Simon Dickson, deputy head of documentaries, Channel 4

Q – How would you define British documentaries in terms of the rest of the world?

Simon – It’s very passionate. It’s very socially and politically minded. It’s popular. It’s well made. It’s commercial. It’s amongst the very best. It’s a tremendous privilege to be working in commissioning in this country. Brits programs abroad are doing really well, too. Just look at Undercover Boss achieving the sorts of success that it did. The fascination of a well-honed format has not gone away and the commercial and creative possibilities for programs are encouraging. We have continued to do well in the feature documentary world as well.

Q – What kind of docs is Channel 4 looking for?

Simon – I’d say that the things that I’m looking for have changed significantly. Back when we last spoke I was doing a lot of single documentaries. And over the last few years I have been looking after the channel’s documentary series portfolio. So I have been commissioning series for the last couple of years. Trying to do big scale popular returning series that looks at British life and offer it up in a way that gets ratings and reputation. We’re all driven at Channel 4 to achieve those two things at once. We want to get that sweet spot.

Q – Are one off documentaries slowly dwindling away?

Simon – No. They are here to stay. Funnily enough, the bigger your series become the more of your schedule you occupy with your big returning series. You have to be assiduous to vary your schedule with the best stand out documentary. We have an incredible run of true stories, which goes on and on bringing the best international films to our audiences on More 4. Cutting Edge continues to be important for our audience, which is our flagship 9 o’clock documentary strand.

Q – What would you say you wouldn’t be interested in?

Simon – Long-winded, history, Eskimos fishing up in the frozen wasteland types. Channel 4 is a ruthlessly contemporary broadcaster that’s got its finger on the pulse of young, upwardly mobile, smart, free thinking Britain. While we do international subjects, we’d do them with an eye on what they say about us. We aren’t interested in things that have been done before. There’s a word that used in TV commissioning: reheat. We talk about reheating things. We don’t want to give an audience the same thing from last year and then warm it up and expect them to enjoy it as they did previously. We want stuff that stands outs and is fresh and experimental. 7 Days did very well for us. It was a hybrid between a TV show and an online social media experience and it was incredibly satisfying to work on and very popular online.

Q – How else has the internet and social media affected what you do?

Simon – Two things. Just picking up again on the 7 Days point, we created an online space where contributors could update people regularly of what they were doing and the audience could interact with them and influence their lives. That couldn’t have been done a few years ago. We’ve also seen a phenomenon in the UK with Twitter. People use it a lot to state what they think about TV shows as those programs go out and creating a virtual community of fans. They are maniacal about it so it’s in the forefront of our minds about what kinds of people are out there waiting for our programming. It helps us focus much more on the kinds of audience members that we deal with and construct programs that will speak directly to them.  

Q – But frequently the consumer’s appetite moves faster than the ability to make product to satisfy it. So the trend is over by the time the show is on the air. How do you reconcile that issue?

Simon – That’s an interesting question. What I would say is that we have been experimenting with a type of programming that we call Crunching Time. We crunch time. Traditional documentaries have been made over a year, a year and a half or longer by a single camera operator. Some of the stuff we do, we film only over a month in various key institutions like hospitals, maternity wards, family homes, hotels and model agencies. But we’ve done that with thirty to seventy cameras. So we have the sense of 70 people filming over four weeks. And as long as you are curious about the space you are in and you think it is something your audience will value and you have good people making those programs, you can get an extraordinary wealth of material from this new way of filming. We call it using a multi-camera rig. When Big Brother started to lose its luster, we began pioneering on how we could use the technology that allowed Big Brother to exist and transferred that to a real world documentary space. Consequently, some of the programs that we have in development film over as little as one day. We might shoot in a prestigious London emergency room. So we put seventy cameras in there and each story is what happens over one day in that ward.

Q – Your director’s must have seven sets of eyes!

Simon – They certainly have to have their wits about them. We are experiment with making television shows where most of it is filmed over a period of time and then is ready to transmit, but you leave a little space within the episode for contemporary actuality or information. So we are thinking much more about the present day impact that our programs can and should make.

Q – How could someone approach you with an idea?

Simon – One idea per email. Keep it simple, let me know what the headline is and if I’m interested we’ll sit down and thrash it out together. I also like it when I get an idea from someone I haven’t worked with before as long as I know that they are good and I’ve seen their work and admired it. Or they come in on the back of someone that I know is good. But people can come up to the front door and knock on it with an idea that they believe in. They don’t have to have a track record with the channel in order for me to pay attention to them. But you do have to work harder to get noticed if you don’t have a relationship with us. Those that are our regular suppliers so to speak have a circle of trust with us and it takes awhile for that trust to build up. Ideas generally don’t walk in through the front door fully formed. They require conversations in order to bring them life. Part of our jobs here is to be as available as we can to as many people as we can in order to breathe life into the things that they are passionate about. But as with any job, you have to be careful with how you spend your time. You have to spend time with those that you think can transform the audience’s relationship with the brand.

Q – Do you only take HD at this point?

Simon – As with most broadcasters, we are moving more towards that way.

Q – What are the common mistakes that you see filmmakers make?

Simon – Not asking the question that the audience would ask if they were there with contributor. It’s usually because they fear losing access to the protagonist in the film. Failure of never is the mistake that occurs most often. Some filmmakers feel they have to be the protagonist’s friend. They have a duty to be respectful, but their key role is to establish the truth of what’s going on in that situation. Sometimes being direct and assertive with a contributor will lead to a better film as well as let the contributor feel like they have shared or tell their story.

Q – What advice would you give a new filmmaker?

Simon – Give people a real ball ache about your idea and continue to go on about it if you believe in it. But there will come a point where in every relationship the opportunity for that idea to turn into a film will be gone. You have to realize when that moment has come so you can move onto the next project.


NOTE - Since this interviews, Simon has moved on from Channel Four