.

While the SVOD players are shaking things up we still need traditional broadcasters to believe in and support factual, and I’m hopeful that some of the flexibility the new players are demonstrating will start to trickle down. I want linear broadcasters to remain competitive as it will benefit the entire industry but they will need to loosen their constraints on slots and programme lengths, believe more in the appeal of features and ultimately trust the viewers to watch.

When the handcuffs are off producers invariably create better content. We have just completed a three-part series, Prison (pictured left), which aired on Channel 4 in July. The channel not only supported us financially, but also gave us great creative freedom.

We suggested this series’ length after spending time in the prison and identifying how best to tell the main stories we found, and are delivering two one-hours and one 75-minute episode.

We are grateful to Channel 4 for not dictating a one-off hour – or a 24-part series – as neither would have effectively delivered the important stories contained in the show and the viewer would have been left with second best.

The doom-mongers in drama are already saying that linear broadcasters just won’t have the budgets to compete with SVOD down the line and decent drama will disappear from the schedules, but that doesn’t need to be the case for factual. SVOD has demonstrated that there most definitely is an audience for everything from feature docs to multipart documentary series.

Broadcasters just need to begin thinking outside the slot and have some belief. To paraphrase the famous line from Field of Dreams: If they commission it, viewers will come.

Richard Melman is managing director and executive producer for Spring Films.