The brief and typically damp British summer brought with it agreement on terms of trade between independent producers and the BBC, and a renewed sense of optimism for those indies still left standing.
Many however, remain unconvinced. This is a sector bullied and brutalized for over two decades and it is forgivable that many battle-hardened punters remain cynical that after a little air-brushing and a suitable pause it will soon revert to business as usual for the U.K. public service broadcasters. A life raft tossed by government to a struggling industry that will offer itself just tantalizingly out of reach, only to drift off into the sunset.
The 2004 Communications Act promises a renaissance in U.K. independent production. Public service broadcasters, it says here, have to now behave impeccably in their dealings with indies. The theory is that you will know up-front how much they will pay for your program. Most importantly, if you want to control distribution then, by all means, go ahead.
I must confess I had something of an inside track on this whole process, having sat on the PACT council (the U.K. producers group) for the last three years. No one has been more evangelical than me about the benefits of the new legislation and more proud of pact and the courageous leadership of John McVay which has brought about the change. The new super regulator, OFCOM, has arrived to rigorously police the airwaves for abuse and promises to fight the good fight if Auntie (the BBC) and company return to their wicked ways.
Now comes the difficult bit. Will the broadcasters accept and embrace the change, or will they obstruct it? If the latter happens and they get away with it, then the future is indeed bleak.
The BBC are the key to whole process. They have, in the past, been the worst abusers and the decisions and actions that they take will impact the rest of the industry. It is encouraging that Jana Bennett has recently proclaimed the Corporation as the standard-bearer for change, heralding a new era in its relationship with indies, with a new ‘caring’ BBC encouraging and supporting a robust and growing industry. There have even been veiled hints of a self-imposed 50% independent production quota. We shall see. One can’t help but feel slightly cynical that these platitudes may be lip-service to the BBC’s increasing public scrutiny as it warms up to defend its Charter renewal over the next couple of years.
For Oxford Scientific Films, at which I am head of factual, a clear measurement of positive change will be whether the BBC offers more than a few crumbs of natural history production to the diverse and talented pool of u.k. independents. This is definitely in-house BBC territory and indies up to now have only relied on occasional commissions, having to generally make their livings working for foreign groups such as Animal Planet and National Geographic. I’ve been quietly sniffing around at the Beeb as well as sounding out a few of my friends in other prodcos, and the slightly gloomy picture emerging is that the news of the legislation hasn’t seemed to have yet filtered down to BBC Bristol.
I guess, like an oil tanker, it would be asking too much for Auntie to make a quick hand brake turn and simply come to a screeching halt.
Rest assured we shall all be watching this space very closely.
Simon Willock is Southern Star’s head of factual and runs Southern Star’s in-house doc division, Oxford Scientific Films. Recent clients include the BBC, Channel 4, TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery Travel, Discovery Europe and both the National Geographic International and U.S. Channels.