Back in 2017, the world of factual TV was changing, rapidly. Viewer appetite for shows like GoggleBox had spawned a whole new genre of ‘Factual Entertainment’, and with the Netflix series Making A Murderer becoming an overnight talking point, the growing focus on ground-breaking factual TV was imminent.

ITV Studios is home to award-winning documentaries, like 63 UP and Trevor McDonald’s Death Row series. The ITV Audiences team had been working closely with their stable of 60 studios, sharing programme performance and sensitively guiding production teams to help maximise their chances of getting the green light from ITV’s commissioners. They now wanted their studios to break out of conventional ways of developing new programme ideas in isolation from audience insight.

ITV came to us looking for an exciting and immersive qual approach that would create future programme briefs and inspire producers to collaborate with viewers, for the very first time.

Power of viewer insight

We wanted to start by disrupting ITV Studios’ traditional programme development conventions, by putting factual viewers’ needs and ideas at the heart of the project. We set up an online community where viewers captured the ‘factual fabric’ of their lives. They produced a rich array of personal stories, online debate and visual scrapbooks, generating powerful factual content inspiration.

To elicit factual needs, we used our ‘Reaction Cam’ methodology, where viewers captured ‘in-the-moment’ needs on video. With tears, laughter, anger and excitement, their videos captured the myriad of different emotions experienced watching factual programmes.

We then ran viewer workshops to map out the programme landscape and explore where viewer interest lay. Viewers identified trends, format hybrids and forays into more dangerous tones, that illuminated a startlingly exciting and dynamic vision of where they wanted the genre to go.

Turbo-powered territories

We conducted a semiotic analysis of the factual space and identified future-facing themes at the intersection of factual TV and culture, including: hyper-realism, authenticity fetishisation and purpose pursuit.

By blending semiotics with our understanding of viewer needs we opened up new thinking for future programme spaces that enabled us to create 12 future factual territories. We wrote and produced these to feel like TV promos, to excite viewers and give them the best chance of flourishing.

It was now time to get ITV Studios working on new programme ideas. We shared the territories with ITV’s Factual Studios in a series of workshops, where we challenged them to use the territories to create new programme briefs.

A few weeks later, we put Studios’ ideas to the ultimate test. We used our Dragons’ Den methodology, where Studios pitched their ideas to real-life Dragons (factual viewers), filmed live in the actual Dragons’ Den studio. This method takes the ‘rules’ of the TV show to create an immersive, ludic space, where we shift the conventional power dynamics and put viewers in charge of deciding which ideas to invest in.

Plentiful riches

On a crisp autumn morning at the Dragons’ Den studio in North London, we stepped into the infamous lift to transport ITV Studios up to the awaiting Dragons, aka our factual viewers. It was hugely rewarding to see the powerhouses of factual TV nervously poised to pitch their next big factual formats to viewers.

Using qualitative methods, we had demonstrated to ITV Studios that gaining intimate access to viewers lives can produce hugely inspiring TV material. We also showed that, given the right stimulus and research environments, viewers can identify exciting new frontiers.

The success of our Future Territories in inspiring producers and viewers alike affirms how, shaking off the conventional shackles of ‘not researching your own ideas’ and stepping into creative strategy-mode, as qual researchers we are very well-placed to create and articulate new ideas that resonate powerfully with audiences and positively flourish in research.

And, as our Dragons’ Den methodology showcased, subverting the traditional power dynamics between clients and their audiences is a fantastic way to break down creative barriers and build more powerful ideas. ITV Audiences have since successfully opened up the way they work with their Studios, both in terms of putting viewer research upfront in their creative process and further deepening their relationship as trusted partners. For Studios, this has changed the way they select ideas. They are now able to pitch to commissioners, confident that viewers have helped inform and optimise their ideas.

Two years on and we are in what many in the industry consider a golden age of factual TV, with viewers spoiled for choice with intelligent, illuminating and entertaining new programmes. Since the factual project, we have been thrilled to have been able to work with ITV Audiences in rolling this approach into daytime TV and the future of soaps. We can’t wait to see what hits our screens next.