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”.
Apparently TV wonderland has hit a blip. We keep hearing it, but are things really as bad as people keep saying? Freelancers and production companies are among those trying to work alongside the repercussions, but what if that’s no longer viable. They say those that can teach, but once you set your sights on new ventures is there really any turning back?
I can’t remember a time when freelancers weren’t being told by others that, “everyone says it’s quiet out there, but it’s supposed to pick up soon”. I’m hearing this a lot just now, and it seems so familiar that I thought I should find out whether the recession really is having an impact on freelance TV production work. So I contacted some of the other production talent heads of the larger indies to ask for their off-the-record opinions of what’s going on.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the economic climate is indeed stormy for commissions and the people who work on them. Productions are still going ahead, but they are fewer, and the competition for work is probably now tougher than I can remember since the last tangible recession in 1990-92. There are certainly many more channels and productions to work on than there were 18 years ago, but the size of the available workforce is also very much larger. People talked of giving up looking for work in the summer/autumn of 1991, and waiting for it all to get better. I hope that you won’t have to do the same.
If British broadcasters are under more pressure than ever to succumb to commercial pressures, what place does documentary filmmaking hold in the commissioner’s line-up? This week, I look at whether support for documentary filmmaking is about to become a lavish extravagance of the past.
It would be interesting to know how many ProductionBase members initially pursued a career in television because you wanted to make significant documentaries which could be watched by millions. I expect that a sizable number did, regardless of the genre of production each of you have specialised in since starting out. In practice, freelancers can find themselves pigeon-holed by genre; you may have taken that job on a popular satellite shopping channel, but you took it because you were trapped by financial responsibility, not because it fulfilled your creative desires. If this is the drift which takes people away from documentary, then where is the documentary itself drifting? In UK broadcast television, the documentary world has been changing fast, and here is what I see happening.