And finally - I'm guilty, Sir Trevor
Independent producers beware: the broadcasters are fighting back
Monday 19 December 2005
In all businesses there are events that, in retrospect, you can see changed the world of that industry forever. Some of these are obvious at the moment they are happening, but the importance of others can often only be appreciated with the benefit of hindsight.
Looking back on my time as a broadcaster, the coming of Sky was probably the most important such instance, a moment when the status quo was changed for ever by the arrival of an outsider in the shape of Rupert Murdoch. More recently, the launch of Freeview was another historic moment, although its impact will never quite match that of the launch of Sky.
In terms of programming, the arrival of the independent sector which accompanied the launch of Channel 4 in 1982, followed, later that decade, by the Government insisting that all the traditional broadcasters must adhere to a 25-per-cent independent production quota, were also profound moments.
In the two decades since, the independent production sector has been remarkably successful in demanding, and getting, more from the broadcasters in terms of both output and the ownership of rights. The irony, of course, is that the independents have only achieved this with the help of intervention by politicians and regulators who, naively, still seem to believe that by supporting the independent sector they are supporting the "free market" and small independents.
But when media historians look back on this period I suspect they will see 2005 as the moment when the independent production sector in Britain went into decline after two decades of growth. This is an odd prediction, given the prices currently being paid on the stock market for independent production companies, but I see 2005 as the year when the broadcasters finally stood up to the regulators and said "enough is enough".
A few weeks back Ofcom produced a draft of a review of the independent production sector. It wasn't published but the main broadcasters were given a copy and asked for their views. When they saw it all hell broke loose. It suggested two big changes. First, that independent producers would own the UK rights to programmes immediately after they had been broadcast on the main terrestrial channels, instead of having to wait the five or seven years they have to at present. Second, that independent producers would own many new media rights - including video on demand.
Channel 4, Five, ITV and even the BBC protested to Ofcom in the strongest terms. If the proposals were implemented their future roles as broadcasters would be irrepairably damaged as television changed to an on-demand world. Ofcom withdrew the paper but I suspect the seeds have been sown for a broadcasters' fightback.
The truth is that the independent production sector in Britain has already got a better financial deal than independents almost anywhere else in the world, and, in the new world, this will not be sustainable.
But it only applies to traditional broadcasters. Sky and the myriad of channels available in the multi-channel world are not governed by the same rules. Sky One or Sky Sport do not have to broadcast 25-per-cent independent programmes or leave significant rights with an independent producer they fully fund a programme. And, after the digital switchover in 2012, ITV and Five will be unregulated in the same way. (In fact, with nearly 70 per cent of Britain already multi-channel, and Freeview boxes selling increasingly fast, both ITV and Five could walk away from their regulated status earlier than 2012.)
Add that to the understandable threats from Channel 4 to set up their own production business if the rights position becomes untenable, and you are left with the BBC. In a move to appeal to the politicians at a time of charter renewal the current BBC is planning to offer more programming to the independents. I would argue that this is a profound mistake. While it might curry favour with a few politicians it would undermine the BBC of the future, when multi-media rights will be all-important. I suspect the BBC will rein back its enthusiasm for more independent production once its new charter is approved.
You can predict what is going to happen to broadcasting in Britain by looking at the United States. There, broadcasters are virtually all producer-broadcasters who, while still buying from independents, increasingly own most of the back-end rights.
So Sir Trevor McDonald is no longer with us, as a newsreader that is, having broadcast his final bulletin on ITV on Friday night. Without doubt the outstanding newsreader of his generation, it is a great shame that Trevor's reputation has been tarnished in recent years through no fault of his own. It is difficult to remember now that, only six years ago, ITV's News at Ten, fronted by Trevor, was the number-one television news broadcast in Britain and that the BBC was struggling to keep up. Trevor's dominance changed from the moment ITV decided to move its main evening news bulletin away from the 10 o'clock slot, a move that even ITV now readily admits was a big mistake.
The BBC pinched the slot - I plead guilty to being, along with Mark Thompson, opportunistic - leaving ITV nowhere to go with their late night news. So in saying farewell to Trevor, let's remember the Nineties, when his presence dominated mainstream news in Britain, when the public loved him, and when he was the undisputed number one.
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