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Fight for the rights

As 2002 drew to a close, many of us raised a glass or two (or three or four) in honor of the season or just the end of the year itself. For indie producers in Britain, however, there was an extra reason to celebrate.
January 1, 2003

As 2002 drew to a close, many of us raised a glass or two (or three or four) in honor of the season or just the end of the year itself. For indie producers in Britain, however, there was an extra reason to celebrate. The U.K.’s Independent Television Commission (ITC) released its report on the program supply market and essentially put all public service broadcasters on notice: Exploitation of the indie sector has got to stop if viewers are to receive ‘the best possible programs at the lowest cost.’ Specific recommendations included creating different categories for program rights, so they can be unbundled and priced separately, and requiring broadcasters’ distrib units to ‘bid on an arm’s-length basis’ for the secondary rights to independent producers’ shows.

What a novel idea – strengthen the indie sector to ensure that quality programming continues to make it to the airwaves. Thank goodness for that commission, otherwise who would have known?

Sarcasm aside, I am truly impressed by the British government’s initiative, though it’s too bad the indie sector had to be on the brink of despair before anyone took action. Still, I’ve heard of no such endeavor anywhere else, though I’m certain the independent production communities in other territories would welcome it.

Ironically, at the same time the ITC was formulating its conclusions, it came to light that Discovery has revamped its contracts to restrict doc-makers (and distribs) from licensing second-window rights to Nat Geo, within a set time frame. Discovery claims it’s a necessary move in a competitive market. But, if a robust indie sector is the key to low-cost, high-quality programming, Discovery’s approach is flawed in the long term, if not in the short term.

All is not lost, however. Elsewhere in the U.S., broadcasters are exploring ways to help indies expand their potential revenue streams. For example, in this month’s Feature Docs report we learn that HBO will permit one of its documentaries to be released theatrically before airing the film on TV. Make no mistake, this is not an act of charity. HBO anticipates positive, tangible benefits for itself, as well as the filmmaker. This is a key point – when broadcasters help indies to thrive, the gains will likely be mutual. It’s an idea that hasn’t fully filtered through yet, but it’s getting there.

So, 2003 opens with hope. As the days rolls on, I’m sure they’ll yield their share of difficulties, but for now I’ll focus on the one step forward. Happy new year.

Susan Zeller

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