Why is Channel 4 so ahead of the game with factual programming?

Shows like Gogglebox, Educating Yorkshire, Benefits Street, Live from Space and The Fried Chicken Shop show that Channel 4 is prepared to take risks like no one else, says Ben Dowell. Is it time the BBC raised its game?


At the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards recently there wasn’t much doubt about which channel would win the best single documentary award.


The nominees were Dogging Tales, The Murder Trial, Richard III: The King in the Car Park and Syria: Across the Lines. All were made by Channel 4.

And when you remember that this is the broadcaster which has brought us Gogglebox, Educating Yorkshire and Benefits Street, it seems clear that when it comes to factual TV Channel 4 is ahead of the game.

A recent preview of the forthcoming factual shows on the channel over the next year, also really got the taste buds watering.

The channel showcased the Great Instrument Amnesty fronted by pianist James Rhodes – a really ambitious series in which people across Britain will be encouraged to donate unused musical instruments to impoverished schools. There is a good likelihood it will provoke the same kind of national debate that Jamie Oliver’s series Jamie’s School Dinners brought to the subject of school meals.

There was also Love for Sale, a two-parter in which actor Rupert Everett examines the sex industry. And let’s not forget Freshers – touted as the first ever “digital rig” documentary, it will follow every Tweet and Facebook post of a group of students.

A Grayson Perry series on identity looks like it will be brilliant too – certainly if it’s anywhere nears as good as his documentary about taste. And let’s not forget 24 Hours in Custody, Guy Martin’s Spitfire, Educating East London, Food Unwrapped and The Complainers, all coming up for this year. I could go on.

So why is this? Why is C4 so bloody good? And is the BBC losing ground?

I hate to say this but I struggle to think of any stand out factual or documentary programmes from the BBC from the past year.There are some good ones.The Call Centre was high impact. And Simon Schama’s History of the Jews was brilliant. As was Gareth Malone’s singing series. And Claridges perhaps. But none of these feel massively groundbreaking.

So why? The answer clearly lies in the fact that C4, which operates on lower budgets, is prepared to take risks.

Channel 4 had the cojones (as well as the statutory obligation in the form of its broadcast licence) to gamble on weird formats like Gogglebox or Fried Chicken Shop. Somehow, when it comes to factual shows, this kind of gambling really pays off.

With shows like Freshers the view at C4 is that even if these approaches don’t deliver immediately they can be learnt from and built upon. “We are happy to risk failure,” says a source.

C4’s vogue for so-called fixed-rig docs clearly also impresses viewers. Shows like The Fried Chicken Shop, One Born Every Minute and Educating Yorkshire (and Essex) are a really new way of filming that capture intimate details about human beings that subjects probably would never offer if a camera were shoved in their faces.

They also give well-known institutions like hospitals and schools a human face.

C4 head of factual Ralph Lee himself agrees with much of this and says his channel takes a risk with virtually all the shows it commissions.

On the BBC he tells RadioTimes.com with a smile. “Well if you set out to do a series on the Plantaganets, well, you are going to end up with a series on the Plantaganets. And it will probably be a bit like the series on The Normans which you got from the same presenter [Professor Robert Bartlett as it happens].”

“When you are broadcasting live from space the outcome is a little less predictable,” he adds with a twinkle. And he’s not wrong.

It’s time for the BBC factual team to raise its game and start to be as bold as C4.