It’s interesting that the most-talked-about, biggest-budget must-see-film-of-the-moment features an iceberg in a pivotal role. Not that it draws attention to the fact that there’ll be more and more of them if we don’t keep our energy consumption under control, but it serves as a personal reminder of the picture I’ve formed of the international tv market, having been at, and around it, for nearly half my life.
The market for programs (and, indeed, their marketable spin-offs like merchandise, videos, images both dynamic and still) is like an iceberg.
The ideal picture for those of us who have yet to experience one, looming dark and nasty out of a night sky, is probably a scene from the bbc nhu’s Life in the Freezer: Antarctic giants dazzling in the sun against a deep blue sky, everything shining like white gold. Truth is, there’s a whole load more – about 90% of the darn thing – way out of sight: dark grey, nearly inaccessible.
Even though it’s as beautiful as the sunlit top, the underwater segment is an expensive pain to get at. Fewer people ever see the bulk of what’s there than do the obvious gleaming part that can be seen far and wide.
That’s how it is with programming. The job of the production/distribution/scheduling chain is to move as much as it can into the sunny part (and keep it there), while other titles wallow in obscurity (or daytime tv as it’s better known, here in the u.k…. ).
The peak of this iceberg is the world’s most popular material. Today we’re looking at ER, The X-Files, Friends, Mr. Bean, bbc’s Attenborough series, etc.., and we move down the flanks of the beast to the waterline, where it gets really interesting. This is the area where dreams either fall away – despite huge marketing efforts, output deals and the cashing-in-on of established reputations – or hitherto unknowns move up from the darkness to become unexpected hits.
Having been there myself (when Dynasty, Cagney and Lacey and the outstanding Partridge Films titles of the mid-80s were the peaks among which I was lucky enough to walk and sell), watching distribution execs at work trying to stop the shiny white stuff from slipping, while simultaneously raking from below with a ‘what the program lacks in quality I’ll make up for in the pitch’ attitude – it never ceases to fascinate. This is what keeps me in the business: all that hope and uncertainty, cart loads of optimism-wrapped doubt and the drive to achieve global ratings, which makes faith in the National Lottery look rational.
Nothing is certain, but there are always statistics to point like signposts to the end of a rainbow. I was given a figure in confidence by an itv executive a few years back (she’s left now, so I reckon I’m safe). As a network, itv rejects 99.6% of the material offered. Not just ideas on paper – real productions, proper programs. So, when you sit down for a glass of something to accompany your next negotiation and the question ‘Do you want ice with that?’ comes up, think about it. It’s probably the only time you get to choose.
Adrian Caddy is managing director of acquisition, coproduction and development specialist Independent Wildlife. He prefers casts made up of wildlife, and has been to virtually every market imaginable
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