Conor Dignam on Broadcasting
Resentment among indies grows as broadcasters circle their wagons
Monday 12 November 2007
It is not just trust between viewers and broadcasters that has been seriously damaged by the scandals of faked TV and premium-rate rip offs in the past few months.
Old wounds in the relationship between broadcasters and the independent production sector have been re-opened by television's annus horribilis.
For the indie production sector, the events of the past few months have shown clearly that there's one rule for them and another for the broadcasters and their own production operations. There is a bubbling resentment among many independent producers at the treatment they've received at the hands of the broadcasters during TV's crisis of trust. Last week, Broadcast magazine revealed that both the BBC and Channel 4 are now trying to rewrite their contracts with indies – tightening up the rules around editorial compliance.
For the indies themselves, this is more evidence of the broadcasters looking to make them the scapegoats of the past few months – even when the evidence shows that the broadcasters own production operations have been the biggest offenders.
There are signs that much of the good work done in building up the relationship between ITV and indies over the past couple of years has unravelled in the current crisis, and the way in which broadcasters have instinctively put protective arms around many of their own senior executives has distanced them from indie suppliers. At Channel 4's recent 25th birthday bash, the room was full of leading indie figures pouring scorn on the way the ITV executive chairman, Michael Grade, had handled the issue around trust and transparency, in relation to the indie sector.
Their grievance flows from Mr Grade's decision in July to suspend all commissions for RDF Media following the controversy around A Year With the Queen, which eventually led to the resignations of the BBC1 controller, Peter Fincham, and the RDF creative chief, Stephen Lambert. At the time, it was understandable that the BBC suspended RDF commissions while an investigation was carried out into how a sequence that wrongly suggested the Queen had stormed out in a huff was shown to journalists as part of a BBC1 season launch.
Many wondered why Mr Grade had been so quick to jump in and suspend any further commissions for RDF. One source within the indie suggested at the time that he was positioning himself as a model of moral rectitude in preparation for what he knew was shaping up to be an ugly and embarrassing report from Deloitte into the way viewers had been ripped of by ITV1's premium call competitions.
Then, when the report was published last month, Mr Grade and ITV quietly admitted that they where lifting the ban on RDF because most of the biggest offences in ripping off and misleading the viewing public had been carried out by producers within ITV Productions. For indies it felt like double standards, particularly when Mr Grade, who'd declared a "no tolerance" policy for those who misled the public, explained that this didn't quite apply to his own staff,who'd been found to have duped millions of viewers out of millions of pounds. It has not ended there, either. ITV has dropped the British Comedy Awards from the schedule this year – made by the indie Michael Hurrll Television – while an investigation into alleged phone-voting irregularities on the 2005 awards is carried out by the media law firm Olswang. The makers of the programme don't understand why it has been singled out for its own inquiry – and why the Deloitte report could not cover it. The indie is taking its own legal advice to ensure that its voice is properly represented in the inquiry.
The strong sense of "them and us" between indies and broadcasters has also been added to by the treatment of Mr Fincham. He was a popular and successful controller who had made a tremendous success of running BBC1 after spending most of his working life in the indie sector. He'd joked on many occasions that he'd once applied for a job at the BBC when he was much younger – but they'd turned him down.
But Mr Fincham, for all his success, remained something of an outsider at the BBC. And when push came to shove and the director general, Mark Thompson, had to decide who should carry the can over the PR disaster, it was Mr Fincham (two years at the BBC) whose head rolled, rather than the BBC head of vision, Jana Bennett (26 years at the BBC), who many feel shared culpability for mismanagement of the Crowngate affair.
For many, it looked like the BBC closing ranks and protecting its own – just as ITV has done to safeguard its own executives and stars such as Ant and Dec, whose Saturday Night Takeaway was one of the worst offenders in the premium rate rip-offs.
The past few years have seen warmer relations between the indies and the broadcasters, with both ITV and the BBC declaring that they've established new and better relationships with the indie sector. But the events of recent months have reminded indies that they still remain very much outsiders looking in when it comes to ITV and the BBC.
The race for BBC1
Stuart Murphy, Janice Hadlow, Wayne Garvie and Richard Deverell are among the TV executives who've ruled themselves out of the running for the BBC1 controller's post, vacant after Mr Fincham's firing (sorry, resignation).
Normally with a high profile job like this there are quite a few people dropping hints to journalists that they might be on the list, but couldn't possibly comment. It's unusual to have such a rush of executives ruling themselves out.
Jane Tranter, the BBC's head of fiction, is understood to be under pressure to apply for it, but doesn't really want the job. The controller of BBC1 should be one of the best jobs in telly, but there are some good reasons why some of the above don't fancy it. The first is the profile and PR that now goes with a controller's role.
The job inevitably comes with a big PR expectation of being able to handle the press and the headlines about the programmes you've axed or the money you've wasted.
It was in many respects PR, not programming, that did for Mr Fincham.
Mrs Tranter, for example, isn't one of television's attention-seekers and wouldn't relish swapping meetings with script writers for briefings with media hacks.
Then there's the question of how long will you have the job, anyway. Lorraine Heggessey was one of BBC1's longest-serving controllers, at five years – the received wisdom is that you'll probably do the job for four years and then be expected to make way for someone with a new vision.
And, after all that, is the controller's job what it once was? No, not really. More power now resides with the heads of the various genres: drama, entertainment, factual and comedy. The BBC1 controller's job is a mixture of diplomat, commissioner, scheduler and PR/marketing. It is a job that is much more than it used to be in gentler analogue times, but also in some respects much less.
The BBC1 controller doesn't wield power in quite the same way as they once did. All of which might explain why it might hold less attraction than a decade or so ago.
Of course, the BBC1 controller role still gets you a table at The Ivy and a high ranking on any media power list, so for those reasons alone, there will be plenty of television executives keen to grab it.
Why we'll be struck by the writers' strike
There was a time when the strike by the Writers Guild of America currently hitting US studios would have caused far less of a problem for UK broadcasters. Those were the days when American shows and soaps were shown on British channels six or nine months – or even more – after they had aired in the US. British viewers would wait for ever to catch up with the programmes being watched in the US.
Today, in this age of online downloading, that has changed for many high-profile shows. The latest series of Lost was shown here just four days after its US screening. Transmission dates have moved closer, and that's why the impact of the writers' strike could hit British channels harder than the last strike in 1988, which lasted 22 weeks.
The impact is already being felt. More4's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been forced off the air, and shows such as 24 and the Kelsey Grammer comedy Back to You have had to halt production because the scripts for the series aren't finished. NBC's The Office has also halted production.
The writers in the US are after a better deal on money raised from their scripts through DVD sales and downloads. Popular UK shows such as C4's Ugly Betty, Sky One's Prison Break and Five's CSI and Grey's Anatomy could all be at risk from the strike.
Speaking in London recently, Craig Plestis, VP of alternative programming at NBC Entertainment, and John Saade, senior VP of ABC Entertainment, said that the networks had been stockpiling scripts, so they had a number that could go into production despite the strike. But the studios also have to weigh up the value of having partly recorded series – and writers are usually required to make revisions during the production.
The writers have the backing of many US TV stars and producers, who won't cross picket lines or work on shows until the strike ends. So it looks as if it will impact on fans of US shows on both sides of the pond – until a deal is struck.
Conor Dignam is the publishing director of Broadcast
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