StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

BBC director general floats deep cuts to documentaries in ‘Smarter. Bigger. Better’ strategy

BBC director general Tim Davie yesterday mounted a spirited defense of the pubcaster’s value to British audiences versus the streamers led by Netflix.
His presentation and white paper BBC Value for Audiences gained wide coverage in the business media, where the initial focus was on $556 million in proposed cuts.
Cut Documentaries

Davie later spoke at the Reform think tank, where the conservative Telegraph (paywall) reported that cutting documentaries belongs in his ‘smarter BBC’ strategy:

  • Mr. Davie said his focus would be on doing less – and one area ripe for cuts is documentaries. He said that content which is worthy but gets few viewers will be cut from the schedules.”
  • Cutting documentary output will be “sensitive,” he said, but the BBC should concentrate on “landmark work.”
  • He went on: “It has to be a better use of our resources than the alternatives… It’s not enough to say: ‘It got a low audience but it’s a very worthwhile thing to do’.”
Fewer, Bigger, Better
Broadcast (also paywall) added important detail and context:
  • The BBC is to reduce the number of niche, low-cost factual programmes in favour of landmark offerings, as Tim Davie’s ‘fewer, bigger, better’ approach begins to bite.
  • In his strongest indication yet that the BBC is to reduce the level of output, Davie said it will order fewer programmes that “get a low audience but feel like a very ‘worthwhile’ thing to do”.
  • “Volume of factual is a sensitive area – but my view is that we need to be doing landmark work.”
  • “I’m not talking about a narrower provision – we are still chasing universal values – but I think in certain areas we can make less.”
  • Davie will task his commissioners with being “more accountable for the impact of their shows”, not just in terms of audience size.
  • “I want us within that Venn diagram where you are getting reach, impact and unmistakeably doing the best of PSB. We know what that means – when you see a David Attenborough doc or Normal People (Irish drama series) you just know what it feels like.”
Solid Audience


  • If Mr Davie is referring to the documentary feature category, he’s over-looking the zeitgeist factor enjoyed by the format… one that attracts ever more creative artists, celebrities, retired political families, dedicated storytellers, and more.
  • To get a partial view of the volume of BBC commissions involved, read my 2020 coverage of BBC’s legendary Storyville strand with Mandy Chang (video from CNEX), and BBC History with Simon Young (from Sunny Side).
  • Those are my initial, late evening thoughts. More to come about ‘long tails’, ‘cannibalizing your own value’, ‘inevitable tough decisions’, ‘why the streaming model means far fewer UK doc productions overall than in Broadcast and Cab/Sat eras’, ‘high value soft cultural export’ and more.
White Paper: BBC Value for Audiences

COMMENT: “Do less better!”!”

  • Your latest post about Tim Davie’s plans for the BBC brings to mind the oft-repeated line espoused by the “Head of Better” in the great BBC comedy series about the BBC “W1A”:
  • “This is about identifying what we do best and finding more ways of doing less of it better.”

COMMENT: The Venn Diagram!

Hi Peter!

Thanks for your excellent newsletters. They are always a very informative read.

As I read your report on the new BBC boss’s intention to kill docos (worthy, but embarrassing to the government?) and concentrate on landmark series (I guess he means Blue Planet – Do keep the criticism to one line about climate change at the end, would you, old chap?) I was amused by the quote:

“I want us within that Venn diagram where you are getting reach, impact and unmistakably doing the best of PSB“

I was reminded of American comic Sarah Cooper’s advice on how to look smart in meetings: #1 Draw a Venn Diagram!

Will Tim Davie express percentages in fractions next?

Cheers from Munich!

Rodney Sewell