Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Independent producers lick their lips at a lucrative future

These are exciting times for Britain's independent television producers. Only last week Shed Productions - the makers of Footballers' Wives - floated on the Stock Exchange at a value of £44m, and at least three other indies are expected to float later this year.

With the arrival of the new Ofcom-approved terms of trade, which allow independent producers to own their long-term rights while still charging broadcasters a reasonable price for programmes, and with the BBC promising to commission more from outside, all the independents believe their moment has come.

This explains why consolidation is happening on a large scale, as the founders of many of these production businesses look to cash in by selling their operations or floating them on the stock market.

In my time at the BBC I was never the independent sector's favourite director general. I saw one of my major tasks as rebuilding morale among the BBC's in-house production community, which meant that the indies saw me as the enemy; and I certainly got myself into a spot of bother when I appeared before Lord Puttnam's committee, which was looking at the details of the last broadcasting bill, when I told him that I didn't think it was the BBC's job to make the independent sector rich.

I still stand by what I said then. The BBC is funded by a licence fee and nobody gets rich working there. The BBC spends public money and has a duty to spend it wisely; so if independent producers managed to get rich by working for the BBC that was fine, but it wasn't the BBC's role to ensure that it happened.

Of course, most independent producers never get rich at all, and there is a split in the ranks of indies between the hundreds of small companies striving to exist at all and the big independents. Pact, the trade association of the independent sector, spends its life trying to balance the interests of these two very different sections of members.

The problem with the whole industry is that there are no barriers to entry. This year, with both ITV and the BBC laying off producers, I've no doubt hundreds of new indies are being formed as I write. As Sir John Harvey-Jones commented some years ago, independent production ends up in danger of being a lifestyle, not a business.

One of the problems of the independent sector is that while some of the indies are very good employers, others are not, and it's not unusual for some independent producers to exploit their people horribly. It is not unknown for young people desperate to get into the television business to work for months on end for an independent producer without being paid at all.

How rosy is the future in the independent sector? ITV is clearly trying to produce as many programmes as it can through its own production company, Granada, and, looking forward, it is very difficult to see how the Government can force ITV, or Five for that matter, to take 25 per cent of its programmes from the independents once the analogue signal is switched off. When that happens ITV, in regulatory terms, will be no different from Sky or the dozens of other digital channels who do not have a quota forced upon them.

At that stage it will be down to straight economics. Does ITV go for in-house production where it owns all the rights, or does it play the market and get the best programmes wherever they come from to boost ratings? Talk to anyone at ITV Network Centre and they make it clear they'd choose the latter but are pressurised to buy from Granada. But for ITV corporately the choice isn't that simple. The question is which is the most valuable - a boost to ratings in the short term or long-term ownership? Looking at what has been happening to ITV ratings, it must be tempted by the short-term option.

A shameless plug for a great TV writer

Every so often a writer emerges on British television who is so much better than his or her contemporaries that they stand out from a very early age. Paul Abbott, whose latest project for Channel Four - Shameless - won three Royal Television Society awards last week, is just such a writer. He trained on Coronation Street and gained early experience writing for Granada's Cracker.

For a comparatively young man, Abbott's recent achievements are remarkable. In the last five years he has swept the board at most of the television awards ceremonies with first Clocking Off, then State of Play, both written for the BBC, and now Shameless which, for me, became absolutely essential viewing from the very beginning and is, arguably, his best work to date.

For those who haven't seen it, it is about a dysfunctional Manchester family living on a sink estate; rather than being unremittingly depressing in describing their lives it combines wit, humour and emotion to portray a group of people who live by rules totally different to the rest of society. It neither admires them nor looks down on them, and you do end up liking even the most flawed of the characters. Like State of Play it is one of the great pieces of television of recent years.

I was interested to read that Abbott's next project for the BBC is about someone who murders a television celebrity. Paul doesn't have to sell his ideas - broadcasters queue up for them - but this would have been an easy sell in any circumstances, as many executives have dreamed of doing exactly this to certain celebrities for years.

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