Edinburgh Controllers series: C5′s Ben Frow on factual acquisitions and TV’s “new normal”

UPDATED, MAY 2: Ben Frow, director of programs for Viacom UK, is espousing the value of factual acquisitions as he and his teams work on reconstructing schedules while the COVID-19 ...
May 1, 2020

UPDATED, MAY 2: Ben Frow, director of programs for Viacom UK, is espousing the value of factual acquisitions as he and his teams work on reconstructing schedules while the COVID-19 crisis continues to upend the television business.

Speaking as part of the Edinburgh TV Festival’s Controllers series today (May 1), in advance of the virtual version of the festival slated for August, Frow — whose recently expanded remit covers Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and Paramount Network in the UK in addition to his status as director of programs for Channel 5 — said that factual acquisitions prove to be “very cost-effective programming” and “incredibly useful” at the best of times, let alone in the midst of the current situation, in which broadcasters are needing to reinvent schedules and production companies continue to contend with restrictions imposed by lockdowns.

Comparing C5 to other British broadcasters such as ITV, the BBC and Channel 4, Frow said factual was “a space that we can own a bit more” compared to news or big-budget entertainment. On the entertainment front, Frow admitted that dating program Blind Date, which came to C5 in 2017 after a run on ITV that ended in 2003, had not yet been recommissioned and there were no plans to do so at present, “if I’m being honest.”

Frow’s comments on the viability of factual during the COVID-19 crisis echo those of other controllers speaking during this year’s digital version of the Edinburgh TV Fest’s annual Controllers series, including the BBC’s Patrick Holland and Alison Kirkham and ITV’s Kevin Lygo, as some scripted dramas face production shutdowns that could extend into next year. But while some factual formats are in the process of resuming production, such as Label1′s Hospital for the BBC, others, such as ITV’s immensely popular Love Island, are more vulnerable given the size and scope of production.

But while many broadcasters are looking to fast-turnaround content and quarantine-friendly production techniques such as self-shot content, Frow maintained he’s not looking for “programs that look like they were made during a crisis.”

To that end, he called to the production community and broadcasters to “not make it about who’s the big one and who’s the small one” and to “share the answers” when it comes to producing content in this challenging time, “so that people can keep their businesses up and running.”

The Channel 5 controller admitted that he found the working from home dynamic difficult but that he and his team did have an appropriately socially distant four-hour meeting in which “we ripped up the whole schedule” to revisit what was possible given current circumstances.

“I’m trying to prepare everybody for a long journey,” he said about communicating with his team and encouraging it to adopt a long-term outlook regarding how to work during the crisis. “We’re not going to be back at work in June.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.