The British Innovation

Until recently, British factual producers have operated in the highly protected environment of a fully-funded commissioning structure. Increasingly, however, competition among broadcasters has put a squeeze on budgets. Today, producers in the U.K. must possess a clear commercial vision to survive....
November 1, 1998

Until recently, British factual producers have operated in the highly protected environment of a fully-funded commissioning structure. Increasingly, however, competition among broadcasters has put a squeeze on budgets. Today, producers in the U.K. must possess a clear commercial vision to survive.

Producers have been forced to place greater emphasis on new markets. At the BBC, for instance, there’s the joint venture with Discovery, giving its production directorate a guaranteed window on the world. At LWT Productions, one of ITV’s most successful suppliers, the answer has been to diversify into production for other domestic broadcasters such as Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky.

For the indie sector, reducing domestic reliance means increasing the number of potential outlets for its programs, and finding ways to hold on to more long-term rights. These goals have been achieved primarily by joint ventures with major U.K. distributors, or a consolidation of production and sales activities among like-minded players.

For producers, the new market search means a greater emphasis on customer focus: better branding of programs and company names, greater volumes of production, and a willingness to meet tough budgets and sharp deadlines.

A classic case study from the independent sector is Mentorn Barraclough Carey, a broad-based doc and entertainment producer which has made international expansion a priority. Controller of development, Mark Rowland, says: ‘We’ve moved from a position where international sales were an add-on, to one in which they have become as important as our core business.’

MBC’s overseas strategy is multi-faceted, says Rowland. ‘We have a range of traditional relationships with the likes of Minotaur International, Discovery and Channel 4 International. But what we needed was a single strong relationship which would help us to grow internationally.’

This belief led to the creation in Spring 1998 of Mentorn International – a joint distribution venture with Carlton International, of which Rowland is managing director. ‘We combine MBC’s creative skills with Carlton’s knowledge of the market. We exploit gaps in the market which they have spotted.’

In the short time the partnership has been in existence, MBC has already made two series – The Diana Years and Giants of the Twentieth Century – on the basis of CI’s market advice. ‘In effect, we work with CI in the same way we would work with a broadcaster,’ says Rowland. ‘But instead of waiting for a traditional commissioning advance, CI funds us and we can move quickly to exploit a gap.’

While CI has first refusal on many MBC projects, the relationship is not exclusive. ‘There are times when it is not appropriate to work with Carlton,’ he says. ‘We market our own formats, and in the case of our entertainment news strand, Star News, we work with the CBC in Canada.’

MBC has also nurtured relationships with other indie Euro producers through an umbrella group called Tele-Europe. Says Rowland: ‘Tele-Europe is an alliance of like-minded producers which shares intelligence about Spain, Portugal, the U.K., Holland, Scandinavia and Belgium.’

The key benefit of the arrangement has been the ‘ability to see opportunities quicker than we would have done otherwise,’ says Rowland. ‘We have a format called Whose House which has not yet been produced in the U.K. but has been made in Norway, Denmark and Belgium. That is the direct result of our Tele-Europe partnership.’

The distributor-producer relationship has become increasingly significant for U.K. indies of late. At MIPCOM, leading U.K. distributor ITEL held a function to present its key indie producer partners to buyers. One of those producers, Wall to Wall’s managing director, Alex Graham, described that development as ‘fantastically significant. U.K. producers can no longer rely on broadcasters to bankroll productions. The relationship between dynamic producers and distributors has become increasingly important.’

This is particularly true for Wall to Wall because they have chosen to deal primarily in top-of-the-range docs. Among the current slate of series in which ITEL has played a key role are Body Story (for C4, Discovery and ITEL), Into Africa (PBS, BBC and ITEL) and Into the Flames (C5, TLC and ITEL). Says Graham: ‘What is very healthy from my point of view is that they [the series] all have different characteristics, and are all coproduced with different U.S. and British partners.’

Diversity is critical, claims Graham. ‘It is a sign of us getting better at understanding the international market. Producers have to be more sophisticated about their marketing. It used to be possible to have a nice idea and go and find funding. Now you have to think about what the customer wants first.’

While MBC has made a strong play for the Euro market, the nature of Wall to Wall’s shows makes it more reliant on U.S. money. ‘ITEL is crucial in facilitating these projects,’ says Graham, ‘but with shows costing £265,000 to £300,000 an hour it would be risky to do them without a major presale to the U.S. We have good relationships with TLC, Discovery and PBS but we are always looking to talk to the likes of WGBH and National Geographic. You can’t ever afford to think you have done enough.’

Producers like Graham also realize the value of backing successful strands. After winning an Emmy for Baby It’s You, Wall to Wall went on to produce similarly styled shows such as A Cat’s World, A Dog’s World and A Horse’s World. Now it’s working with ITEL to secure finance for An Animal’s World (3 x 60-minutes).

This emphasis on branding is increasingly apparent among many British producers. One of the pioneers in this respect is David Green, the founder of September Films. Since the production of ITV’s hit, Hollywood Women, September has made 23-hours covering themes, like Hollywood Men, Hollywood Pets and Hollywood Sex. The company is also building up new brands. At MIPCOM, it presented The Truth About Sex and The Truth About Men via ITEL (both follow-ups to The Truth About Footballers) and Great British Sex, a series made for Sky One and distributed via Minotaur.

Great British Sex is a tongue-in-cheek format Green believes could be adapted to deal with American sex and Australian sex. He stresses that the branding doesn’t just lie in the name of the show – but in the style of production. ‘People are increasingly familiar with the September style: just people giving their opinions in a humorous way. It’s a style that has attracted a disproportionately high number of 16-34 year-olds for networks like Sky and ITV.’

September, like Wall to Wall, is forming an increasingly close bond with ITEL, which came to mipcom with nine hours of its shows, including the 4 x 60-minutes series Teen Spirit. As with Graham, ITEL made a point of introducing Green to buyers and promoting the September brand in its own right.

ITEL programme manager, drama and documentary, Leona Connell, says: ‘Our approach is to build long-term relationships with producers. We get to know how their programs work in the marketplace, then we look for ways to promote the different producer brands.’

It’s a relationship with mutual benefits, she says: ‘Producers can’t get as much money from the U.K. so we work for them on presales, coproductions and distribution advances. In return, we seek to get the best projects for our catalogs.’ Other companies in the ITEL fold include Oxford Films and Principal Films.

‘We seek to get involved at the earliest possible stage so that we can think strategically,’ says Connell. ‘The Wall to Wall relationship works very well because we have regular development meetings to discuss a bunch of ideas.’ MBC’s Rowland reports a similar frequency of communication in his own relationship with CI.

September’s Green believes his relationship with ITEL will grow in significance as ‘more and more long-running series have the potential to travel internationally.’ But, he echoes Rowland when he says ‘there is no exclusive deal. You can’t run a business that way because different distributors have different strengths. We are talking to Pearson Television about distributing another major international series because we believe they are best placed to handle it.’

The distribs themselves are not unduly perturbed by this approach. Carlton International managing director, Rupert Dilnott-Cooper, made a concerted effort to reduce his reliance on Carlton-originated programming and now boasts a catalog which is 60% non-Carlton. He’s no more interested in exclusivity than indies are. ‘I want a good two-way relationship with producers where trust and past performance are rewarded on both sides. But I don’t necessarily want all their programs.’

They key is to establish a balance which suits both sides. ‘Loyalty is important,’ Dilnott-Cooper concedes, ‘because it is not in anyone’s interest to have three distributors chasing the same show. That would be short-term thinking. I feel that the key point in any relationship is when you have your first failure and you both say, `We got that wrong, now let’s move on.”

Dilnott-Cooper believes that ‘British production brands are still quite weak internationally.’ However, he has seen an increasingly commercial approach within the sector. ‘Seven or eight years ago, most U.K. indies would turn up at MIPCOM for fun. Now they do it because they want to make programs happen.’

The companies CI does work with are ones which can offer quality, volume and recognition. For example, CI masterminded a deal which will see Carlton Television make 300 hours for National Geographic and for which CI will be lead distributor. ‘They have one of the strongest brands around,’ says Dilnott-Cooper. ‘They represent authority, quality and value.’

CI also distributes for ITN Factual, a company which has ‘authority, the ability to produce quality at speed, and access to a fantastic archive. The name is also well-recognized abroad.’

ITN Factual is a stand-alone subsidiary of the U.K.’s leading independent news organization, ITN. It was set up five years ago by Julian Ware, previously deputy head of factual at Central Television. As such, he already had widespread experience with U.K./U.S. coproductions such as Vietnam and The Nuclear Age. According to Ware, ‘It was obvious even then that as the market fragmented, the way forward would be coproductions.’

Ware often makes the U.S. his first port of call. Key U.S. clients for ITNF have included Discovery, TLC, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and A&E, for which itnf recently made 14 biographies.

This direct approach often provides ITNF with leverage to get a pick up for shows in the U.K. and Europe. ITV, C4, C5, Discovery Europe and The History Channel have all been key clients on this side of the Atlantic.

Despite this breadth of success, Ware warns that there are hurdles in relying too heavily on the distribution market. ‘Some of the broadcasters are keen for their own distribution arms to have the right to market the program,’ he says – a scenario which obviously limits the producer’s ability to get the best deal on the open market.

Secondly, there are limitations on the ability to distribute programs based primarily on archives. ‘It can involve complex calculations to see whether the value of a series is outweighed by the cost of rights clearance outside certain territories,’ he says.

Even assuming you don’t fall foul of such hurdles, Ware stresses that coproduction isn’t for the faint-hearted. ‘It can take 18 months to get a project through the system and, at the end of it all, you may still find yourself $30,000 short of getting a production started.’

Despite such concerns, ITNF is growing, making 50-60 hours a year. ‘The strength of ITN is that it is a large organization,’ says Ware. ‘It has the ability to secure expert freelance production staff who know we won’t go bust tomorrow. We have just appointed someone to help to develop the chat show side of our business.’

The underlying reality is that, while securing funding may have become more difficult, there is greater potential for successful independents to leverage long-term rights.

Green foresees a U.K. landscape in which further consolidation means that ‘a core of 40-50 major indie companies will control 90% of the independent commissions available. For those companies, the absolute key is ownership of rights. You can’t run a mature business on production fees. I see program markets becoming a much more key part of what we do.’

Wall to Wall’s Graham is just beginning to reap the benefits of retaining rights. ‘C4′s license on Baby It’s You has just run out so now we have the U.K. rights back. We have sold it to U.K. Horizons for a year and have re-licensed it to C4.’

According to Graham, ‘It is down to each producer whether they see the market as a potential problem or an opportunity.’

LOST TRACK? Who’s gone where, and why

It all started in May 1997 when Michael Jackson left the post of BBC1 controller to take up ‘the best job in British television’ – chief executive of Channel 4. Within weeks he had set off a domino effect among factual commissioners that is still being felt.

The man who lost out to Jackson was C4 director of programs, John Willis, who subsequently resigned, only to re-emerge within ITV as head of United Film and Television Productions. Jackson did not immediately replace Willis, preferring to directly impose his own strategic vision on programming output.

Jackson’s first major move was to poach Steve Hewlett from the BBC to lead all areas of factual output at C4. Hewlett then poached award-winning documentary-maker, Peter Dale, to be C4′s head of documentaries. C4′s long-serving Peter Moore relinquished his day-to-day role to concentrate on nurturing special projects.

Back at the Beeb, Jackson’s departure led to speculation that BBC controller of documentaries and history, Paul Hamann, might win the top job or, if the prize instead went to BBC2 controller Mark Thompson, that job instead. As it turned out, Granada director of programs, Peter Salmon – himself a factual program-maker by trade – secured the BBC1 job just before Christmas.

Salmon’s role at Granada was filled by LWT factual chief, Simon Shaps, whose own job was taken by the long-serving Jim Allen.

Hewlett’s time at C4 was surprisingly curtailed when the job of Carlton director of programs became vacant after Andy Allan’s decision to step down. With Carlton needing a heavyweight factual producer to polish up its tarnished reputation in the wake of The Connection affair, Hewlett was soon installed in the new role.

Back at C4, Jackson moved quickly to poach the highly-regarded news and documentaries chief, Tim Gardam, as its director of programs. Gardam is believed to have piped Hamann and Mentorn Barraclough Carey’s, George Carey, to the post. C5′s response was to elevate Chris Shaw to Gardam’s post.

Among the other key trends has been a draining of BBC talent to the independent sector. After the departure of Jeremy Mills and partners to form Lion Television, the highly-regarded Stephen Lambert has quit editing Modern Times to join indie company RDF. At ITV, a rejig for the commissioning unit at the Network Centre saw Grant Mansfield leave BBC Bristol to revitalize the channel’s doc output.

Producers are now optimistically hoping for a period of stability. The key complaint from indies throughout the changeover period has been that projects have been scrapped or put on hold by new appointees keen to stamp their own personality on their new jobs.

Got all that?


LWT PRODUCTIONS: Broadening the client base

LWT Productions’ controller of factual programs, Jim Allen, admits: ‘We have not done as much as we could in terms of expanding internationally.’ But he does have a pretty good excuse.

Currently LWTP’s 140 strong team is riding the wave of the U.K.’s unceasing demand for docusoaps. LWTP’s ability to turn out low-cost, high-volume shows to a tight deadline has made it one of the most prolific domestic producers. ‘Ten years ago we only made programs for the ITV Network and LWT’s regional franchise in London,’ says Allen. ‘Now we work for C4, Channel 5 and Sky.’

The change for LWTP came four or five years ago when Allen’s predecessor, Simon Shaps, was in charge of the department. ‘We were commissioned by Sky One to do 30 episodes of a fly-on-the-wall series called Coppers,’ recalls Allen. ‘The budget seemed incredibly low at the time (under £20,000 per half hour episode) and I was one of the people who said it couldn’t be done. But we have now made 150 episodes of that show.’

The success of Coppers had a dramatic impact on LWTP’s working practices, which shifted towards the employment of multi-skilled staff using DV camera and avid technology. Sky’s confidence grew, and it soon commissioned more factual shows from LWT – most notably Ibiza Uncovered, Caribbean Uncovered and Greece Uncovered.

Ibiza was a breakthrough, says Allen. ‘It was raunchy and explicit, but it isn’t just sex for sex’s sake. It needed good stories, humour and characters to work well. It rated very highly for Sky but was also critically acclaimed by the television press here.’

LWTP has also shown an ability to create docusoaps for other broadcasters. Airline for ITV recently attracted an average audience of 11.75 million, making it the highest-rated series in its genre, according to Allen.

The company has also made Vice and Parking Wars for ITV; On the Piste, Baby School and Chef School for Channel 5; and The Park for regional ITV transmission. In addition, LWTP has made current affairs shows for C4′s Dispatches, a ‘funky finance program’ called Dosh, and a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a live performance in The Show (both for C4).

For the future, he expects docusoaps to continue to play a big part in LWTP’s output. ‘They are now a key part of the British factual landscape. There may be a reduction in the number of them, but their importance is clear from the fact that the BBC’s Airport recently got a 44% share on Saturday night versus London’s Burning [a long-running popular ITV drama].’

He also expects a move into factual entertainment: ‘I think entertainment could receive a new lease on life by mixing our character and story-telling skills with the staging skills of entertainment producers. We now have a joint venture at lwtp between the factual and entertainment departments which has come up with two series – Mad about Pets and TV Nightmares.’

Allen confirms that ‘more than ever, we have to be more client-oriented.’ However, this has to be balanced with the reality of what budgets can achieve. ‘Low-cost high volume programming is not easy to make. Less money means less production time and you can end up with a program which is very thin indeed. You need volume to make it work.’

This is something Allen is keen to impress on mainstream broadcasters. ‘Inevitably, if channels like Sky have success with low budgets, the terrestrials are going to want a piece of the action. But big networks have to be careful. When a cheaper program is actually sitting alongside more expensive ones in the peaktime schedule, there is a possibility that, if they look closely, viewers will be disappointed with its quality.’

As for the international scene, Allen says: ‘I have little time for anything but the U.K. at present, but we do need to be asking what we can do that the U.S. or Australia might want.’

BAZAL: Stripped Reality

At this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, leading indie factual producer, Peter Bazalgette, used the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture as a platform to lambast the British TV industry.

According to Bazalgette, the U.K. system is ‘mollycoddled by regulation, bloated on protected revenues and addicted to a system set up 45 years ago.’

He called for the creation of a stronger independent sector to help create ‘a real market in distribution by giving creators control over their product.’ Other far-reaching measures he proposed included the privatization of BBC Worldwide and an end to ITV’s in-house production.

While Bazalgette’s utopia is unlikely to see the light of day, his own company, Bazal, (a subsidiary of Guardian Media Group and Endemol) has been one of the most fervent advocates of a market-led approach to production.

Internationally, Bazal has been the driving force behind the creation of GEM, a distribution arm housing Bazal formats such as Ready, Steady, Cook!, as well as shows from its sister company, Initial Television. The ambition is for gem to provide international market intelligence to the producers within the GMG/Endemol family and, where appropriate, represent other indie producers.

At home, Bazal has pioneered what it refers to as ‘scheduling solutions.’ Broadcasters tell them what they want to achieve in a particular slot, and Bazal comes up with the answer. This has worked miraculously for the BBC, which has had three major leisure-based hits in the shape of Ready, Steady, Cook!, Changing Rooms and Groundforce (the last two have transferred successfully from BBC2 to BBC1 primetime).

What Bazal first achieved with leisure shows has been extended to the realm of stripped reality – a real-life soap concept created by head of production, Nikki Cheetham. ‘C4 wanted a scheduling solution for 5:30 pm,’ says Cheetham. ‘We created Pet Rescue for them.’

Pet Rescue is a daily which follows the fortunes of two animal rescue teams. ‘C4 wanted a volume appointment to view,’ says Cheetham. ‘It needed to be a stripped program for around £30,000 per half hour, which was not a gameshow and not made in a studio.’

Pet Rescue has now been running for 160 episodes. Cheetham says the ability to turn it out at less than the proposed budget is due to ‘newly-invented volume production techniques, a clear sense of direction, and broadcasters who trust us to deliver.’ Significantly, this has all been achieved on Betacam rather than DV.

Following Pet Rescue, Bazal made Lion Country for the BBC (55 half-hours) and Absolutely Animals for broadcast regionally on ITV. Cheetham is now working on a ‘royal project’ for C4 and a stripped reality show set in a maternity hospital for Channel 5.

Because the stripped reality concept depends on unique stories, there is little scope for exporting formats overseas. However, Cheetham has been talking about ‘taking our stripped reality expertise overseas to producers and broadcasters who are interested in it.’

Cheetham is embarking on a new international branded concept called Animal Alert, which will give Bazal the chance to practice its techniques abroad. ‘Animal Alert will be an umbrella name for a range of series attempting to make natural history accessible,’ she says. ‘We have contacted animal rescue volunteers in places like California and will have access to their activities. As with all our series, the focus is on stories about real people which touch an emotional chord.’

Cheetham estimates she will be able to deliver Animal Alert at around £40,000-£45,000 per half hour. She reckons that the increased cost compared to U.K. shows will be offset by the marketability of the strand.

For the future, she shares the opinion of LWT’s Jim Allen that there will be a blurring between factual and entertainment. ‘I think stripped reality and leisure will come closer together, creating a new genre.’

BBC CHOICE: How Low Can You Go?

On September 23, the BBC launched BBC Choice, a general interest digital channel designed to complement BBC1 and BBC2.

With digital TV receiving equipment still extremely rare in the U.K., the budgets available are extremely low. However, this has not prevented the BBC from approaching the new venture with enthusiasm and innovation.

BBC Choice’s, Katy Thorogood, estimates the typical budget for original productions will be around £12,000 per half hour. With this sort of sum, she believes there is potential to ‘go horribly wrong by trying to make high budget programs cheaply. We need to create different kinds of programming.’

According to Thorogood, ‘Everything will be made on DVC and there will be a lot of desktop editing. We are very up front about the need to give things a raw, dangerous feel.’

The biggest indie commission to date has been for Backstage, a daily live show produced by indie company, Lion TV. ‘The show will air at 6:00 pm and give viewers behind-the-scenes information about bbc programs,’ says Thorogood. ‘Series producer, Paul Wooding, has developed a production trolley that does away with the need for a gallery. Presenters will play their own video clips like a DJ.’

Each day, Backstage will take advantage of bbc studios in downtime, occupying their space either just before or just after shows. ‘We looked for ways to turn negatives into positives, says Thorogood. By operating out of different studios, we can catch performers doing rehearsals and give a real sense of having witnessed an exclusive.’

This piggy-backing approach will also extend to spinoffs of BBC1 and BBC2 flagship shows. ‘We will have shows like Watchdog Extra and Crimewatch Extra which feed off mainstream programs,’ says Thorogood. ‘We can go straight into studios after the main show has finished and continue debates or close down stories. That way we get a grand studio for not much money.’

Choice will also go behind-the-scenes on hit entertainment shows like Mentorn Barraclough Carey’s Robot Wars. MBC has already been commissioned to make complementary docusoap programming during the course of the main series.

‘It is no good thinking that we should make Top of the Pops because we can’t,’ says Thorogood. ‘But because of our access to the BBC, we can make shows that most cable and satellite channels could never do.’ This is also true of live event coverage. Choice is planning to show extended coverage of tennis at Wimbledon and the annual rock music festival at Glastonbury.

Thorogood believes that the launch of Choice will allow new talent to emerge. ‘We have series like Real Lives which, for £6000 a half-hour, give assistant producers and directors the chance to cut stories that reflect how life is changing for people in Britain.’

Choice’s lateral thinking extends to its use of archive programming. Each night at 8:00 pm there will be a factual strand called Explorer. ‘This strand won’t be created like normal channels,’ says Choice’s Sally Angel.

On Mondays, there will be a repeat of an episode from a major factual show from the previous week (for example, Life of Birds on BBC1). Then, for the rest of the week, ‘there will be related archive shows which continue on the same theme,’ says Angel, ‘introduced by someone with a direct link to the program.’

Currently, there are plans for themed weeks on Alexander the Great, weird weather, advertising and The Cold War. ‘In `weird weather’ we have a film from Natural World on monsoons as well as shows from QED and Video Nation,’ says Angel. ‘Our `Cold War’ journey will have material from Panorama, Timewatch, Jeremy Isaacs’ classic Cold War series and Newsnight scenes from when the Berlin Wall came down.’

Angel admits that clearing the rights on such a mix is ‘complex and takes a lot of negotiation and patience. But it is made easier by the fact that this is public service television.’

Within the Explorer slot there will be mixed formats and limited opportunities for original production. ‘We might be able to show uncut versions of shows or extract specific story bubbles from docusoaps which can be commissioned up front to follow a particular character,’ says Angel. ‘We will also film updates of series like Modern Times to see what a difference being on television has made to people’s lives.’

The archive-based strands are coordinated by a new team within BBC Production called The Production Village, and original sequences have so far been made by BBC Bristol, BBC Science and BBC Entertainment in Manchester.

Although Backstage has won a major commission, it is unlikely that Choice will have much else to offer indies in the short term. With budgets so low, it would require long-running series to make commissions stack up economically for indies, says Thorogood.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.