Axing the Axiom

Commissioning editors never miss a chance to hold forth on the importance of ideas. As soon as the phrase, 'What we're really looking for is...' passes the lips of a broadcast exec, producers know exactly what's coming: 'fresh, good, innovative' - pick the day's preferred adjective - 'ideas.'
January 1, 2006

Commissioning editors never miss a chance to hold forth on the importance of ideas. As soon as the phrase, ‘What we’re really looking for is…’ passes the lips of a broadcast exec, producers know exactly what’s coming: ‘fresh, good, innovative’ – pick the day’s preferred adjective – ‘ideas.’

Not true. Well, not exactly.

This may come as something of a shock to independent producers, but having original program ideas isn’t as valuable as you may think. Nor is it the key to being a successful, sought-after production house. In the uk, what broadcasters really prize is the ability to deliver on time and on brief. More often than not, they know what they’re after before you even pitch.

‘There’s an industry joke about commissioners who stand up at conferences and say: ‘I don’t want to be prescriptive, but I’m looking for this, this and this,” says Chris Shaw, head of news and current affairs at commercial network Five. ‘When I started this job, I thought I was here just to open my in-tray and pick out the best ideas, but you learn that most good ideas are variations on or combinations of existing ones,’ he furthers. ‘So, what I really need are indies who can execute – because that’s where the creativity is.’

And that’s where semantics can lead producers astray.

Shaw reckons about 30% of his department’s program ideas are triggered internally. Of the remainder, many will either have to conform to an existing program strand or be shaped during production: ‘Most Evil Men in History was my idea,’ says Shaw, ‘but Don’t Get Me Started is a better example of how it usually works. I wanted a polemic about liberal dilemmas and the producer came up with a great film about the death of manly values.’

Views differ on how prescriptive broadcasters need to be, but there’s no doubt that the intense competition brought about by digital means today’s commissioners have more input into shows than ever before. What’s also clear is that this opens up a range of new business issues for indies in the non-fiction entertainment industry.

Not surprisingly, broadcasters originating ideas often frame them more narrowly than indies, which puts the value of any ancillary rights to a show at risk. (While most indies want to devise shows with international potential, a UK broadcaster is focused on its domestic audience.) And while there’s certainly a benefit to creative collaboration, it also complicates claims to ownership of the resulting ideas. Even more pressing perhaps is what it means in terms of business development. After all, if ideas aren’t guaranteed to win you commissions, what will?

Zig Zag managing director Danny Fenton says the shift in emphasis has changed the way his company works. ‘We did an internal survey and found that one broadcaster had never taken any of our ideas. The only work we’d done for them was shows they’d asked us to do. That told us we needed to spend as much time relationship-building as working up shows in development.’

This emphasis on forming bonds is critical, since some indies have better network access than others. ‘When a company like RDF is making shows like Ladette and Holiday Showdown for me, it’s inevitable we have a dialog about what’s coming next,’ says ITV controller of factual Bridget Boseley. ‘Being in production is a great form of development.’

Boseley says the day-to-day involvement commissioners have with their networks leads to a hands-on relationship. ‘My job is to know what will work for itv. An indie might bring me a concept I like, but won’t deliver the five million viewers I need in peaktime. A lot of my time is spent reworking ideas I think can punch through.’

She doesn’t see this as prescriptive; but she will identify broad themes she wants to explore. ‘I will say to indies, ‘I want something on gymslip [teenage] mums or manners.’ It was RDF’s take on etiquette that led to one of our hit shows, Ladette to Lady.’ Boseley is also trying to group shows around strands like ‘From Hell’ and ‘Transformed’ as a way of prepping audiences. ‘You need brands with in-built recognition that can go straight into 9 p.m. slots without needing a big off-air marketing drive,’ she says.

It’s the same pressures on network performance that encourage Boseley to build relationships with indies who ‘get what our network is about.’ She’s not alone. The preferred supplier model is an industry-wide trend that has led to more scenarios where networks take a well advanced idea and do a limited tender where they invite a few designated companies to pitch for it.

Wall to Wall deputy MD Jonathan Hewes says this is how it worked with Not Forgotten, a recent commission from Channel 4. ‘They asked a few companies for WWI ideas based around war memorials and the home front. We came up with a concept that linked names on memorials to people still living today.’

Hewes, however, isn’t overly concerned with this trend towards limited tenders. In part, this is because he also subscribes to the view that the real creativity is in the execution. ‘But there’s also the fact that commissioners understand the architecture of their channels. Just as importantly, they know what else is coming through the pipeline,’ he says. ‘It’s very disheartening to develop an idea then discover another indie making a similar show.’

In today’s idea-saturated world, it’s common for more than one indie to have the same eureka moment. Says Hewes, ‘We went to the BBC with a family tree show and they said they had received similar ideas. So they sent it back to us as a tender. Fortunately we won, and the result was Who Do You Think You Are?

Lion Television managing director Nick Catliff reckons his company has been up for about 10 tenders in the last year and won three. Like Hewes, he’s glad to have been invited, but says they create their own pressures. ‘We spend a lot of money on them because it’s important to put up a good showing in front of a commissioner. But you can find yourself trying to second guess them instead of following your own instinct.’

Like Hewes, Catliff doesn’t see this as fundamentally undermining the role of indies. ‘Even in a tender scenario, a good commissioner leaves room for different indies to come up with different interpretations of the same idea. And they will give clear direction during development,’ he explains. ‘We have some great collaborative relationships with specialist factual commissioners because they really are experts in their particular field. And we had a situation where a commissioner came up with a brand extension based on one of our hidden camera formats, [Beat The Burglar/Bailiff].’

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest great shows emerge from creative exchange. Wife Swap was an RDF idea, but it didn’t start as a crafted proposal, says RDF MD Stephen Lambert: ‘When I met Channel 4′s Hilary Bell I said, ‘What about Wife Swap, where they swap wives but stay in different bedrooms?’ Hilary loved it. That an idea comes out of someone’s mouth fully formed is rare. The best way of working out a program is to get on with it.’

C4 head of documentaries Danny Cohen oversees 150 hours of content, including one-off docs, populist hits like Ricochet’s Supernanny, and the current affairs strand ‘Cutting Edge.’ He acknowledges the swing in the business, but is adamant that the door can never be closed on indie ideas. ‘Sitting here in a London office, we’re not best-placed to predict trends over the next year,’ he contends. ‘We will push an indie on whether an idea can sustain for an hour at 9 p.m., or if it has enough breadth of appeal, but we rarely specify a subject or demo to indies.’

He does have his own ideas, but is careful about how he advances them. ‘There is a danger with internal ideas, because indies can feel like they have less ownership of them,’ he warns, ‘and that can undermine their creative efforts.’

Cohen’s observation is a reminder that, for many indies, control of ideas is regarded as the lifeblood of their business. So one possible threat to indies from prescriptive commissioners is that networks will attempt to claim ownership of an indie’s ideas.

In practice, it’s rare for a UK broadcaster to come up with such a specific idea that they could do so. With recent UK legislation (The Communications Act) giving indies greater control over their rights, a broadcaster would need to be on solid ground before it attempted to impose ownership over a show. However, Lion’s Catliff says indies need to be alert. ‘We’ve had situations where broadcasters change elements of our formats in production and use that to try and improve their terms.’

As his comment suggests, levels of prescriptiveness vary genre to genre. Commissioners rarely look beyond the top half dozen players in formats. And for high-end factual, companies like Wall to Wall, Lion and Impossible Pictures often get the nod.

This isn’t just about expertise, but about feeling secure that a company will deliver. In the case of big-budget copros, it’s understandable that all the major partners will want a company with a proven track record in delivering multiple briefs. For the same reason, coproducing networks often agree on a bankable subject with their distrib arms (e.g. Rome, Egypt) before approaching indies.

Failure to get on the preferred supplier list isn’t just an issue for small indies. Both Lion and Wall to Wall have found themselves typecast in the past, unable to win key commissions because their shows were perceived as RDF- or Ricochet-esque. As for smaller indies, the key is not to despair, says Fenton. ‘Commissioners are more prescriptive with big marquee productions, but they will take a chance where there is less at stake,’ he contends. ‘A single documentary within a strand is a way for an indie to demonstrate what it can do. There’s always some way in for that great idea.’

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