The Digital Revolution

Last week I went to an even run by DPP called ‘Online Pioneers’ about making TV for the digital age. They hosted speakers from Facebook, and from production companies Silverback and Fulwell73.

In ‘standard’ TV culture, production companies go to commissioners, who belong to broadcast organisations such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV etc, and sell them ideas for new programmes with which they can fill their schedules. The programmes are often designed with a certain time slot in mind, a certain audience, or to fulfil a certain demand or theme.

But in the digital age, this system is turned on its head. There are no more schedules to fill (you can watch content on demand or on your phone whenever and wherever) and no target audiences (anyone anywhere could be watching your content).

This has the effect of forcing authentically good content. People will watch what they think is good – because if it’s not good, they can easily find something else that is. As the speaker from Facebook explained, if your content hasn’t grabbed someone’s attention within three seconds, they won’t watch it. But this means that in order to work across different media – online, social media, and broadcast schedules, multiple versions of the same product have to be created. And this is what we’re seeing happen in TV at the moment – a production won’t just air on one platform, such as BBC One, it will have a Facebook trailer, a YouTube presence (think drip-fed trailers #1 #2 and #3), social media pages and extra content. All these different formats complement each other and create a fuller brand.

Fulwell73 are a production company that took advantage of the very beginning of the digital revolution. They realised that Content is King – that no matter what your delivery format, if the content is good, it will win out. So they pursued every idea that they thought was just really good, no matter what genre or what format. Their production company, as a result, has produced documentaries, music videos, adverts and comedy shows (including the Late Late Show and Carpool Karaoke!). Such a wide range of ideas – but each enormously popular and successful, because they pursued the quality of the idea, rather than a particular slot on a particular channel.

Sometimes these good ideas come from the talent themselves – whether they’re presenters, comedians, historians or scientists – they might have access through their work to ideas and events that are amazing, but that ‘telly people’ wouldn’t know about. The marriage of talent’s great ideas and telly’s editorial skill is often one made in heaven.

Silverback, a production company that makes high end natural history documentaries, revealed some exciting aspects of working with Netflix – the new commissioning giant. They’re a completely different culture – they don’t have the baggage that comes with the TV commissioners – instead what they’re interested in is a big proposition that will make a big splash and get them lots of subscribers. So instead of requesting content that will fit a time slot or audience, their request is simply make it as good as it can be. Once again, Content is King.

The Digital Revolution is accelerating daily, but I for one am tremendously excited by it. In a way, it has forced TV to become a meritocracy: there is a new confidence that if an idea is good, it will win out. The drive to find better stories and tell them as well as possible becomes ever more important – and it inspires me.

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The Digital Revolution

Money Talks

Last Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the TV inquiry’s Future of TV debate. As some of you may already know, the BBC’s charter is up for renewal, which has sparked a series of discussions about how the BBC represents and supplies Britain’s entertainment industry. Lord Puttnam is leading the inquiry into the British television industry, and this was one of the many debates that are being run as part of that. It was chaired by the venerable Pat Younge, CEO of Sugar Films and the man behind some of the most influential and well-known BBC shows. Also speaking was Sir Lenny Henry – need I say more?! He sits on the advisory board to Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, and has launched a new plan for increasing diversity in the TV industry. In this blog, I’ll give a summary of what he said, and add my own comments on that.

So Lenny Henry proposes that the BBC ring-fence a portion of money which can only be accessed by producers and commissioners if their proposed production meets certain diversity criteria in terms of both on and off screen talent. Sky has already initiated something similar: one of the top roles in the production (director, producer, scriptwriter, lead talent) must be BAME. This ring-fenced money could be accessed by any of the TV genres: childrens, sports, factual, dramas etc, as long as it meets these criteria. So it’s the same pot of money that goes to BBC productions, but the productions that arise from this pot should be more culturally and ethnically diverse.

Although there were many arguments against quotas raised at the debate, I agree with Lenny’s proposal, for two main reasons: money talks and power lies with the commissioners. That money will talk to the commissioners, who want access to that money to make good productions, and will commission productions that meet the criteria needed to get that money. Result: more BAME diverse productions will get made.

But I’ve got two things to add to that. It’s pretty hard to get diverse on screen talent if you commission productions set in Scotland, Wales or period dramas. And London is much, much more diverse than, for example, County Durham. So I think the secret to getting more on screen talent is for writers to write more BAME lead roles – or even non-criminal BAME characters! I think that in addition to Lenny’s excellent idea, producers and commissioners need to actively be searching for BAME writing talent, because only then will we get the right kind of material to make into good, diverse TV. Having said that, there is nothing to stop the production team on period dramas etc being as diverse as possible, and there is also nothing to stop the ring-fenced money being accessed by fulfilling those quotas.

The second thing is the financial barrier to TV, as well as the cultural one. Typically the areas of London or the rest of the country that are BAME rich are the poorer areas. And as we’ve seen in my blogs over the winter months, even if you’ve got a private education and Russell Group University degree, it’s really hard to get started in the TV industry unless you work three jobs at a time, not all of which might be paid *cough* work experience placements*cough*. If it was so hard for someone like me, well educated, driven, determined and experienced, to get into the TV industry, what chance does anyone from an under-privileged working class background stand?! The financial barriers are half this problem, I would say. And that is something that no one has a solution for…yet.

So please keep looking out for these debates, and follow @TVinquiry or #FutureofTV on Twitter to keep up with the latest developments in the changes about to occur to the TV industry!

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