Anna Davies, executive producer, development, at UK-based factual producer Arrow Media discusses some of the key trends to have emerged in the factual space over recent months.
Staying on top of factual trends is development 101. There is now a strong sense of business getting back to normal, following the initial impact of Covid, as our resilient and creative industry has risen to the challenge of finding innovative ways to deliver high-quality content (RIP Zoom documentaries!). The safety protocols are in place, the new tech is tried and tested, meaning development teams, like the one I run at Arrow Media, can get back to doing what we love most: coming up with great ideas.
So what are the key trends that have emerged, or come back even more strongly than before our lives were turned upside down?
The streamers continue to change the game for factual. With new streaming services seemingly launching every month, the way content is being delivered to audiences is changing at a dizzying speed. And because these platforms need to drive subscriptions, the original content they commission needs to be jaw-droppingly ambitious and zeitgeist-generating.
And that’s filtering through to how the linear channels greenlight ideas, too. Whether it’s the US cable networks launching their own premium streaming services, the BBC putting their commissioning decisions through the filter of how a show will work on iPlayer, and an appetite across the board for eventised, attention-grabbing ideas, the message is: what’s the next show where everyone is having the “have you watched X yet?” conversation?
Know your networks
Gone are the days of pitching the same idea in exactly the same format to multiple broadcasters. Whether linear or streamer, every network nowadays has very different, very defined needs. They know who their audience is, down to the style of plaid shirt they wear or the mood they’re in on a Tuesday night after wrangling kids all day. It means being smarter than ever about tailoring pitches to the channel you’re targeting.
Because of the ever-increasing competition for eyeballs in a world where viewers have endless choice, celebrity has become an ever more powerful currency. Whether it’s behind-the-scenes access for a celebrity follow-doc, exclusive interviews and unseen archive that deliver a revelatory documentary portrait of a household name, or A-list talent hosting a show, these are programmes that effectively market themselves.
Undoubtedly, archive was the first word on every development team’s lips once filming got shut down due to Covid. But using archive to tell gripping narratives, not just as cutaways, has been a growing trend for a while now. Series like The Last Dance show how archive can be as immersive as scripted drama. In our latest two-hour special for ID, O.J. And Nicole: An American Tragedy, playing the home-movie footage long, brought Nicole into the frame in a way that hasn’t been done before.
This trend is definitely a product of the pandemic – the audience’s desire to leave behind the unrelenting grimness of the 2020 news cycle and go somewhere funny, fun, comforting, or outlandish… even if it’s just for an hour or two. No doubt Tiger King would have been a hit in any year, but somehow it was the medicine everyone needed in the depths of lockdown. And instant hits like HGTV’s Renovation Island or Netflix’s Selling Sunset, or the mega ratings enjoyed by the new season of Bake Off on Channel 4, show that finding new vehicles to carry us away are a winning formula.
With the ambition factor rising on the one hand (the high bar set by the streamers), and budgets being squeezed due to Covid, on the other, there has never been more of an appetite for finding creative financing partnerships. This is being driven as much by the broadcasters as production companies – meaning there’s a growing openness and flexibility when it comes to the editorial.
It all adds up to an exciting picture for factual – a trajectory firmly set on delivering content that’s bigger and bolder than ever before. After the year we’ve all had, that’s remarkable. But if lockdown has taught us one thing, it’s that audiences need amazing stories, to entertain them or help them make sense of the world. And we’re here to make that happen.