Television Production: Minority with an eye for the majority view: Programmes made by independents are wearing a more populist face

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The Independent Online
AS AN unabashed packager of light entertainment for television, Paul Smith hardly fits the popular stereotype of the independent producer - usually associated with turning out programmes of minority interest rather than ratings winners.

With his populist background, Mr Smith was himself in a minority when he set up his own company a decade ago. But the man behind such mainstream successes as Denis Norden's collections of cutting- room floor classics It'll Be Alright on the Night and the Jasper Carrott shows has latterly been joined by other independent teams behind such popular programmes as Birds of a Feather.

In other words, the age of the independent has arrived.

This is due largely to Channel 4's establishment as a non- programme-making service, and the trend was boosted by the Government's requirement from the beginning of this year that a quarter of home-produced programming should be the work of independents. It has been further strengthened by growing cost-consciousness among ITV franchise holders.

As Mr Smith says, 'They are going to say: 'Why do we need programme departments when we can get the programmes from the network anyway?' '

The result is that independents have the potential to be extremely powerful. For the moment, that potential is not being fully achieved - partly because the broadcasters are able to impose the terms and partly because the independent sector is disparate. Although their numbers are swelling as television companies sell off their programme-making departments, the typical independent production company is still small, often employing just a handful of people. But among them are a few well-developed companies, of which Mr Smith's Celador Productions is one.

Not that it has always been that way. As he related in our'My Biggest Mistake' column in December 1991, the company nearly failed early on because of lack of attention to financial details when turnover was rising rapidly. Its current strength is largely due to lessons learned then.

One of Mr Smith's key tasks is to obtain the correct balance between spending on talent and equipment and maintaining the financial controls he now requires. But the focus of the organisation is also important. Although Mr Smith will be attempting to achieve his long- held dream of owning a radio franchise, by gaining one of the FM radio licences recently advertised, the operation is not a sprawling media empire.

The original company, Complete Video, was an editing facility for commercials that in its first year of business employed 19 people and turned over just under pounds 1m. Since then it has grown into three businesses employing 96 people and achieving revenue of pounds 7.7m in the 1991-92 financial year. The two additions - Celador, the light entertainment company, and The Edit Works, a production and post-production facility - are closely related. It adds up to Complete Communications Group, made up of three separate companies that 'depend on each other'.

The same philosophy runs through all three: to offer the best, whether in programmes, talent or equipment. To this end, great efforts are made to sign up light-entertainment writing teams and performers, as well as to buy the latest equipment for the company's studios in Covent Garden and Chelsea.

Celador has now branched out into situation comedy, with the production earlier this month of Wild Oats for Carlton TV. The same channel will also broadcast an Easter special by the hypnotist Paul McKenna.

Meanwhile, the editing facilities have been voted the most popular in the UK. 'And that,' said Mr Smith, 'is really recognition of the company.'

(Photograph omitted)