There has been a swathe of complaints about the sound quality of British dramas in recent weeks. BBC1’s Jamaica Inn drew 2,200 complaints over inaudibility, with critics rounding on the performance of lead actor Sean Harris. This was followed up a few weeks later with further complaints about Quirke.
TV sound has shot up the production agenda as a result. BBC director of TV Danny Cohen said last month that audibility issues on dramas like Quirke and Jamaica Inn are “a great source of frustration.”
Production experts point to a number of causes. Mumbling by actors is identified as the big issue, particularly by actors taking on regional accents.
Fraser Barber, head of sound recording at the NFTS and a production sound mixer with credits including The Tunnel, House of Saddam and Silent Witness, says Jamaica Inn actor Sean Harris “didn’t deliver a performance that anybody could have recorded in an intelligible way.”
Barber adds that he is surprised that director Philippa Lowthorpe let it pass. “She is one of the best directors I have ever worked with from a sound point of view. She will often ask the sound recordist if he is happy before she will ask the cameraman…so I am absolutely stunned that she decided to make those artistic decision on Jamaica Inn. She obviously thought it was very real. But maybe it was too real.”
LipSync Post md Peter Hamden says producers and directors “should try to balance the quest for authenticity in drama with the needs of the viewer sitting at home in a domestic environment. TV doesn’t have the benefit of a captive audience like cinema. Having said that, nobody wants to return to the days of received pronunciation…”
A bigger budget for voice coaching, and longer preparation time for actors, could help tackle the issue, says Fraser Barber. He says actors who have to adopt different accents often do not have enough voice coach training. “Someone like Meryl Streep would work for months with a voice coach before taking on a character in a film. But on a TV drama they probably get a few hours with a good voice coach. The actors are not confident with their accent, so worry about speaking up.”
Barber says difficulties can also arise because programme makers are so familiar with the script, they don’t realise there is a problem with audibility. He recommends that sound recordists watch rehearsals without the script. “That flags up to me if there is a problem with someone’s diction or if they’re too quiet.”
Barber also worries that budget cuts are putting increasing pressure on sound departments. A good drama requires a production sound mixer, a boom operator, a sound assistant and, ideally, a trainee. He says that the reality now is that the assistant is offered trainee money, which means it is very hard to get the right level of expertise.
Skimping on sound budgets can often prove to be a bad move warns Liam Laminman, md of Trickbox TV. “There’s security and value in having the right people and resources working on a production. There’s always that time when you need to cut a few corners and shave some money off the budget – but sound shouldn’t be the first compromise.”
Sound problems, of course, can be fixed in post – but only to a certain extent. ADR can be used to help sort out unclear dialogue. But, notes, Matt Skilton, senior dubbing mixer at Envy, some actors dislike ADR and it’s often difficult to ADR some scenes convincingly. “If in the mix the ADR is ‘standing out’ and ruining the scene, everyone will reluctantly agree to go back to the original mumbled dialogue for the sake of the whole scene.”
Skilton says it’s also good practice to check a sound mix on a normal TV. After all, it might sound “absolutely fine and all the dialogue as clear as possible when it is monitored in the dubbing theatre on a good sound system with very little or no background noise.”
He adds: “Music at too high or low a level can be a problem and a very subtle mix in the studio can often go unheard on a domestic monitor.”
After all, the sound quality of newer flat screen TVs can be appalling as there is less room for speakers than in the old CRT TVs. On such TVs, a dynamic mix, with large swells in music or effects followed by quiet periods of dialogue, while popular with directors, can be an issue for viewers. Variations in volume are the single biggest cause of viewer complaints, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which in 2012 published its standard for broadcasters to normalise audio, R128.
This R128 recommendation will be fully adopted in the UK by October, part of the requirements for delivering digital files to broadcasters agreed by the Digital Production Partnership (DPP). All shows will then have the same relative loudness levels.
The Farm’s Nigel Edwards says: “The new broadcast standard of R128 from the DPP will help to alleviate the dynamic range on TV. It will bring up the quiet mixes and bring down the loud mixes.” In effect, it means viewers won’t have to reach for their remote control so often to adjust the volume to deal with variations in sound.
Taking a step back, Barber urges a degree of perspective on the sound issue though. There have been a few glitches recently, he admits. But, he adds: “I don’t think that there are many problems on TV drama. Particularly in the UK, the standard of sound of TV drama is really, really high.”
This article was taken from the July issue of Televisual.
A rather large shadow, in the form of London 2012, looms over the organisers of this month’s Glasgow Commonweatlh Games opening ceremony.
Danny Boyle’s bravura, exuberant Olympic Games opener set a new benchmark for the genre. Russia responded to the challenge earlier this year by spending a fortune on the Sochi ceremony.
Glasgow, meanwhile, has far less money to spend: £21m on its opening and closing events, compared to the £80m London spent across the four Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies.
It presents a daunting challenge to the team behind the Glasgow ceremonies, which are being produced by Jack Morton Worldwide. All the more so because there’s an added layer of complexity for Glasgow: each ceremony will be staged at a different venue, Celtic Park and Hampden Park, which means prepping two locations.
However, Jack Morton has form in the genre, staging ceremonies at two previous Commonwealth Games, as well as the South Africa World Cup, the Athens Olympics and consulting for Beijing.
This track record is one of the reasons that Jack Morton won the Glasgow tender, says head of ceremonies and artistic director David Zolkwer (pictured, above right). However, it also won, he feels, because they “embraced the challenge” of producing ceremonies which will inevitably be compared to London and Sochi.
Their response is to attempt to do things differently. There’s a danger Glasgow would somehow fall short if it aped a conventional ceremony, Zolkwer says. “We neither have the resources nor, being in Glasgow, the inclination to play the shock and awe card,” he says.
It’s meant respectfully reassessing what ceremonies have become, says Zolkwer. “Are they actually as generous in spirit as they purport to be, are budgets escalating beyond reason, are they being done to places rather than by places, who owns the output?”
He notes that, wonderful as London was, it’s known as Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. “Our goal is to create Glasgow’s ceremonies so you won’t hear any of our names flying around, despite this conversation.”
The objective, Zolkwer says is “to be authentic”, and to find the seed of the ceremony’s story from within the character of the city and its people. A key theme of the ceremony is about Glasgow being a generous host. “Glasgow is the most social, hospitable city – it’s extraordinary,” says Zolkwer.
It means viewers shouldn’t expect to see too much in the way of synchronized moves from a massed cast of volunteers. “We’re more interested in celebrating individuality. As far as being a generous host is concerned, we are not going to invite the world into our home, shut the door and then tell them how fantastic we are. (We have done our fair share of that in the past.) Glasgow and Scotland are interested in engaging with the rest of the world and the Commonwealth, more interested in celebrating what we have in common than what makes us different.”
The full content of the ceremonies is being kept under wraps. Details released so far include the installation of a huge 97x10m screen, the biggest ever seen in Europe, that will run along the south stand of Celtic Park. Thousands of volunteers have also been recruited to take part. Controversial plans to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road tower blocks live during the ceremony have been scrapped, though.
Games ceremonies are an odd hybrid for producers – part theatre (with a cast of thousands), part OB television spectacular (airing to up to 1bn people) and part ceremonial (the format includes the arrival of The Queen and the Parade of Nations). As in theatre or film, the challenge is coming up with the story, casting, rehearsing and staging it, says Zolkwer. Then, there are the technical and operational challenges of staging the event. “In effect,” says David Proctor, head of production (pictured above, left), “we are, along with our colleagues at SVGTV (the host broadcaster), creating a large studio with a massive studio audience for global broadcast.”
Glenn Bolton, head of technical (pictured above, centre), says his team will be on site at Celtic Park for 66 days before the ceremony. The equivalent of 7,678 man days of labour are required to build the theatre infrastructure required. The screen weighs 48 tons alone, and needs a 120 ton support structure. The stage, meanwhile, weighs in at 45 tons and there’s 55 tons of equipment in the roof.
Adding to the complexity, points out Proctor, is that there are also multiple stakeholders to work and collaborate with. These include the organising committee, Glasgow 2014, the Commonwealth Games Federation and Glasgow Life, as well as sponsors and local creative and social communities.
Zolkwer speaks of a “very close, friendly, mutually supportive relationship” with the organising committee, their key client. “We are very keen not to come to Glasgow and ‘do’ the ceremony to the City, and the OC is very keen on that as well…Our job is to make Glasgow and Scotland shine and it will best do that by being allowed to speak for itself.”
The summer of 2014 has been packed full of sporting events taking place in the UK, from Wimbledon, the Tour de France, Test Match cricket to the British Grand Prix.
But the biggest sporting event being held here this summer – indeed since the London 2012 Olympic Games – is the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Starting on 23rd July, the city will play host to teams from 70 countries over 11 days of competition. It is being staged at a cost of more than £500m. Given that it is a ‘home Games’, coverage in the UK is going to be widespread with the BBC airing over 300 hours across BBC1 and BBC3.
Indeed, the BBC is going to be giving the Commonwealth Games almost equal billing to London 2012 in terms of network coverage, digital options and presentation teams. Every single second of competitive sport will be available to viewers either on TV or online.
Producing the host feed
Coverage of the Commonwealth Games is being run by sports broadcast producers Sunset + Vine and Global Television, which were jointly appointed as host broadcasters in December 2011 after a competitive tender. It’s the first time that London-based sports producer Sunset+Vine and Australian TV production services provider Global TV have partnered, as SVGTV, as a host broadcaster on a major event.
S+V is responsible for producing what viewers will see at home, so will oversee all the filming, camera placement, direction and lighting. Global is charged with building and running the International Broadcast Centre and making sure the technology is in place to get the feed from venues to rights holding broadcasters around the world. An estimated one billion viewers are expected to watch the pictures produced by SVGTV.
S+V chairman Jeff Foulser points out that the company has covered a string of high profile events, including Test Cricket, Premier League football, and the Aviva Rugby Premiership. So stepping up to produce a multisport event “was a natural extension for us,” he says. It had bid before, on the Asian Games in Qatar and Doha, and got very close to winning the contract. For the Commonwealth Games, S+V decided it needed to partner with another company and got talking to Global. “We felt the skills between the two companies were complementary”, says Foulser. Global has worked on two previous Commonwealth Games, providing facilities and technology expertise at Melbourne in 2006 and Delhi in 2010.
A steep learning curve
Foulser admits that it’s been a huge challenge to produce a multi-sport event. S+V has had to scale up, improving its finance, IT, HR and legal departments. For the Games, the SVGTV operation will employ over 1,200 people.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” says Foulser. “But ultimately if you break it down to 17 different sports, and you cover each one of them well and make sure the broadcasters get what they want, it is not that much different from what we normally do, just on a bigger scale.”
He says S+V has sought to hire the best staff, from the UK but also Commonwealth countries including Australia and South Africa. Hiring the best is crucial on such a major event, believes Foulser. “I’ve always worked on the basis that you are only as strong in a major production as the weakest link in the chain. If you don’t have any weak links, you should end up with a decent product.”
The operation has run an office in Glasgow since August 2012, building up over time. Pacing the work has been crucial says Gary Lovejoy, the host broadcast deputy head of production, who explains that he’s striven to hit deadlines as early as possible on the project. It means, he says, “you can then work on the odd late things because you have got other things hopefully done and dusted.” For example, S+V started recruiting camera and EVS operators in February and March last year. Lovejoy says: “One of the reasons we had to is that a great many of them from this market were going to the World Cup. So we had to explain that they could do the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, because there is a gap between the two. But it does put a pressure on professional people with families, which is why we started early.”
Covering the venues
The host broadcaster will be covering 14 venues. The main one is the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) Precinct, close to Glasgow city centre on the north bank of the River Clyde. It will host the competitions for six sports – gymnastics, boxing, judo, netball, wrestling and weightlifting. During Games time it will also be the home of the International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre. Meanwhile, Hampden Park has been adapted so it can play host to the Track and Field Athletics competitions.
SVGTV began the installation of the IBC in May, while installation work started at the venues in June. Over 280 cameras will be used in total to capture the Games. SVGTV says that no standard manufacturer has been selected to supply equipment such as cameras or vision mixers. Graphics, however, all come from one supplier – Swiss Timing. Meanwhile some 25 OB units will be in operation to deliver the footage. NEP Visions is the largest by volume, covering the athletics and other events. Telegenic and CTV Group are joint-second in terms of contribution, with Arena handling squash and table tennis. Aerial Camera Systems will be providing the speciality cameras.
There are no plans to shoot in 4K, unlike the World Cup where three matches are being shot in the format. Neither is there any 3D production from the host broadcaster.
Keeping it neutral
Sunset + Vine is known for introducing innovation into its sports production, whether its Bafta winning coverage of the Paralympics for Channel 4 or the introduction of Hawkeye technology into cricket coverage. So have they got anything up their sleeve for the Paralympics?
Lovejoy says they will make “a huge effort with the commentators” on the world feed, making it more vibrant than most host broadcasters. He thinks there will be more passion too, because the crews from the UK and Commonwealth know the competitors. “They will know what to look out for – everything from facial expressions to the way the teams conduct themselves.” Foulser adds that SVGTV has to be careful to remain neutral though, as the feed goes not just to the BBC but also to viewers across the world. “They want to see the event covered very well, and to see their competitors. So it needs to be neutral.”
Foulser says one of the long term impacts of the host broadcast coverage could come through the Host Broadcast Training Initiative (HBTI), a legacy project of the Games. More than 600 Scottish-based creative sector students will receive training work experience through the HBTI, with some 240 students selected to work during the Games themselves. Students, says Foulser, will be trained how to use the latest OB hardware equipment and technology, and will assist during the live broadcasts of the Games. “By the time we get to the Games, they will be able to contribute,” he says. “We don’t just want them standing around.”
Producing the BBC coverage The Games feed provided by SVGTV will be used as the basis for the BBC’s output. Presenters Gary Lineker, Clare Balding, Gabby Logan and Hazel Irvine will lead the coverage.
The scope and success of the BBC’s London 2012 coverage means that it has a hard act to follow with Glasgow 2014. The BBC, however, is devoting plenty of airtime and resources to the Games. “It’s very much in the style of what we did in the London Olympics,” says Jonny Bramley, executive producer of major events for BBC Sport.
BBC1 and BBC3 will air the Games throughout the day and every evening. In total, there will be 300 hours of network coverage, 200 hours of radio and more than 1,300 hours of live action via up to 17 digital streams. The BBC is basing its production operation from the BBC Scotland’s HQ in Pacific Quay, just across the Clyde from the main Games venue, the SECC. It means the corporation can save production costs by using its own space, rather than booking into the IBC. That, however, creates its own complications. “If we had been building our own bespoke BBC Sport operation from scratch, which is what we normally do for major events, we could have pretty much tailored it to our needs,” says Bramley. “This is a new departure for BBC Sport. BBC Scotland have been really helpful in working with us to achieve the right technical solution, but it’s taken a lot of effort on both sides to get there.”
Integrating the operation into Pacific Quay saves money but increases its technical complexity. For example, the BBC has had to install fibres which run underneath the River Clyde from the IBC to Pacific Quay, carrying the event feeds and its unilateral coverage. Adding another layer of complexity, the post production of the Games coverage is being run from the BBC Sport HQ in Salford.
Taking care of the politics
The BBC’s coverage also has to be delicately balanced. The Games takes place just a few months before the Scottish referendum on independence. For political reasons, the BBC can’t be seen to be taking sides in any way with its coverage of the Games, which could be seized on by nationalists or unionists to promote their political agendas. “We have made sure we have taken a lot of good advice from our own political unit and also from BBC Scotland,” says Bramley. “The general advice we are giving people is to treat sport as we would normally do, and not to bring any political context into it. All of our on screen and on air talent have been given advice on how to treat the subject.”
IN NUMBERS 11 Days of competition. The Games opening ceremony is on 23 July and the closing ceremony is on the 3rd August. 17 The number of sports that will be featured at the Games, from athletics through to boxing, cycling, gymnastics, rugby sevens and weightlifting. 70 The number of countries taking part, including Australia, Belize, Bermuda, Canada, Ghana, India, Malta, Nigeria, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Tuvalu, and Uganda. 14 The number of venues being used for the Games, including the SECC, Ibrox, Hampden Park, Celtic Park and the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome. 25 The number of OB units in operation to deliver the footage of Glasgow 2014. 280 The estimated number of cameras being used in the venues to capture the footage of the Games. 240 The number of Scottish-based broadcasting students who will work at the Games as part of the Host Broadcaster Training Initiative. 1300 Total number of hours of live sport that will air on the BBC, either on TV or online. 1300 The size of the production team who are producing the host broadcast feed for SVGTV.
As production challenges go, this is a big one. Over 3.5bn viewers are set to tune in to watch this month’s World Cup, and they will expect nothing short of first class coverage – whether on TV, mobiles, tablets or desktops.
Yet producing the World Cup from Brazil is far tougher than for most major events. And that’s largely down to the sheer size of the country. Brazil’s 12 host cities (up from 10 in South Africa) are spread across its 3.3m square miles, putting a huge strain on the production operation.
Driving crews and OB trucks between them is, in most cases, simply not an option. For example, it’s 3,580 miles between the Manaus and Fortaleza stadiums by road. It’s the equivalent of a journey from London to Moscow – and back. So dozens of specially chartered aircraft, as well as ships, will move kit and production staff across the globe and between the host cities to produce the coverage.
Hosting the Cup
Coverage of the World Cup is overseen by Swiss-based Host Broadcast Services (HBS), which has been appointed by FIFA as the host broadcaster responsible for providing neutral, high quality coverage to each of the tournament’s 230 rights holding broadcasters around the world, including the BBC and ITV. Set up in 1999, it’s owned by sports marketing outfit Infront Sports & Media, and has produced the host coverage for the World Cup since 2002. HBS is also the fixer for each of the rights holding broadcasters, providing production, transmission and commentary facilities that allow them to get their coverage on air.
To do this, HBS has designed, built and installed an International Broadcast Centre (IBC) on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that’s 55,000m2 – the size of eight football pitches. 83 broadcasters have taken studio space at the IBC, from where they will host their coverage of the tournament. Others, like the BBC and ITV, have hired purpose built TV studios with views over Copacabana and the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer.
Meanwhile, HBS is also responsible for producing the host broadcast feed at each venue, which is produced by specially selected match directors and their hand picked teams. “We’re keeping ‘the dream team’ concept, which we developed in 2002,” said HBS director of production Dan Miodownik in a speech in March. “The idea is that the match director is chosen and he then selects his dream team to work around him – he has complete control over who he chooses to have onsite.” As Televisual went to press, it’s understood that at least two British directors have been selected as match directors.
HBS is also responsible for providing the facilities for the commentary teams presenting from each venue. 120 commentary positions have been booked for the opening match, indicating the level of demand for onsite facilities.
Shooting for the world
HBS has appointed Sony as its delivery partner for the World Cup, meaning that the manufacturer is responsible for kitting out each of the 12 venues with cameras and production tools for capturing each match. Sony, in turn, has appointed seven subcontractors to create a full HD live production workflow for all 64 matches.
The subcontractors, who are supporting Sony with hardware and staff, are: Sonosvts, Presteigne Charter, Studio Berlin, CTV Outside Broadcast, Outside Broadcast, AMP Visual TV and Broadcast RF. They are providing everything from camera installations to audio and video equipment racks, air conditioning and crews. 280 technical staff will work on the production through Sony across the 12 venues. It’s the first time that Sony has worked as the technical partner on such a big event, and builds on the manufacturer’s experience of shooting the 2010 World Cup in 3D for HBS.
Shipping down the Amazon
Instead of using OB trucks, Sony has purpose built 12 studio containers, one for each of the venues, to house the technical facilities for the tournament. Each container is the size of three OB trucks and was constructed in Munich, before being shipped to Brazil to each stadium. The 50,000 mile journey takes 40-45 days by sea, with some travelling down the Amazon on their final leg.
Each of the 12 production facilities has, essentially, the same set up. It means that a director and his crew can walk into any one of the facilities at the 12 venues and quickly feel at home.
“We moved from an OB van set up in 2006 into a flyaway fixed installation in 2010,” explained Miodownik. “We weighed up all the options and came to the conclusion that the flyaway fixed installation was by far the best.” He added: “It is significantly the best option for us, given the scale of the operation.”
Each match will have 37 cameras filming, up from 32 in 2010, including a cable system, aerial helicopter cameras and two Ultramotion cameras. The main match cameras are Sony HDC-1500 and HDC-2500s. 224 have been booked in total, as well as 64 Super-slow motion camera chains.
Meanwhile, three of the matches – including the final – will be shot in 4k Ultra HD as part of a bid to promote the growth of 4K content. Sony has chosen Brazilian OB outfit Globosat to provide the on-the-ground technical facilities for the 4K broadcast, while the UK’s Telegenic, which worked on the Confederations Cup 4K trial last year, will provide technical expertise and experience. The PMW-F55 is being used to shoot the 4K matches.
Mark Grinyer, programme manager World Cup 2014 at Sony Professional Solutions Europe, says there are three important factors to ensure when working on such a major event. Firstly, trust between all the partners is crucial.
There’s no room for prima donnas, or ego scoring on such a big project, he says. “It has to be a partnership.” Secondly, it’s crucial to keep the energy going in the project. Sony has been working on the World Cup project for three years, which has involved a huge amount of forward planning, so it’s been important to ensure that deadlines are consistently hit over this long period. And thirdly, it’s vital to focus on the small details. Says Grinyer: “This is the biggest sporting event in the world. It’s important to keep yourself focused on doing the little things – crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s – and not letting the project overawe us.”
BBC versus ITV coverage
In the UK, the rights to the World Cup are split between the BBC and ITV. Both are covering the event from studios in Rio that are provided by Fifa, via HBS. With space at a huge premium, their studios are in the same building that overlooks Copacabana, with the BBC in the top right hand side, and ITV in the bottom left.
ITV will air the first game of the tournament on 12 June, between Brazil and Croatia. The BBC’s first game is the following day between Spain and the Netherlands, and the corporation also airs England’s first match, against Italy, at 11pm on 14 June. ITV has the rest of the England games in its qualifying group. During the knockout stages, the split of the games will depend on England’s progression. The BBC will take the first pick of the round of 16, ITV the first pick of the quarter final matches and the BBC will take the first pick of the semi-finals. Both the BBC and ITV will show the World Cup final. In all, the BBC is showing 31 live matches, and ITV 34.
Both broadcasters stress the technical challenges of covering the tournament. The BBC is taking 272 staff, compared to 295 for South Africa. Because of the huge distances involved, it’s deploying 12 separate commentary teams – one for each host city.
The first 24/7 World Cup
The BBC’s director of sport, Barbara Slater, says that the coverage “will be our most ambitious, most comprehensive ever.” With live matches shown on BBC1, the BBC Sport website, BBC3 and the red button, she says that coverage across the channels adds up to 160 hours of TV – over 50% more than from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Picking up from many of the lessons learnt at London 2012, she says “the aspiration is to make this the first 24/7 World Cup for all audiences, on all platforms at any time of day or night.” She says each major sporting event, from South Africa 2010 to London 2012, has set new benchmarks in terms of audience numbers using the multimedia services – and that she expects the same at Brazil 2014.
She says that first thing in the morning there is a surge to the BBC’s mobile offering, with people waking up and turning on their mobiles to check the news. Lunchtime is the next big spike, and then as commuters return home. The BBC also reports plenty of access via desktops during the day as workers check-in to the sports site, while tablet usage surges during the evening.
Digital highlights include live text commentary, real-time stats streamed to devices and, for the first tim, real-time voting via the second screen.
Mark Cole, lead executive at BBC Football, says he expects a surge in viewing from tablet devices, anticipating that many viewers will watch the 11pm games on tablets in bed. It’s led observers to predict that this will be the first ‘tablet World Cup’.
ITV’s coverage, meanwhile, is fronted by Adrian Chiles, with teams criss-crossing the country to present from the stadia. ITV has commissioned Gearhouse Broadcast to deliver additional facilities in the IBC, including a production office, master control room and transmission gallery. Gearhouse has also set up ITV’s facilities in its Copacabana beach, and are providing on site support.
Like the BBC, ITV is also pushing the multimedia aspect of its coverage. Live matches will air on ITV and ITV4, and on the ITV Player on itv.com while the website itv.com/worldcup will bring the competition to life for mobile and tablet users, and will include highlight packages of all 64 matches, in-match video clips as well as news and analysis.
Whatever the audience figures, it’s clear that Brazil 2014 is going to be a truly digital World Cup.
Is the takeover of the UK production sector by foreign, largely US, buyers a good thing for British creative businesses?
It has been a seismic few months for the indie TV sector in the UK. A spate of deals has seen many of the largest players change ownership, with American and international buyers investing heavily in the market. The three largest superindies – All3Media, Endemol and Shine – are in the process of changing hands, with Discovery and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox emerging as key players in the sector. The dealmaking follows hard on the heels of another US buyer, Viacom, acquiring Channel 5.
The talk is that ITV might now emerge as the next major target for US buyers, which would leave the BBC and Channel 4 as the last significant broadcasting entities that are wholly UK owned.
So how do British broadcasters and producers view this new landscape? There was a political furore when US drugs giant Pfizer tried to takeover UK rival AstraZenica. But there has been no such comment about the takeover of the British production sector, which is now largely in foreign hands (see box below).
Some of the few remaining truly independent producers in the UK do admit to concerns. Small and medium sized indies worry they don’t have the financial resources or network of customers to be able to compete with the superindies.
“You watch from the sidelines as this consolidation takes place and don’t know the full consequences of it,” says Blink Films md Dan Chambers. He says true indies fear that broadcasters which have bought into the sector, like Discovery, may prefer to commission from their own production companies rather than go to the indie sector.
That said, Chambers points out that there is still a great diversity of buyers in the UK and the US for indies to pitch ideas to. Chambers, and fellow indie md Richard Farmborough of Reef Television, also say that deals like the All3Media takeover could be good news for true indies.
All3Media producers will no longer qualify for official indie status, now they are owned by a broadcaster. It means that All3Media companies will not qualify for the official quota of 25% of programmes that the BBC has to commission from indies. The corporation may instead be forced to look to other indie suppliers to ensure it hits the quota mark. “Quite a few indies are looking on thinking this will be a benefit,” says Farmborough.
Many observers say the presence of foreign investors in the UK production sector should be welcomed. The deal-making is part of a structural shift that’s seeing media conglomerates position themselves for the global market, points out Pact chief executive John McVay. And they are attracted to the UK because of its strong creative reputation. “It’s really interesting for the UK market that this is all happening here. We could be sitting in a market where it is not happening at all. We are firmly in the game.”
Besides, he adds, it’s up to each entrepreneurial indie owner to sell whichever company he wants to. “That is their right,” says McVay.
Others point out that UK producers are also very active in the US market, either buying US producers themselves or selling in shows like The X Factor, Downton Abbey and Supernanny. ITV, for example, has acquired a swathe of producers in the US and now claims to be the largest independent unscripted producer in the country.
Tom Manwaring, MD of advisory group About Corporate Finance, says his company has brokered the sale of six independent production companies this year. Four of those six deals involved European companies buying up US producers, including ITV’s purchase of Leftfield, Tinopolis’s acquisition of Magical Elves and Fremantle’s purchase of Jersey Shore producer 495 Productions.
“Traffic is going both ways,” says Manwaring. “There are lots of transatlantic deals.”
Broadcasters have, so far, been watching from the sidelines amid all the corporate activity amongst their producer suppliers. The implications of all the deal-making is still being absorbed and debated, says Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham.
“There isn’t any cause for panic. We are not feeling that,” Abraham says, while pointing out that the debate about foreign ownership is likely to play out over the summer.
Abraham adds: “A Tory led coalition is never likely going to have the instinct to want to intervene in markets and block foreign ownership. Conversely they will be sensitive to this issue of indigenous culture. Who knows, we may only be one step away from ITV being bought by an American company. When that happens, politicians will really wake up. Then you would only have two broadcasters [C4 and the BBC] who are not foreign owned or controlled.”
Arguably this underlines the vital cultural and economic importance of both these broadcasters, particularly at a time when the BBC Charter is soon set for review.
Abraham adds that the indie sector has always been in a state of flux, with new companies emerging all the time. “The good news is that this business constantly replenishes itself.” C4 is backing some of them too via its £20m indie growth fund, with the first deals set to be announced this summer.
Moreover, he says that broadcasters and producers have to accept that they are now operating in a truly global market, where there is international competition for the best ideas and financing. This view was reinforced by a recent trade mission to China that Abraham went on, organised by Pact. “One can’t put one’s head in the sand in terms of the economics of how programmes are made and invested in and exploited,” he says.
Abraham also believes there are “many upsides to globalisation for Channel 4”. If the broadcaster commissions a show that ends up being a hit in America, like Studio Lambert’s Undercover Boss, it shares some of the back end revenue. And, as non-qualifying indies do not benefit from the terms of trade, Channel 4 will be able to keep a larger share of the back end from shows commissioned from broadcaster-owned indies like All3Media.
For its part, All3Media chief executive Farah Ramzan Golan says the deal is a good one for the company and the sector. She insists All3Media indies will not simply take their best ideas to Discovery, but will interact with the market as usual. To do otherwise, she adds, “would be counterproductive because it would constrain our future growth.”
Moreover, she says, the deal will lead to greater investment. “These are trade buyers with long term horizons, so now we will make long term bets with the kind of IP we develop."
The acquisition, she says, is a good one for Britain – as are the other media deals being done in the UK. “I would be the first to be extremely protectionist about our culture and creativity. I think you should ask the question, is this happening because the terms of these deals are showing a significant desire to protect and nourish these companies, to put investment in, to put resources in, to put R&D in? And Ramzan Golant clearly thinks they are.
Foreign owners of UK indies
21st Century Fox/Apollo Global Management Indies Remarkable, Initial, Tiger Aspect, Zeppotron, Darlow Smithson, Tigress, Shine TV, Princess, Kudos, Dragonfly, Lovely Day, Brown Eyed Boy, Shine Pictures Key showsBig Brother, MasterChef, Deal or No Deal, Million Pound Drop, Broadchurch and Bad Education
Discovery/Liberty Global Indies Bentley, Company Pictures, Lime, Lion, Maverick, North One, Objective, One Potato Two Potato, Optomen, Studio Lambert. Discovery bought Raw TV in March, and owns Betty TV Key shows Hollyoaks, Gogglebox, Undercover Boss, Wild at Heart, Peep Show, Midsomer Murders, Horrible Histories
RTL/FremantleMedia UK Indies Thames, Talkback, Boundless, Retort and Newman Street Key showsThe X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Grand Designs
William Morris Endeavour/Silver Lake Indie IMG Productions Key shows C4 Horseracing, Football League Show
Warner Bros Indies Shed, Wall to Wall, Ricochet, Renegade, Yalli, Twenty Twenty and Watershed Key showsWho Do You Think You Are?, New Tricks, The Choir
Sony Pictures (UK) Indies Silver River, Victory Television, Left Bank and Gogglebox Key showsStrike Back, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wallander
Viacom’s £450m takeover of Channel 5 this week has been greeted by the production community as a positive move, likely to lead to an upturn in spend on new content at the broadcaster.
This expected increased in investment in the British creative industries should, of course, be welcomed.
Viacom, which owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and film studio Paramount Pictures, said the deal would allow the company to tap new ideas from the UK’s highly regarded production sector to play on its channels around the world.
The deal, however, marks the latest in a long line of acquisitions in the UK broadcasting and production sector by international investors.
It is the first time that a US company will control a public service broadcaster in the competitive UK market.
Yet, in the same week that US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s attempted takeover of the UK’s AstraZeneca has raised a slew of political concerns, Viacom’s acquisition of Britain’s fifth biggest channel has barely raised an eyebrow amongst commentators.
Indeed, it’s largely led to speculation that ITV might now be the next takeover target for US players such as CBS or Comcast.
Very few of the leading TV production companies are actually British owned, as Televisual reported in its Production 100 survey. The majority – from the producers of Downton Abbey through to the makers of Who Do You Think You Are? - are owned by the likes of Sony, NBC, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, RTL and De Agostini which all have major stakes in UK indies.
Furthermore, the UK’s biggest independent production group, All3Media, is now said to be in takeover talks with Discovery, which has hugely expanded its presence in the UK market in recent years. Digital firms such as Netlfix and Amazon are growing their presence significantly in the OTT sector. 21st Century Fox has a controlling stake in the country’s biggest pay-TV operator, BSkyB. Scripps, meanwhile, owns half of UKTV along with BBC Worldwide.
It leaves British run outfits such as the BBC, C4, ITV and BT looking like a rather dwindling part of the UK television landscape.
Televisual’s 19th annual salary survey is now available to read in full in the Reports and Surveys section of our website.
The survey paints a mixed picture of pay rates in broadcasting and production. On the plus side, the majority of respondents (46%) say their salaries have risen over the past year – compared to 17.5% who report that their pay has fallen and the 36.4% who say it has stayed the same.
The survey, based on feedback from hundreds of Televisual readers, reveals the weekly and daily rates for key jobs in the industry, as well as information about pay by sector, region, age and gender.
Click here for the full report