Are You Down In The End-of-Sale Basement?

Are You Down In The End-of-Sale Basement?

Broadcasters like any other business, might be tempted to tighten the belt (even if it’s not necessary), during an economic downturn, but how much will this assist the long-term agenda? This week I reflect on Delissa Needham’s theory and offer a healthy alternative.

Has your attention been caught by the In My View column in last week’s Broadcast magazine? Delissa Needham, who is an executive producer at the Bio Channel and an experienced programme-maker in her own right, holds that the BBC overspends on its independent commissions when it could be buying-in the same commissions for a fifth of the cost.

Ms Needham writes that the BBC is doing the equivalent of shopping for its groceries at Harrods rather than a supermarket brand by commissioning from the bigger production companies who, “can’t and won’t do low-budget programming. It’s a skill that needs the right producing talent and the right commissioners experienced in low budget”.

I can’t agree with this, and I think that her view highlights one of the reasons why the television industry’s morale is currently at such a low ebb.

It may be that Ms Needham is simply playing devil’s advocate in order to stir up the debate. She is certainly unafraid to pick a fight – she was one of the few people four years ago to publish a spirited defense of unpaid work experience as a staple of television production just as the practice was becoming generally discredited.

Any business that relies on squeezing out every penny that it is possible to gain, and on pushing down suppliers and workforce to the very lowest cost they will accept for the services they supply, is ultimately unsustainable and its model is probably broken. But that’s what company executives do when they are pressured to maximise short-term profits for remote share-holders, rather than grow their investment.

Instead, a business with a longer-term future, even in these economically straitened times, should be profitable enough that it does not need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to make its profit margins. If it does, it needs to change its model.

Fair trade is not just a do-gooder’s slogan but makes hard commercial sense, it creates the security and good will which gives any enterprise the flexibility to survive and thrive in good times and bad, whether it is a small indie or a huge broadcaster.

I love watching The Apprentice, but I should add that its format presumes the same mistake – the winner is the one that makes the biggest overall profit in a single exercise regardless of the cost to ongoing sustainability. I’m sure that Alan Sugar knows that in the real world this rack-rent approach can bring a business to its knees in time. There is a world of a difference between ‘competitive’ and ‘avaricious’.

Good will is a tangible asset that even the hardest-headed of auditors will quantify in a business and put a value on. That good will is the reason programme-makers will go the extra distance to make the best production that can be made, and why facilities and other suppliers will do their utmost to support the project.

Meanwhile, it is still the case that most people who work in TV production, from runners to chief executives, did not choose this way of life in order to earn the most money possible, but because it offers a level of creative satisfaction and social impact which is still not easily found elsewhere. Offer those people a reason to feel good will towards your company, and they will return labour, care and emotional involvement which far exceeds what they are paid for.

I don’t expect that there is any indie out there which thinks that the BBC overspends on commissions, or that the corporation doesn’t get what it pays for. Ms Needham notes of The History Channel that, “viewers don’t complain we haven’t spent enough money”, presumably that is because their expectations have been trimmed before they switch to her channel. I note that viewers still tune in to THC in the UK in their hundreds of thousands, but they opt for the main BBC channels in their millions.

If the BBC were to grind down production costs to the lowest possible, we would indeed see it on screen, viewers would complain, hue and cry would be raised, and the corporation which belongs to all of us would be shamed and reduced.

If you want to asset-strip the TV production industry for immediate gain, then you’re going to commission the cheapest productions possible. If you have an eye on the future, you wouldn’t dream of it.