Sunday, July 01, 2007

Making The Grade?

There was a thought-provoking feature in the Business section of today’s Sunday Herald. Reporting on the Ofcom conference on public service broadcasting in the ‘nations and regions’, the paper carried some rather incendiary comments from ITV Chief Exec Michael Grade, to the effect that the reason Scottish TV producers did not get more network commissions was because ‘they were not talented enough’.

Responding to suggestions that Ofcom should impose a quota system to increase commissions from outside London, Grade described supporters of the proposal as “living in dreamland”. In reply to criticisms that metrocentric TV executives ignore Scottish producers, he responded with a blunt “I’m sorry to say that the money will follow the talent”. And asked by STV’s Bobby Hain to confirm if his comments meant he thought there was a lack of talent in Scotland, Grade replied “Yes. It’s your problem, not my problem. You can’t expect us to dish out money like sweeties because it’s your turn”.

Ouch. But before we join the posse to lynch him, let’s quickly take a look at the case for the prosecution. On the surface, the charge that Scotland gets less than its fair share of the goodies is cut and dried. With 9% of licence fee payers (and therefore you assume a similar 9% of viewers, Scottish based producers received just 3% of all commissions from the 4 main UK networks this year, down from a still measly 6% in 2006.

It’s long been recognised that, just like anywhere else, Scotland goes through cycles in terms of the quality of her televisual output. However, it’s exacerbated by the sporadic nature of the funding available. Partly because of the centralised nature of UK broadcasting, people quickly hit a ceiling in the Scottish industry, and find themselves having to move away to get the access, the funding, the facilities, the nurturing and the expertise needed to progress talent and ideas. All of which makes it harder to build up and sustain a critical mass of creative talent.

This makes it far harder to ensure a consistent stream of quality output, and contributes to a skewed sense of place as people struggle to see and hear people living like themselves on the small screen. This phenomenon is recognised, at least in part, by some of the obligations placed on our public service broadcasters to better reflect the diversity of the UK. As Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4 points out sagely, if it weren’t for his station’s contractual requirement to make 30% of programmes outside London, it’s unlikely that a series such as ‘Shameless’, set in Manchester, would ever have been made.

So do Scottish producers have a point? Almost certainly. I don’t think there’s any doubt that despite the BBC’s planned part relocation to Manchester, London remains the key centre in the UK for mainstream broadcasting. Simple proximity to the movers and shakers who control the budgets makes it far easier to get a commission. And since success breeds success, it’s easier to maintain this momentum in the metropolis than it is outside the M25.

Case closed, then? Well, I’m not so sure. Uncomfortable as it may be to recognise, and however bluntly he may have put it, doesn’t Michael Grade actually have a point? He may have declined to soft-soap the Scottish delegates, but he didn’t claim that there was any intrinsic lack of talent in Scotland. Nor did he say that there wasn’t interest in commissioning content produced in Scotland. On the contrary, he was quick to say that ITV was “open for business”, and further, that “we are not so rich in ideas that we can afford to turn down anything that we think has got half a chance of working”.

We should recognise here that there are big financial pressures in TV-land just now. Advertising revenues are down, while the BBC is having to cut its cloth in anticipation of a lower than hoped for increase in the licence fee. In this context, it’s going to be tougher for everyone to get their programmes made. And with limited budgets to play with, should we really be surprised if commissioners become more conservative and risk-averse?

Then there’s the question of whether we are actually coming up with the sort of ideas that people will want to see. As Stewart Cosgrove points out, Scottish companies seem to restrict the marketability of their ideas by being ‘too focused’ on single documentaries and ‘turning their noses up at high volume returning formats’.

Our greatest strength in Scotland is that there’s a huge potential market for our output right across the Anglosphere, providing we make the sort of programmes that people actually want to see. There is, after all, a limited market for things just because they are Scottish. We might be rich in artistic talent, but the interest we understandably have in ourselves isn’t always shared by the rest of the world. To succeed, we need to be making more programmes which also have a resonance elsewhere.

It shouldn’t be difficult. We’re no-more self-obsessed as a nation than any other on the face of the earth, but we do often lack confidence in our own abilities. Series like ‘Taggart’ and ‘Rebus’ are shown throughout the world, and if the suburban Australian sagas of Ramsay Street can hold a worldwide audience, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do likewise.

And so we return to the issue of how we can secure a bigger share of what looks like a shrinking cake. I’ve no doubt that the Scottish industry needs a fairer and more consistent share of resources if it’s to start reaching its full potential. But creativity and imagination cost nothing. As Grade points out, maybe we shouldn’t be asking what people like him are going to do about it. We should instead be asking what we are going to do about it for ourselves.


Richard Havers said...

Really good piece Richard, thought provoking and pretty much on the money.

The magnetic effect of London, the fact that most, if not all, the big boy production companies are there has a pulling power that we cannot match. Overseas broadcasters and programme makers and those in the business all look to London.

How to get this to change is a real conundrum.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks, Richard. I think the BBC relocations from London are a big part of the sort of thing that needs to happen, but it can't just stop with what's planned for Manchester.

I'm not convinced by the quota argument for ITV at all. It's all very well for the Scottish suits to challenge the likes of Michael Grade about 'metrocentricism', but he's probably got enough on his plate trying to sort out the ITV network finances without worrying about what he probably sees as a severe restriction on his ability to do this.

I always thought that ITV's regional structure could be one of it's best 'differentiators' in a multi-channel era. However, with the Carlton/Granada carve-up of the English franchises, that local structure has all but gone for the moment.

STV might have been in a stronger position had it maintained the commitment to local and network output which it seemed to have in the 80's and 90's, albeit the impact on the balance sheet might have left them vulnerable to takeover (and you assume a similar fate for viewers). However, successive managements seem to have been happy to treat it as a cash cow, on the mistaken assumption that people would watch any old rubbish provided the word 'Scottish' appeared often enough in the schedule.

Improving news and current affairs output would be a good place to start, if it allowed them to 'reconnect' with their viewers and started to build up a critical mass in that sector. The new split frequencies might also allow them to maintain or increase advertising revenues. However, I can't help but feel that sooner or later, no matter how clever the accountants are, or think they are, the only way to up revenues long-term is to start improving the bits in between the adverts.