Indies take on BBC's big beasts

Former BBC executive Will Wyatt warns that the corporation needs to keep a close eye on its in-house production
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The Independent Online

The White Paper endorsed the BBC's Window of Creative Competition (WOCC) whereby 50 per cent of the non news output would be made in-house, a guaranteed 25 per cent by independent producers, leaving 25 per cent to be competed for. To many in the BBC's production arm this was viewed as a defeat; it was in fact a victory snatched at the 11th hour.

The previous BBC regime had sought to cheer up staff by alienating independents. In-house producers threw their hats in the air; the independents laid out their case to the Government and all who would listen. The upshot was that the BBC came within a hair's breadth of a 50 per cent quota of independents.

As it is, the White Paper's asserts that the BBC needs a "significant base" of in-house production "to sustain its wider public contribution", in particular training, and validates an in-house "guarantee" of 50 per cent.

The BBC has its own reasons for maintaining a strong production division. Such is the scale of its need for content it is advantageous to have its own source of supply. This increases its negotiating power. It is financially beneficial to own rather than merely to license successful shows in the most valuable genres, comedy, formatted programmes, drama, children's and milestone documentary series.

So all this means everything is hunky dory for BBC production. Or does it?

The White Paper also quite rightly expects the BBC to have the most meritocratic commissioning system. Expect this to be monitored ever more closely. Why should the public's money be spent on anything other than the best possible programmes wherever they may come from?

BBC production has to compete creatively not merely to win a slice of the 25 per cent WOCC but also to justify an in-house guarantee. These are difficult times. With voluntary redundancies you inevitably lose people you would sooner not lose. There have been one or two high-profile defections. A leading indie can claim credibly, "I can nick anyone I want from the BBC."

This year Laurie Mackie, head of drama series, and Sally Haynes, executive producer of Bleak House, have left for ITV.

One senior figure told me that some parts of in-house production had been struggling psychologically to come to terms with the break-up of the old integrated BBC 10 years ago. There was still a sense that somehow it was not fair.

A source of genuine disadvantage is that while indies are out in a varied market with several broadcasters to pitch to, BBC producers have only the BBC channels to target. This makes it harder to place ideas.

What is more, there is the perennial problem of mixed messages. BBC rhetoric does not permeate all quarters in the same way at the same time. Producers develop ideas in tune with policies of distinctiveness and ratings blindness only to find commissioners in default mode of seeking audience winners and asking the current modish questions: Is it feel good? Is it aspirational?

This is something that the BBC has managed in the past and requires strong direction from the senior executives. Not pitching outside the corporation is the price of an in-house guarantee.

A concern in the commissioning arm is that dissipating production units around the UK may bring in new talent and new voices but will result in too many small pockets of expertise.

The only test is performance. It is evident that there are many BBC production units on song, full of confidence and nerve while others are fighting for their life.

I sense that some hard thinking is under way as to the best way forward. One notion heard was that BBC production should all be part of BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, thus freeing it to pitch elsewhere and sharpening its competitive edge. It makes sense for Worldwide to produce, and it has done so for a while, but such a move would rip the heart out of BBC production and misses the point of why the BBC exists at all.

A number of voices have called for single leadership of the production units, in effect a formal return to the organisational split of 1996. This would recognise the financial realities of life, more easily enable failing areas to be addressed, give profile to production and provide a top-table champion for producers.

Then, production capacity must be the right size. It was way too big by the time I left the corporation at the end of 1999. In came a new regime which not only did not reduce size but in a misguided act of morale building brought many more people on to the staff. It has all ended in tears as Mark Thompson has had to adjust capacity to what is needed and can be afforded. The aim should be to flex up to meet success.

The indispensable ones are the brilliant producers and executive producers who not only create outstanding programmes but who are also the begetters of great work from others and magnets for both on- and behind-screen talent. The BBC has invested in people such as Jon Plowman, Laurence Rees and Alastair Fothergill, and it was a masterstroke to persuade Armando Iannucci to return to work in-house.

Interesting that none of these four features among the BBC biographies on the website, though many commissioners do. Who is important round here?

Above all, BBC production must keep its nerve, understand that the audience is in charge now and be ready to compete. A great advantage for it is the space to develop the big projects, especially the cross-platform projects. Planet Earth is telling this story at the moment but it has been there in A History of Britain, Springwatch, Coast and many more, including BBC4 seasons such as Folk Britannia and Lefties.

People will come and go. A stint at the BBC will be good for them - often putting up their value - and good for the BBC. The philosophy should be one of endless renewal, taking a chance on the young, putting them in positions of creative power and influence.