Magnets for talent

David Docherty, BBC Broadcast Director of Strategy and Channel Development, says the creative impetus is crucial to television's future in a changing climate
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The Independent Online
Over the years, when I've been most cheesed off with the industry, I have often thought of British broadcasting as a bad episode of a soap opera - with Rupert as a kind of Dirty Den, ITV as Angie, Channel 4 as Tiffany and the BBC as - who else but Pauline Fowler? There have been lots of stock figures in our little story, with simple emotions and easy attitudes: Roundhead and Cavalier, Birtist and Gradie; high brow and low brow; commercial and public service; suits and creatives. We can all be guaranteed to play our parts without deviation and hesitation - but with lots of repetition.

We can't afford this posturing any more. We are about to face our biggest- ever challenge. How are we going to cope with the digital flood with the best of our values loaded on to the Ark? Do we have enough imagination, drive and sheer business exuberance to carry forward the best traditions that have helped the whole of British broadcasting to navigate the past 70 years? Can we continue to create the conditions within which talent can be nurtured, sustained and matured?

I believe there are hard social and business reasons to encourage talent to be inventive and fresh and to stretch audiences. First, because creativity is vital to the development of public culture. Second, all these new platforms need something to differentiate themselves and that thing is talent and the right to exploit talent. I'm not certain how long it will take for this economic logic to play out, but I do believe that rights will be king in this market-place - not the means of distribution. And how do you create rights? You become a magnet for talent.

Finally, modern capitalism is geared for continuous and rapid change. It has created consumers who like choice, diversity and novelty. And for that I say amen. The more adventurous the viewer, listener and net surfer the better for inventive producers. It is in the very nature of capitalism that you are either surfing on the next wave of differentiation and change or you are crashing with the last one. Let's not become the media equivalent of the British motorcycle industry, please.

There are some relatively simple universals about creativity. It is about inventiveness, innovation, connecting intuitive leaps with logical thinking; turning problems on their head to see if you can find solutions. But I am going to offer a relatively narrow definition of creativity that is, I think, appropriate to a media characterised by the large scale use of resources and industrial means of production.

I mean by creativity that kind of innovation that occurs in order to connect to an audience. The "in order to" is a vital part of the definition. The process of creation in our business must be intrinsically linked to the desire to inspire, engage and give pleasure to audiences. Producers and commissioners may fail on occasion or they may misunderstand what's going on in people's lives; but as long as they are clearly striving to reach people in new ways, then we should encourage them.

There are many conceivable digital worlds emerging. It's a difficult call as to whether we are moving into an ice age, dominated by media dinosaurs and the Fred Flintstones who manage them. Or, it just may be that the best is yet to come: that digital - if properly regulated - will allow a freer interplay between viewers, listeners and users and talent.

To create the conditions for the continued success of British talent in the new era, we must break out of the compound and understand the British people in ever deeper ways. I still believe that broadcasting can help people to think differently; I believe it can make life better - in the thousand little ways that story-telling has always done; but also in the bigger ways: the challenge to the emotions; the facing down of prejudice; the attack on bigotry; the bonding of the nation; the unity of feeling a huge audience feels when seduced by great writing or a stunningly captured piece of verite. And by this I mean EastEnders and Children's Hospital as much as Singing Detective and The Death of Yugoslavia.

Can creativity be managed or does it just somehow just happen? Well, I have always thought the Bo-Peep school of management was pretty hopeless. If you leave them alone, the sheep don't come home wagging their tails behind them; they tend to wander off in the direction of the big bad wolf But, equally, the nanny school of management is pernicious.

The kind of creativity I'm talking about flourishes best when the talent - both commissioning and production - work together in partnership. But I've also noticed something else in recent years: the really creative people in the BBC are those driven to connect to an audience. They clearly get off on something more than the finished product; or to put in another way, they know that a show is not complete until it turns into magic in a viewer's and listener's brain. Innovation and care for audiences are not mutually exclusive.

To manage creativity at the commissioning stage you have to sort out the elite from the naff. But it is more complicated than that. Let me switch metaphors to religion: all faiths need priests and prophets. Priests celebrate the past, prophets create the future. Priests develop liturgies - sometimes, astonishingly beautiful, sensuous but always faithful reproductions of orthodoxy. Prophets want action and change; they are, more often than not, iconoclasts who want to break rather than worship the image. Broadcasting needs both types. And both types are creative. The very nature of our media is serial; we do the same thing in many different ways; but we always return to similar forms. Umberto Eco tried to give a name to this endless creative version on a theme - he called it neo-baroque. Whatever it's called it is important to recognise and create the conditions for innovation within forms as well as outside them.

Just as I believe creativity in broadcasting is about teams of people connecting to audiences, my greatest fear is the domination of our media by a priestly class that loses its roots in the audience. There is no need to worry about our prophets. They are inherently focused on audiences; they want to change people's minds. They just know that eventually someone will listen to what they're dying to say. The real problem with managing creativity is to stop the emergence of a corrupt, inward-looking priesthood, intent on pursuing its own feuds, hating each other but locked in a deadly ritual.

Even worse, if those managing talent are equally focused on the easy life of raking in money, the whole process becomes an ugly mess that needs reformation. Some managers, commissioners and executives act like intellectual bouncers. In that way lies death. Both the priestly and prophetic types must balance freedom with responsibility. When you have a group of people dedicated to the same task, with a shared understanding of problems and solutions, and a shared commitment to audiences then creativity can flourish and be passed on to the next generation

This is an edited version of a speech given to the Royal Television Society last week.