Crunch or no crunch – the American dream awaits

In this first-person account, Eric Harwood, executive producer and head of content for London-based Skyworks, describes his experience as a hopeful UK producer looking to make American inroads via the Realscreen Summit.
March 5, 2009

So you’re a reasonably successful indie producer doing well making programs in your home market. Like me in the UK, you see producers being commissioned big deals from the US and think to yourself; ‘I know we could produce shows for America, but where do we start, and at what development cost and at what effort to get any proper results?’ And what if you don’t know anyone over there? Can you really make it happen in the US from a standing start?

Skyworks is well known for producing high-rated walking series and top-end single docs for BBC Four and BBC Two, while we’re also building a world-class library of HD aerials with a core team. However, every indie’s dream is to crack America and bring their ideas to the top US broadcasters, and that’s what Skyworks was thinking when I departed a cold, gray London to a snowy Washington DC to spend a few days in early February at the Realscreen Summit.

The biggest surprise at the Summit is that US broadcasters are open and willing to listen and explore your ideas. I can’t imagine how our British broadcasters would ever throw themselves open to a collection of US producers who turned up on their London doorstep pitching projects at them.

That openness is also matched by a directness and focused professionalism that means when the leading names from the US Channels make presentations – either in the Summit’s large-scale debates or the more intimate 30 Minutes With sessions – you listen to them in no doubt about what they want, what their audience wants, what hasn’t worked for them, who best to pitch to and at what budget level to gauge your ambitions.

Two years ago, in a small basement room at a previous Realscreen Summit, I found myself eagerly listening to the channel boss of a new non-fiction channel, David Royle of The Smithsonian Network, appealing to an eager cluster of about two dozen producers for bold new ideas for the launch of his new Showtime-backed channel.

After listening to his clear vision of what he wanted and his promise to meet as many producers as he could see in the four days of the Summit, I duly got my card out, and stood in line behind a dozen other eager hopefuls as we shuffled towards him after his session ended. At last I got my big moment to pitch…

This was it: after flying 3,663 miles across the Atlantic, the jet-lag, the expensive flight, the smart hotel, this was my moment to win it all back and make it all worthwhile. Could a little British producer really get a lucrative US gig from attending a TV conference?

I launched into the 13th pitch that David Royle had heard since he finished his talk 10 minutes earlier, told him we made high-rating programs for the BBC, that Skyworks had one of the world’s biggest HD aerial archives and that we had some great ideas that exactly fitted his concise brief. He smiled and said: ‘Let’s fix a meeting.’

I duly booked an appointment with his development team for Day 2, made a longer pitch, showed some HD sizzlers and by the time the festival closed Skyworks was looking at producing a 6 x 60 minute series for The Smithsonian Channel.

Another year later and Skyworks was signing up for a 50 x 60 minute series, Aerial America, which was to be one of their biggest ever commissions.

In America it really can happen!

Eric Harwood is Executive Producer and Head of Content at Skyworks, London.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.