Main Task Research: Audience and Institution

Whilst looking into channel 4’s institution, it is clear that there is a variety of criteria that we will have to hit in order to place a documentary on their channel:


It is the job of Channel Four to reflect the contemporary world to British television audiences, and one of the most important ways we do this is through our substantial and multi-award winning documentary output. We commission more than 200 hours of documentaries every year, ranging from major multi-part series like 24 Hours In A & E and First Dates to shorter series and single films.

It is given that we always look for warmth and humour in the ideas that we take forward with independent companies, but other things we look for in documentary proposals and discuss at length with independent companies include:

  1. Authenticity. Do the ideas reflect the real world in a way that feels genuine and authentic? (Diary of A Junior Doctor, 999 What’s Your Emergency, Benefit Street)
  2. Freshness. Is there something in the proposal that is genuinely new, says something about society now and tells a story that has not been told before? (Kids on The Edge, Extremely British Muslims, Secret Life of Prisons, Gun Shop)
  3. Innovation. Is there something about the boldness of proposition or the use of technology that is breaking new ground? (The Trial, Hunted, UKIP First 100 Days)
  4. Compelling storytelling. Are we likely to be gripped by the narratives that unfold in the programme? (24 Hours in Custody, Murder Detectives, Supervet, A&E)
  5. Extraordinary and pleasurable access that feels like a privilege to the Channel 4 viewer (A Very British Hotel, The Mormons, Secret Life of the Zoo)

Not every idea ticks all these boxes, but we do expect a Channel 4 Documentaries commission to be distinctive and eye-catching.


9pm Series

We broadcast a significant number of major 9pm series and this slot is our commissioning priority for 2017/8. We are particularly interested in entertaining ideas with warmth, heart and humour which have enough substance to play at 9pm. Our returning series such as Educating, 24 Hours In A & E and First Datesare very invitational but we’re really keen to develop new ideas with that heart and humour.  They could be constructs (see below).  Or in some cases access based such as Diary of a Junior Doctor. We are particularly keen on returnable series which can go to scale.

9pm series have to say something about the world we live in but that doesn’t mean they have to be gritty in subject matter.

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 at a specific point in time such as The Romanians areComing (during the first year after the law changed), Extremely British Muslims (following the community who pray at Birmingham Central Mosque) and One Man, Three Wives (inside a Mormon community in Utah). Others use privileged, institutional access like Kids on the Edge (the Tavistock), Murder Detectives(Avon and Somerset Police), Bedlam (inside the Maudsley), or Tax Dodgers (Inside HMRC Tax Inspectorate).

8pm series

We have increased our output at 8 pm.  Posh Pawn, The Secret Life of the Zoo and Supervet are established in the schedule and we are keen to develop other ideas. These sometimes (but not always) use a rig. More importantly, they always seek to offer audiences reliable narrative beats in a world that is engaging and relatable for a broad audience.

10pm series

We also commission a number of two or three part series for 10 pm. These are quite likely to be targeted at younger audiences, include edgier or more adult content (than our 9 pm output), and contain scenes that get audiences talking or tweeting. Past series include Women Who Kill, Bouncers, World of Weird. There is also an opportunity for us to be a bit more experimental with form – An Immigrant’s Guide, and a real ambition to grow or commission longer running series like First Dates for 10pm

How can it apply to us?

As Joe and I want to create a documentary, we soon came to the realisation that all successful documentaries are featured on channel 4 between the times of 2-10pm. Typically they are used as hammocked between Come Dine with me and Place in the sun, both family influenced programmes.



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