A few years ago I was at a party in Soho, hobnobbing with people like Carole Vorderman (she was popular then) and Ross Kemp (he was new) and that Beckham kiss-and-tell woman (remember her?). Earlier I’d been to the Ritz with Sir David Frost to talk about a sports debate show and he told me funny stories about Ali, Nixon and Monty Python. I was a commissioning editor and this wasn’t a bad day’s work for a Salford boy.
Fast forward to last summer and I’m in a pokey Cornish B&B with a broken shower and a room smelling of dead dog. I have no spare socks and I’m rushing out to get a shot on a DV camera from the side of some docks. It’s 6am and I’m lying on the cold, wet floor, my face scrunched into the camera eyepiece. How did it come to this? Where did it all go wrong? If only Vorderman can help me work it out?
It was great being a commissioning editor, I thought it was the best job in the world – meeting talented people and the feeling that you’re in a big supermarket of ideas. Being an an Exec at a small indie in many ways more rewarding because the pressures are different? They’re more real. Responsibilities such as development, securing access, managing a big team, hustling, begging, and running around sockless (BBC Four budgets!) all give the job an exciting edge.
But working inside a broadcaster you pick up information and skills that can be very useful when applied back in the world of production. My diary was crammed with all kinds of meetings from channel strategy, marketing, budget wrangling, focus groups, pitching ideas internally, managing my diary, and meetings with indies of course. And there was always internal politics to keep you on your toes. In this environment programme decision making skills are sharpened as you scrutinise the bigger picture stuff, like understanding why we watch TV, what ideas work and what don’t.
Having crossed the line twice, going from producer to commissioner and back again, I wonder if we could make commissioning compulsory for all producers? Every producer gets to have go, it will be for a fixed period, two years, or so. Then, when the time is up, they hand over to a new intake? It’ll be a bit like national service, for television. Was it Barbara Castle who said “if champagne is the best drink then let everyone drink it”? It’s a similar sentiment, but far more constructive from an industry perspective.
It could help change the perception that a select group of producers get most of the commissions. A point often made at commissioning events. And you can see how this gains ground. We have an industry that’s based on trust. Reputations and guarantees of quality are foremost in the minds of most commissioning editors. So people tend to stick with who they know.
The aim here is not to create a perfect commissioning system; flaws are inevitable in a highly competitive and creative industry. But maybe this is a small way of making an improvement. With a higher turnover of commissioners there might be a swing in emphasis from the personal relationship to the idea. It could sharpen the commissioning process and even spread the money further. It will certainly make the process feel fairer. One pitfall is that commissioning brings an element of power, and power is addictive.
By the way, if you’re ever in the Cornish town of Gweek, it has just one shop which doubles as a post office selling newspapers, veg, bread, beer… and socks.
Paul Crompton is Executive Producer at Steadfast TV