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How an explosion in factual has increased the demand for premium content

Suzanne McKenna, director of Unscripted Indies at BBC Studios, surveys the factual landscape

A radical Mexican female painter’s search for identity, a frozen landscape on the cusp of change and thousand-foot-long lightning bolts: these are all absorbing and compelling real-life stories of exceptional quality, launching at BBC Studios Showcase next week. 

We’ve seen the demand for unscripted content increase over the last two years. Factual producers proved remarkably resilient and creative during the pandemic, filling the gaps in schedules with fast-turnaround shows, deploying remote filming techniques and innovative use of archive. Louis Theroux’s catchups with his most notable interviewees in Life on the Edge for BBC Two aired in the autumn of 2020. Sales for existing factual content were also up an astonishing 80 per cent in 2021.

Amidst a proliferation of choice, broadcasters and streamers are increasingly seeking premium content, particularly globally relevant stories, with engaging narratives told in a unique way, with high production values, in order to attract ever more discerning, often time-poor, audiences. Here are some recent trends, as BBC Studios continues its quest to produce and distribute the best factual content:

Fresh takes on big subjects
The Final Day of The Dinosaurs

Audiences are looking for fresh approaches to familiar subjects. For example, The Final Day of The Dinosaurs, produced by BBC Studios Science Unit for BBC One, uses cutting-edge CGI to revisit this much-loved topic. Meanwhile, First Contact, also made by BBC Studios Science Unit, this time for BBC Two and PBS, combines drama and documentary to imagine what might happen when humans detect the first indisputable evidence of extra-terrestrial civilisation. BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit’s award-winning Dynasties took the unique approach of following a single family of animals for a year to create each episode, telling dramatic stories, full of characters you grow to love. It is now returning for a second series, which will immerse audiences in our favourite animal families from elephants to pumas and macaques.

Human stories 

Well-known figures provide a fascinating lens through which to understand history and culture, so long as these programmes offer a unique approach. Documentaries like the highly acclaimed international special Freddie: The Final Act, produced by Rogan Productions, which aired on BBC Two last year, gave audiences an extraordinary insight into Freddie’s battle with AIDS culminating in one of the biggest concerts in history. Our upcoming three-part series entitled Frida, also by Rogan Productions, offers a definitive account of the 20th Century’s most famous and iconic female artist, Frida Kahlo, setting the record straight on her life, influences and artistic contribution.   

Louis Theroux’s new series Forbidden America, produced by Mindhouse, examines some of the darkest corners of US society, through his conversations with an assortment of far-right content creators, porn performers and rap stars.  

Suzanne McKenna

Meanwhile Expectations’ The House of Maxwell charts one of the most extraordinary family sagas the world has ever seen, to offer a unique window into a world of money, sex, privacy and power. Told through intimate testimony and exclusive never-before-seen sources of archive, this is a staggering tale of fortunes built and lost, mysterious deaths, society intrigue and a spectacular descent into scandal, culminating in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell. 

Human stories are also at the heart of David Olusoga’s ambitious five-part series Union, produced by Uplands, which seeks to trace the long history of fundamental social division in the UK as a better way to understand the challenges faced by modern Britain. 

All of these series are united through their exceptional access, journalism and global appeal. 


The thirst for awe-inspiring science and natural history continues. Spectacular Earth, a new four-part series from BBC Studios Science Unit, takes a closer look at how the world’s most stunning natural phenomena happen, from giant waves, lively volcanoes and thousand-foot-long lightning bolts. 

Frozen Planet II

We are also bringing two exceptional BBC Studios Natural History Unit landmarks to Showcase. In addition to Dynasties II, we have the return of Frozen Planet, 11 years after the first series, a six-part look at the perilous beauty of the polar regions and their animal inhabitants. 

All these high-quality, thought-provoking series are fantastic proof of the demand for premium content and the creative innovation supporting the boom, which is, in turn, a huge boon for audiences. It is a truly exciting time to be working within the genre and with the plethora of talented British creatives, connecting with hearts and minds all over the world.