The news yesterday of the complete restructure at Smithsonian Channel does not bode well for specialist factual, particularly in the UK. The magnificently named James Blue III, who now runs the channel, has declared an end to its “heavy reliance” on British producers. Perhaps such an American brand should not have been quite so dependent on foreign programme-makers. The Smithsonian is, after all, a British Museum, a National Gallery, a V&A, a Science Museum and a Natural History Museum all rolled into one: the distilled essence of American museums. It came about because, until recently at least, Britain set the standards for high-class factual TV. Mr Blue is taking the channel in a markedly different direction, which might well mean popping it up a bit. They will actively develop their own projects, farming them out to producers to make while keeping hold of the IP. I’m not sure how they’ll do this successfully on the rather small budgets they were working with before, which relied on co-production with other channels. We shall see.
What this does mean, though, alongside BBC4 being to all intents and purposes demoted to a repeats channel, is that there’s even less place for specialist factual productions to find a home. The mood has shifted towards fact ent.
It’s not hard to see why: everyone needs a lift this year, and fact ent is usually cheerful. It’s also easier to make in a time where travel has become next to impossible: fact ent can usually be made just down the road. But surely the hunger still exists for proper stories, well told, where viewers can find out interesting stuff about the world they live in without being beaten over the head with semi-random celebs and gamification? But who wants to commission it and show it?
This is one of those occasions when I’d be very happy for someone to come back to me and explain that I’ve actually got the wrong end of the stick, and this is indeed a specialist factual golden age. Please, anyone?