Sheffield and beyond

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The Sheffield Doc last week provided the BBC with a great opportunity to talk about how we plan to continue to vibrantly contribute to the documentary industry.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this annual event, it's the highlight of the year for the documentary industry, where every aspect is up for discussion and where lots of deals are negotiated and struck. It's the place to be for all parts of the industry, from burgeoning young film-makers to experienced documentary vets, and last week I was involved in two key sessions where I talked about the commitment the BBC has to continuing a long tradition of showcasing quality and making documentaries relevant to UK audiences.

What's become clear this week is that there is a feeling among the indies and film-makers that the documentaries market is proving tough - but despite the prevailing sense that the market is shrinking, my message is that the BBC continues to offer a significant opportunity to those film-makers who understand what we're looking for.

All of our channels offer different opportunities to showcase a range of documentaries from controversial and difficult subject matter to the outright entertaining and enlightening, and the commitment to bringing over 200 hours of single documentaries to air every year means there are some stellar opportunities for film-makers on the BBC channels.

On BBC One, for example, we've got slots at 9pm and 10.35pm - two prime-time positions which offer exciting opportunities for documentary makers, plus there are further opportunities on the channel to link up with other seasons and initiatives. Also on BBC Two commitment remains strong. The Wonderland strand is being opened up to the indie sector next year and the channel is not afraid to put hard-hitting pieces at the heart of the schedule: for example, the recent The Trouble with Girls by Morgan Matthews and Jo Hughes was topical and insightful.

Some of the highlights from this year demonstrate how documentaries can reach right to the heart of some of the most topical issues in contemporary society. Wounded followed the recovery of soldiers who had been very seriously injured in Afghanistan and aired in prime-time on BBC One reaching over 3 million viewers. BBC Two's The Price of Life, which secured exclusive and unprecedented access to NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), the controversial body that decides which drug treatments the NHS can afford, attracted a smaller audience but still generated widespread comment and debate.

We continue to explore important subjects and I'm proud that next year we have a Films of Record three-part documentary series coming up which has secured exclusive access to Great Ormond Street Hospital and looks at the critical and heart-breaking decisions that doctors and families must make about children's care.

As a Commissioner it's an exciting time to be involved in documentaries at the BBC - there's lots of scope, hunger, new subjects and new formats coming through. Inevitably sometimes delivering solid cut through can be hard, especially for the digital channels, but we are learning every step of the way how to make this happen, and we're finding that 'seasons' are a significantly strong method for the titles to punch through and give a broader, more in-depth focus to a subject. Examples recently include The Adult Season, Electric Revolution, Grey Expectations, and The Japan Season.

The digital channels specifically play an important role in bringing in and developing new on-screen talent and we're looking at more ways to nurture fresh faces and ideas. For example, we have recently increased our commitment to the new talent strand, Fresh, doubling the number of commissions available next year from three to six hours.

What I was really impressed with in Sheffield was the evidence of so much burgeoning talent coming through the ranks and that the industry is continuing to come up with superb formats and ideas.

On Friday, alongside fellow commissioners from other terrestrial broadcasters, I was part of a panel talking to a packed house of documentary makers about what we are looking for, the best ways to pitch and what we have been impressed with of late, so I'm hopeful that a deluge of great ideas will come my way over the coming months.

Many other interesting topics were under discussion over the weekend and one I thought worth mentioning related to the use of celebrities to front documentaries. My opinion on this is fairly straightforward.

Celebrities do have a place in documentaries if there is a strong reason to use them. Stephen Fry and Terry Pratchett brought in a broader audience to the subject of mental health and were absolutely worth using as presenters for this reason. However, you've got to choose your well-known faces carefully - you want them there if they are relevant, not just to provide stardust.

And finally, I was involved in a major session on Saturday night called 'How Much Does the BBC Love Docs?'. As you can imagine, there was quite a lively audience debate with the panel where I was joined by Nick Mirsky, the Series Editor of Wonderland, and Nick Fraser, the Editor of BBC Four's international documentary strand Storyville.

A stream of clips from esteemed documentary makers from the indie sector giving their views kick-started what I felt were extremely worthwhile and positive discussions which carried on well into the evening when I met with more of my peers from the industry. On the whole I believe that our assurances that documentaries will remain at the heart of the BBC's schedules were well received and we reaffirmed our commitment to supporting the industry as much as possible.

I would be interested to know what you think.

(Charlotte Moore is BBC Commissioning Editor for Documentaries)

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