Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

BBC History Strategy: Sunny Side interview with commissioner Simon Young, buyer of 70+ hours / year

For my Sunny Side of the Doc Meet the Executive interview, the BBC‘s Commissioning Editor for History Simon Young, shared his vision, priorities and three notable examples.


  • BBC History: 70-80 hours.
  • Specialist Factual: 400 hours.
  • History’s broad remit: Ancient to Early 21st century.
  • The BBC’s Documentary unit also commissions recent History programs.

Simon Young


Simon feeds three channels:

  • BBC1
    Recognizable names and famous faces; very accessible to a wide audience
  • BBC2
    Most BBC History is commissioned for BBC2; the home of specialist factual; targets experts
  • BBC4
    The home for “unashamedly geeky History lovers;” the most intellectual channel for experts

Four Formats

  • Drama docs
  • High profile single docs: “Single films need to be journalistically strong, and have important stories to tell.”
  • Big returnable formats
  • Archive-based programs

Recent Hits & Notables

Simon pointed to several documentaries to highlight his strategy:

A House Through Time 

  • Looks at a single property and tells the stories of everyone who has ever lived there
  • Returnable format
  • Rating extremely well:
    • 3.8 million viewers / 17.5 share for highest-rated episode
    • #3 among all BBC 2 Documentary / Lifestyle programs in 1st Half 2020
    • Led only by Top Gear and Inside Monaco
  • Takes the place of soaps that are off air during COVID, because it has the same human drama and storytelling
  • Serialized storytelling, meaning four episode arcs that bring people back to keep watching
  • Intersection of little pieces of history that wouldn’t normally warrant their own documentary
  • The project came to Tom McDonald, the Head of Specialist Factual
  • It’s ambitious to spend a lot of time on each house to really resonate with the audience
  • (See video interview below)

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files

  • Journalistic single
  • Scandal about immigrants from the 1960s-70s who fought deportation from the UK
  • The film revealed new information about an issue that has very deep historical roots
  • Highly relatable characters
  • Current story in today’s journalism: not everyone has received recognition or recompense
  • Broadcast last year, and repeated recently (637,000 viewers / 3.6 Share)
  • (See video below)

Britain’s Biggest Dig (working title)

  • Exclusive access
  • A series of archeological excavations in Britain during the construction of a railroad revealed two large cemeteries from 18th + 19th centuries
  • There is hope of finding named individuals
  • Attracts broadcasters and audiences
  • Hasn’t yet premiered
  • Simon shared a clip of the discovery of the grave of Matthew Flinders, an early explorer of Port Philip Bay where Melbourne is located


  • BBC ‘s commissioning process hasn’t been impacted much
  • Especially for independent producers
  • The situation “adds a degree of democratization”

It becomes a problem in the production slate (about 50-75% of the slate has been affected)

  • Anything that wasn’t already in the editing phase had to be put on hold
  • Very difficult to film in field or studio due to safety restrictions
  • BBC is re-prioritizing projects based on their status in the production/editing process
  • (For example, Britain’s Biggest Dig was pushed forward because it is local and involves a small crew)
  • History is a relatively viable category because it is supported by archive footage

Content Desert

There are two pathways for BBC History to thrive in the “Content Desert”:

  • Use the archive to tell stories: there was already a renaissance in archival storytelling
  • Develop shows with strong dramatic storytelling arcs to fill the space of COVID-delayed scripted dramatic series

COVID’s Audience Impact

  • “What BBC makes and what audiences will want to watch will be different in a post-Covid world because audiences appetites and preferences will be different.”
  • Documentaries about Covid are not always doing well because viewers are seeking escapism over reality.

Sources of Programs / Coproductions

  • Most producers who work with BBC are British, however…
  • They do also work with international producers
  • It’s all about ideas, i.e. who has an important story to tell, especially in the single journalistic format or when there is exclusive access

How to Pitch BBC

  • Visit the BBC commissioning website, which has info about factual genres
  • BBC Pitch website
  • Email Simon directly with top lines and ideas (both elevator pitch and/or more fleshed out ideas)

(Notes by Becca Wallance)


A discussion from the Bristol Festival of Ideas with historian and presenter David Olusoga about A House Through Time:

And a YouTube clip of “Windrush”

Don’t miss my Sunny Side interviews with:

  • Jorge Franzini – CuriosityStream
  • Catherine Alvaresse – France Télévisions
  • Fatima Salaria – Channel 4
  • Chris Hoelzl – Smithsonian Networks

See Index for recent posts!

Lost Generation

  • And read David Olusoga‘s Edinburgh address on the ‘lost generation’ of talent due to systematic racism in the UK television industry.