Outlook 2021: Richard Watsham on UKTV’s commission spend, 2022 plans

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
January 20, 2021

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on 2020, and looking onward to this year. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this latest edition, we speak to Richard Watsham, director of commissioning at BBC Studios-owned broadcaster UKTV.

Tell me a little bit about how 2020 was for UKTV, and the pandemic’s impact, with specific focus on the non-scripted side?

Richard Watsham: At UKTV, it’s been a mixed year in that, as a network, we’ve been performing really well.

We’ve certainly seen some really strong viewing figures and growth of our share of the commercial market during this lockdown period.

Where it’s been, of course, incredibly difficult — and I feel this absolutely on behalf of the producers — is when it comes to new shows. We’re lucky enough to have already a mixed economy at UKTV, both in terms of pay revenue [and] advertising revenue… But also in terms of our content pipeline. It’s mixing established archive shows both from the BBC and third-party alongside our originals.

We’ve definitely struggled, as the rest of the industry has, to produce as much content as we would like. But, as I say, the channels actually have been performing really well.

2020 was a difficult year for broadcasters and networks given how COVID-19 affected ad spend and revenue. In your view, is the sector heading into more stable ground this year? 

RW: We’ve obviously got a much better view of the ad market now at this point in the year than we did when the first lockdown happened. Understandably, an enormous amount of panic was generated. It’s obviously not been a great year for much of the industry, but it hasn’t been as bad a year as we thought it was going to be on that front.

What sort of trends are you’re seeing in non-scripted content right now that will be big this year? 

RW: Over the preceding, I don’t know how many years — five, six, seven years — we’ve seen a shift towards slightly warmer content… particularly to formatted shows.

That now is broadened out to a lot of genres within television in terms of people wanting some escape and wanting some joy alongside the news. People are still watching a lot of news, and will continue to do so. But when they’re not doing that, they want some relief.

I do think that’s a trend we’re going to see continue.

Has your approach to how you commission and develop new content changed or evolved in 2020, considering everything?

RW: There’s been a number of big events this year — COVID being one of them, obviously, [and] Black Lives Matter being another one that has sparked some hugely important conversations in industry.

From my point of view… around how we commission, it’s certainly doubled down my desire to get more voices into the commissioning process.

Your approach towards commissioning is shifting constantly. The way in which Zoom operates is certainly giving us a a different relationship with people on the other side of the Atlantic and around the world. There’s bizarrely an ease of communication with people in the U.S. that wasn’t there before. In some ways Zoom has been problematic, in other ways it’s actually opened up conversation. We’ve got a number of conversations going about partnerships with other broadcasters and I expect that to continue.

As you’ve mentioned, something that’s been a big turning point in 2020 was the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about diversity in front of and behind the camera. In what ways is UKTV working to address those issues?

RW: It sparked a lot of conversation around a number of different areas at UKTV.

We’ve done quite a bit of thinking about our output. We’ve restated our commitment to certain targets around diversity on screen, which we’ve aligned with [BBC director-general] Tim Davie’s targets for the makeup of the BBC itself. He’s talked about a 50-20-12 organization — 50% on gender, 20% from ethnic minorities and 12% with disability, and that is our aim on screen too.

This is an opportunity for us to build a new approach for all of our channels in terms of their editorial strategy. I really do believe that inclusivity is the foundation of building big audiences.

Disability, as we know here in the UK, is one of the most underrepresented areas on television, and that’s certainly an area that we are going to be focusing on. We’ve recently joined the Creative Diversity Network here in the UK, and they have an initiative currently, Doubling Disability, specifically because disabled people are so underrepresented on TV and I really want us to lean into that at UKTV.

We’re just at that point now of getting some of those actions into place so that our content will hit the screen [this] year.

How are you working with your producing partners to keep productions safe?

RW: We’re putting people first. That’s the first thing.

We are working hard to get productions up and running… We’re communicating constantly with our producers. We’ve got a few shows still on hold. We haven’t cancelled anything, which is a really important commitment we made when lockdown happened the first time around.

[Head of production] Kerry Waddell and her team of production execs have worked really closely with the producers, looking at additional costs because of COVID and trying to be fair about those and making sure that we’re not leaving producers high and dry… We’re having detailed conversations about how we can move forward, keep things going safely.

We’ve just had a wholesale change in how we work but what we’re trying to do throughout is to be really supportive.

How optimistic are you that productions will be able to continue at the rate they have been in 2021? 

RW: I’m really optimistic. We’ve got… somewhere between 40 and 50 shows [on the slate]. There aren’t any of those that we’re deliberately withholding or holding back. There’s a couple that have got issues of access to talent as a result… But we are effectively at full tilt and I expect that to continue.

Here in the UK, we have been lucky to have the government indemnity scheme in place, which is providing some assurances around production.

So, there is at the moment a bit of a pinch point immediately after that. But as we stand currently, we’ve got no intention to ease off producing.

It’s a really important year for us in terms of some of our platform partnerships and making sure that we can deliver original programming to channels like Gold and Alibi. [This year, we're] lucky partly because we’ve carried a little bit of budget over from [2020]… our biggest ever commissioning spend.

Anything else you’d like to add?

RW: As always, I would encourage producers to come and get in touch with us directly because the kind of brief I can give here is paper thin [compared] to the brief you can get in a chat with a commissioner.

The commissioners get in the room — or on Zoom — with producers and they work really, really hard on formats. Our commissioners… [work] really collaboratively in order to strengthen those formats to the best of their ability — irrespective of whether we end up making that show or not. Our commitment is to lean into that relationship and to have really strong and interesting conversations around content.

Get in touch… We’ve got our biggest-ever commissioning budget [this year], some of that is taken of course. We’ve still got quite a few slots still unspoken for… We’re looking heavily now at 2022.

We’re looking for things in a lot of different areas. Comedy entertainment is an area which we talked about previously and which we’ve been lucky enough to have some innovative shows come through and lead in that space.

We’ve got a number of shows on the slate now that are really innovative entertainment formats. Particularly, shows that are starting to move out of the studio, given the difficulty with audiences. [We're] starting to build some of the same tone and the same structure and the subversive approach we’ve taken to the traditional panel shows, and to move it outside the studio… There’s lots and lots to come talk about so I’d encourage producers to get in touch.

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