Posts Tagged 'BBC'

Growing Scotland’s film and television – yes please Minister(s)

Though some practitioners are expressing ‘consultation fatigue’ (following the Creative Scotland Film Sector review (which I chaired) and subsequent consultation on its Film Strategy 2014-17, the Scottish Parliament Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s enquiryto consider how Scotland can grow sustainable TV and film and video games industries” it is an important opportunity to set out the potential for growth as well as the obstacles facing our screen practitioners and businesses and encourage Parliament to press the Scottish Government  to seriously up its support for the sector if it really wants to see the culture, economic and social benefits from the moving image that other European countries have achieved through concerted action.  My tuppence worth is available along with the other eighteen [since posting the number has risen to 40] written evidence submissions (though one of them seems to have wandered in by mistake!) here. The committee will be taking further evidence from a variety of practitioners and agencies during January starting with Games on the 14th, TV and film on the 21st, public agencies on the 28th and Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs on the 4th of February. Given the concern for the economic impact of the creative industries it is curious that the Committee, so far at least, doesn’t plan to take evidence from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney.  He’s the person who really holds the key to investment in the sector…having read and heard the evidence from all the above perhaps the committee will then have some questions for him.

UPDATE 4/2/15 in recent days John Swinney’s name has appeared on the agenda alongside Fiona Hyslop to appear in front of the committee today which suggests that the committee members/those giving evidence have successfully upped the ante..

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We’re smart enough and have the resources to run our own TV

(Originally published on the Guardian Website Tuesday 16th September)

Claire Enders (What would a Scottish yes mean for democracy, 14 September) claims that “Scotland simply isn’t big enough to support strong independent media”.

She suggests the substitution of a Scottish Broadcasting Service for the BBC in Scotland would reduce media plurality. However, since 1957 Scotland has had an independent commercial station, STV, with a vibrant news and current affairs output, which would continue to offer strong competition to any licence-fee/state-funded broadcaster. Not since the 1980s has Channel 4 had any Scottish current affairs or political output, so the level of plurality would remain unchanged.

She suggests Scotland could not secure a free-to-air deal with the BBC. The licence fee (or post-independence equivalent) in Scotland raises £300m; the pro-rata share of network BBC television is £75m, while BBC Scotland costs £86m. Even if the BBC secured £100m for supplying its services to Scotland (considerably more than Ireland currently pays for the same privilege), that would still leave £200m to fund SBS, radio and online services.

After independence the Scottish parliament and whichever government the people of Scotland elect would shape Scotland’s media regulation. Holyrood, elected on a proportional representation basis, and with much greater cross-party pre–legislative scrutiny, is considerably more democratic than Westminster.

Independent Screens

(this is the slightly longer original version of the piece published today in The Sunday Herald http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/referendum-news/how-we-can-put-scottish-talent-into-a-starring-role.24235648)

There are many reasons why film and television in an independent Scotland could be bigger, better and benefit audiences, the economy and our wealth of creative talents much more than it currently does. For the best part of a century our screen culture and industry have depended on the resources and perspectives of London decision-makers. At times this relationship has indeed been beneficial but mainly it has been debilitating. It is true that at some key moments in our screen history, for want of a stronger domestic infrastructure, we have profited from enlightened regimes at the BBC, the British Film Institute (BFI) or Channel 4 who have given Scottish stories and talent support and screen time. Without them Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, John McKenzie, Lynne Ramsay or Paul Wright might never have reached our screens.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on those occasionally benign decisions which expose precisely the highly dependent nature of the relationship. Despite thirty-five years of effort since Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling burst onto the screen, we still lack the size and shape of screen industry that can consistently develop, employ and retain talent in front of or behind the camera without first looking to SoHo or W1A for approval.

As a result, unlike our literature, music or theatre we still import virtually all of our screen culture, more than any comparable western European country. Indeed it seems that we have almost lost the capacity to imagine any other arrangement, tending to assume that Scottish must mean pawky, parochial or poor quality. Lacking a sense of what a distinct Scottish audience might want, from say its screen dramatists, it’s little surprise that producers focus hard on meeting the expectations of financiers, distributors, BFI and TV executives for whom Scotland will always be small part of a bigger picture with no enduring claim on their time or resources.

The queue for film finance is so long and the local pot so limited that the average age of a first time feature director in Scotland remains stubbornly close to forty. It can take ten years to get a film like Sunset Song (even with Terrence Davies attached as Director) or a TV series like Katie Morag from development to production (both first supported with development finance by Scottish Screen in 2000).

Meantime Scotland’s share of network TV production has edged up from 3% by value in 2003 to just over 4% in 2012 – far from the 9% that our population share would suggest is a reasonable expectation of our public service broadcasters. Under pressure to deliver more for the ‘nations and regions’ valiant producers turn creative cartwheels to plausibly relocate a secondary school from Rochdale to Greenock while we wait patiently for a Scottish originated volume drama to be commissioned for the network – any network.

What would make things better in an independent Scotland?

Since no country’s screen industry has succeeded internationally without a strong and growing home audience we could work harder to grow domestic demand. Not by forcing audiences to watch home-grown movies through import tariffs or blocking Eastenders but rather by ensuring we have the capacity to offer real choice in the living room, in the cinema or on tablet PCs. That will take time. A Scottish Broadcasting Channel that, like most European public broadcasters, was mandated to support domestic film production (with investment and screening slots) alongside commissioned TV drama would be a powerful aid to growing production, jobs and facilities. Of course it would have to compete, as in Ireland, with UK networks – just as UK networks now have to compete with Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. But it would also be a crucial platform to develop Scottish talent and companies for whom these new distribution channels are real opportunities. In the same way people often overlook the fact that Grand Theft Auto originates in Scotland, not many people realize that international TV hit The Tudors was developed in Ireland, giving several new Irish directors their big break as well as employing legions of crew and facilities.

 

I’ve written elsewhere about how Scotland’s film success is patchy and stop-start compared to other countries because we operate well under the critical mass required to produce hits with any sort of consistency. If we invested the levels of public finance per head that other similar sized European countries do we could transform the environment for Scottish film and TV. Where we spend around one pound a year per person on funding film, Ireland spends two and Denmark ten, resulting in a far bigger share of the domestic market than Scotland has. Add control of tax reliefs and incentives and the full range of studio facilities to attract more inward productions like US series Outlander filming in Cumbernauld and we can see how Scotland could reach Irish levels of production and perhaps, in the longer term, Danish.

 

An independent Scotland in the EU would qualify for country of ‘smaller audiovisual capacity’ status which would bring the same advantage when applying for Creative Europe MEDIA funding as every other small country in the EU enjoys. And like those countries if we joined EURIMAGES, the European Cinema Support Fund, our producers would have access to coproduction funds which the UK, as a non-member, does not.

Fiscal and regulatory measures to stimulate production are only part of the picture. Alongside a commitment to grow production levels, investment in skills and talent development is crucial. For too long we have waved goodbye to talents in front of and behind the camera that, once established in London, New York or LA then have precious little opportunity to pay return visits. Conversely when high value productions arrive from elsewhere they quickly max out the available expertise or worse, because of unfamiliarity with our abundant talent and skills, bring up their favoured cast and crew anyway.

Our screen ecology suffers from a long term depression of demand. In contrast Denmark’s equivalent of BBC Scotland, home to The Killing and Borgen, employs 40 people in its Drama Department. Its Head of Drama Piv Bernth cites their close relationship with the Danish Film School as “one of the secrets of our success – With The Killing 3 for instance, we had five young student cinematographers for three weeks on the set.” A revitalised film and TV industry in Scotland could offer similar opportunities, providing many more rungs in the career ladder, not just the step up to a plane south but an open return ticket too.

None of this means severing our links with industry, institutions or audiences south of the border. Rather it means reframing those relationships so that we can enter into creative and commercial partnerships on a more equal basis, bringing more to the table and having more say on how audiences here are served and industry supported. For example the Irish Film Board gets along very well with the British Film Institute and they regularly co-finance films in much the same way that Creative Scotland and the BFI do.

Of course there are risks: for instance we might not grow our domestic TV production base fast enough to compensate for the loss of ‘lift and shift’ procurement that is currently propping up the BBC’s commissioning record in Scotland. There might be additional transaction costs that could work against co-production or co-investment. We might discover it’s too late, culturally, to reverse audience expectations of wall-to-wall imported screen content. Or we might just not bother to take our screen culture and industry seriously enough to give it the investment it requires. But none of these things are inevitable. As the recent Creative Scotland Film Sector Review shows, we have the potential, the talent and the skills to make a difference. If we have the will there is a way in an independent Scotland.

 

Scottish Television: What would it look like? (revisited)

Much has been made of the prospect of Scotland ‘losing out’ were we to substitute a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation for the BBC, here are some wise words on why it might be a good idea:

“It was not necessarily the case that Taggart was any more regressive than Eastenders  in its representations of national character, or that Burnistoun is any worse than Citizen Khan.  It is not even that any of these programmes are particularly dreadful in themselves.  The questions returns to institutions.  It is simply that there is a limited amount of space within the schedules and a limited amount of institutional and financial support for the production of Scottish discourses, with the result that there is a highly restricted range of images available for the representation of Scottishness.  Whereas the representations of English country life in Downtown Abbey take their place within a range of other images from situation comedies, police series, single plays, classic serials, drama documentaries and soap operas, the representations of River City or Waterloo Road become the only consistent and recurrent images of Scottishness available at the time.

 

These words were actually written over 30 years ago (with the exception of the programme titles which I’ve updated from Dr Finlay’s Casebook/All Creatures Great and Small/Take the High Road/Emmerdale Farm) by John Caughie in an essay titled ‘Scottish Television: what would it look like?‘ in that pivotal text on representations of Scottishness in film and TV: Scotch Reels.  Published as part of a concerted intervention in the Scottish media landscape, it prefaced a lively debate at the 1982 Edinburgh International Film Festival ( a great deal livelier than its equivalent session at this year’s TV Festival) they remain as relevant today.

Broadcaster-bashing league table

NB Health warning: Without analysis of whether the references are pro-, neutral or anti- BBC  the following table shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Though if Google had existed in the 80s Channel 4 would probably have been much higher up the table!

25 years of BBC Bashing

Another MediaGuardian Edinburgh International television Festival is over. The Armani suits, killer heels and expense accounts have left the George Hotel.  The McEwan Hall quietly reverberates to the last whispers of BBC boss Mark Thompson’s deft McTaggart speech, defending the licence fee and the Beeb’s role as the cornerstone of quality TV against calls for the further liberation of broadcasting from the fetters of regulation. Festival staff clear away the promotional brochures and pack up the 3D television displays to the echoes of Paul Abbot’s plangent (if at times incoherent) plea for more long-running drama on British TV.  Like Life on Mars if you listen really carefully the ghostly voices of TV executives past mingle with the present and seem to be saying…well rather similar things.  As a delve into the archives (source of all 1985 quotes) of long gone eclectic left-nationalist leaning magazine Radical Scotland will reveal…

Back in 1985, a year before British Satellite Broadcasting went on air a young(er) Andrew Neil told the delegates that the BBC/ITV duopoly was a “conspiracy against the public to avoid competition” while David Graham (then a ‘young turk’ of the independent sector and producer of the ground-breaking current affairs programme Diverse Reports for Channel 4) argued that multi-channel TV, cable and the like made the existence of a ‘state-regulated, centrally controlled and ideologically centrist institution indefensible’

Well not much and everything has changed –  the Peacock Committee Enquiry into the BBC was in full swing and many in the television industry fully expected the Thatcher Government, fresh from defeating the Miners after a bitter year-long strike, to abolish the licence fee and throw the BBC to the commercial wolves.  Delegates were abuzz with revelations of MI5 vetting of BBC staff and the banning of At the Edge of the Union, an allegedly incendiary documentary on Northern Ireland which provoked the NUJ to organise a blackout of BBC news coverage in protest.

Advertising men (and back then they always were men) like Rodney Harris painted a halcyon picture of niche channels targeting upmarket audiences and ploughing the resultant ad revenue back into high quality programming.  Fast forward to 2010 and the future turns out to be not so bright. We have Paul Abbott’s heartfelt plea for greater investment in British TV drama to match the quality of long running shoes like The Wire and The Sopranos while Mark Thompson points out a growing investment gap in quality programming which Sky TV ought to be able to help address out of its £6bn turnover but shows no sign of turning over a new leaf.

Your correspondent, then a twenty-something would be cultural activist and sometime journalist (unpaid) for Radical Scotland, was just one of many alarmed by the seemingly unstoppable rise of (Media) Baron Murdoch:

1985:The prospect of unlimited cable TV channels, satellite TV, non-broadcast video, cheaper printing technology, etc, may give the illusion of ‘the democratisation of the means of communication’.  But in reality the ownership and control of those media which reach the vast majority of views and readers will remain firmly in the hands of the Murdochs and Maxwells…”

Well here we are a quarter-century on and, as Mark Thompson pointed out on Friday evening:

2010:Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.”

It’s not all bad news however.  The cheerleaders for laissez-faire in broadcasting have not had it all their way.  The BBC has actually done not too badly in licence fee negotiations over the past couple of decades and the failure of the marketplace to deliver the full range of competitive high value programming, indigenously produced drama in particular, has undermined the arguments first articulated by the likes of Peter Jay back then:

1985:At bottom, broadcast material [is] ideally suited for the market place, i.e. individual units (programmes) which can be wanted by, and supplied to, one customer and rejected by another, for which everyone has a demand [and] which nobody needs’).”

However the wolves are never very far away and while Culture and Media Secretary Jeremy Hunt would not be drawn on whether he intends to cut or simply cap the Licence fee, the BBC’s argument to retain its position as the cornerstone of UK Broadcasting requires constant updating and finessing.  This weekend’s performances by Thompson and Hunt were simply the opening skirmishes in a battle which has been going on for over two decades and may last a third.

Time to call ‘turn over’ for greater TV turnover

Last night, on the eve of the TV industry’s annual migration to Edinburgh from London (where notwithstanding the BBC’s efforts to shift production into the nations and regions, most of it remains domiciled) a vision of televisual growth and opportunity was unveiled by Tern TV’s David Strachan in the august surroundings of the National Library of Scotland.  “Growing the Television Broadcast and Production Sector in Scotland” is the much anticipated report of the working group set up in the wake of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, which published its closely argued and impassioned final report (‘Platform for Success’) back in September 2008 to be followed by Scottish Enterprise’s rather more prosaic contribution “Building the ‘Platform for Success’” in March 2009.

In a nutshell the report argues that television in Scotland is looking at a three-year window of opportunity to achieve 60% growth in commissions and employment.  That would see turnover grow from £215m to £346m and employment from just under 3,000 to the full –time equivalent of over four and half thousand jobs.  However as the report notes:

“This will only happen with collective and coordinated action across broadcasters, independent production companies and the public sector”.

While the major driver of this anticipated growth is the BBC’s commitment to increase network production in Scotland to account for 9% of its spend, an increase of £50m a year by 2016, the report also expects higher levels of commissioning by Channel 4 and, in the longer term, other broadcasters to be part of the mix.

But there are significant barriers to achieving this step change and, as in the film sector, a key one is the question of scale and diversity of companies.  Skills gaps are another barrier, the Catch 22 of growing network production in genres that Scottish companies have historically not been adept at is that you can only become adept at developing and producing entertainment or drama if you have had commissions that allow you to grow that expertise!  Lacking a domestic market of sufficient scale to give companies both the business base and the range of genre expertise that can migrate to network, the danger is that increased demand from network commissioners will be met by local branches of London companies importing talent and skills ‘known’ to network commissioners.  This is nothing new – it’s been the central issue facing indies and broadcasters in Scotland since 1982 and the creation of Channel 4.

The solution to this market failure?  Coordinated action (which includes significant public investment) to address the questions of scale, sustainability and skills that can get Scotland’s producers – indie and in-house BBC/STV –  into the premier league across the full breadth of programme genres. 

Who will deliver this?  The report suggests Creative Scotland should take the lead, building on the model of the Creative Industries Partnership Reference Group, but calls more broadly on the ‘public sector’ to provide up to £10m a year (though some of that might come from the BBC and Channel 4) through various mechanisms ranging from Seed Equity Finance of £50k to new start-up companies through to Production Incentive Finance of up to £500k a shot to support ‘productions of scale’.  The report suggests that the latter investment could itself lever an additional £12m a year securing or creating around 240 jobs a year.

How will it be paid for?  According to insiders one of the reasons the report has taken so long to hit the streets has been Scottish Enterprise’s seeming reluctance to sign up to hard figures on the necessary pump-priming investment – presumably for fear that the larger portion of it might have to come from its budget with no guarantee of the Government chipping in, particularly in the current climate.

So it boils down to whether the potential return of an extra £130m to the Scottish economy, 1700 jobs a year and a step change in Scottish broadcasting and production with significant wider cultural and economic benefits (e.g. to the ‘creative supply chain’ of writers, directors, designers, actors, facilities and technology companies etc.)  is worth the risk of around £10m a year in investment – around a third of the cost of the proposed new Forth Bridge or what the Government currently spends on supporting air services to the further reaches of the country. 

Assuming around half of the necessary investment – say £5m – were to come from Scottish enterprise that would be just over 2% of its annual investment budget.  On its own figures the current Gross Value Added (GVA) of the sector is £153m a year.  Taking the mid-point between its worst case and best case scenarios gives an additional £76m a year GVA, even if the return were only £50m that would still be a ten-fold return on investment.  In opportunity-cost terms that seems like a pretty competitive proposition and arguably at a considerably lower risk than in many (most?) other sectors.


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