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The TV producers in search of digital hits

Talk to most independent TV producers about what they are up to in the digital arena, and the phrase: “It’s like the Wild West out there,” will likely crop up.

Traditional TV indies – for so long focused on pitching and winning business from a handful of broadcaster clients – are now starting to range more widely in search of business opportunities in the digital world. Broadcast TV, of course, remains the bedrock of their business, the source of most revenues. But, faced with an explosion of viewing online – on tablets, on mobiles, on connected TVs, on YouTube, via apps, through games – more and more indies are seeking to harness their storytelling and production skills to see if they can apply them to the digital world.

The problem is, though, that there is so much potential to create new digital content –  for uncertain and often limited rewards – that many producers are confused about which way to turn.

In such a fast moving digital climate, the big question is: should an indie launch a YouTube channel, produce an app, move into games or develop multiplatform projects? Or do nothing?

There’s a world of chatter, for example, about producing content for YouTube. But, at a time when an incredible 72 hours of content is being uploaded to the site every minute, it’s hardly surprising that only very few people are making content that can stand out and earn good money from the ad funded service.

In search of opportunities
“Indies are seeing the opportunities in this market much more clearly than they have before,” says David Flynn, co-chair of Endemol’s digital board, who created hit interactive show The Million Pound Drop Live and is leading a digital drive at Endemol that’s seen the indie hire three digital interns to help create new digital opportunities. “But it remains a challenge to find projects that are properly commercially viable.”

What’s notable, of course, is that few have abandoned TV altogether in favour of digital. In fact most indies tie their digital projects into TV, seeking to harness the mass audience and revenues that television can deliver.

The era is over of the digital evangelists who loudly proclaimed the death of television, says Richard Davidson-Houston, head of Channel 4 Online. “In the mid to late 2000s, all the broadcasters shipped in people from the radical end of the digital industry. While engaging and intelligent, for many their schtick was “TV is dead”. It made for an antagonistic relationship with their hosts,” he says.

This has given way to a more sober viewpoint that the changes being unleashed in the digital world will not destroy the TV industry as we know it – but rather can be harnessed to drive innovation.

Indie pioneers
Maverick Television, the producer of shows such as Embarrassing Bodies, is acknowledged as one of the leading indie lights in the digital world. Maverick’s digital creative director Dan Jones explains that the indie is active across a range of digital fronts, creating YouTube channels and video, producing digital content for brands as well as big multi-platform projects for broadcasters and other indies.

He says the big growth area for the indie is in producing TV formats which wouldn’t exist without an integral digital element. He cites upcoming C4 panel show Was It Something I Said?, hosted by David Mitchell. The show pits two teams against one another in a battle of word play, answering questions based on quotes, tweets, literature, TV and film dialogue. In a world first, viewers will be able to play along with the show via Twitter and receive bonus content as they watch. Was It Something I Said? is also factual and features specialist Maverick’s first entertainment TV commission. “It’s a show that came from an online idea. And it’s helped us grow into entertainment TV,” says Jones.

Channel 4 is regarded as the leading broadcaster in the multiplatform commissioning space. Indeed, this year’s Bafta Craft Awards confirmed as much with C4 dominating the digital creative category with nominations for the Paralympics, Foxes Live: Wild in the City, The Great British Property Scandal and Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic.

C4’s Davidson-Houston says the most successful multiplatform shows are ones where the digital element helps the programme to be innovative through interactivity. “They are not all about digital, they are about using digital to innovate with form,” he says. And producers are getting better at making them too, he believes, pointing to an emerging maturity in the sector. “The odds are shortening on success, a consequence of experience and learning what works,” he adds. This year’s Easter Eggs Live, for example, could build on the success of last year’s Foxes Live which in turn built on the lessons learnt in 2011’s Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast.

Davidson-Houston cites a number of upcoming examples of shows that are using digital to drive innovation in programme-making, such as D-Day: As It Happens, First Dates, Was It Something I Said and the next evolution of Embarrassing Bodies.

First Dates, for example, is an interactive documentary series made by Twenty Twenty. Using a fixed rig in a restaurant, the six part series follows first time couples to show what it is really like to meet potential partners and is cast via the C4 web site. If the dates don’t work out, the unsuccessful daters can appeal to viewers to put themselves forward via – and could find themselves sitting next to a viewer the following week. “It’s a very simple proposition, highly innovative in form and we’re not mucking around trying to create a superfluous dating site,” says Davidson-Houston.

He explains that one of the key lessons learnt by C4 in the digital space is “being self-disciplined about what we should do rather than indulging in all the things we could do.” There are few barriers in the digital world, he notes. The trick is to identify the right thing to do; to hone projects to the correct - the perfect – size and form.

Rival broadcasters seem to be doing little to create truly multiplatform shows. The BBC is focused on video on demand instead, building on the success of iPlayer. The corporation disbanded its multiplatform team back in 2011 and only produces a few shows – like The Voice – that have an interactive, multiplatform element. Likewise ITV and Sky. Their big Saturday night shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and Got to Dance have integral interactive elements.

In search of consumers
Meanwhile, indies are also seeking to bypass traditional TV broadcasters altogether to strike up their own relationship with viewers. Whether producing for YouTube or creating apps and games, indies no longer need to remorselessly focus on winning business from a handful of TV commissioning editor clients.

For many it is a liberating experience. Patrick Uden, who’s involved in the scripting of high profile TV shows like The Apprentice and ran his own indie Uden Associates, is now a partner in Heuristic Media, which creates high quality apps for tablet devices such as Cyclepedia and London: A City Through Time (see box). He says: “It’s like the Wild West out there. There are no channels and no commissioning editors. If you launch something and the public like it, they buy it.”

And, he believes, it’s a world that TV creatives are inherently suited to, where skills such as visual storytelling are highly prized. “There are no meetings, no commissioning editors. Culturally it is very different – TV is very constrictive and hierarchical. It’s much more fun – and the fun seems to be going out of TV, which is smothered with bureaucracy and fear.”


However, more indies are looking to embrace YouTube than apps. Few claim to be making serious money out of the service, but many are keen to learn what works and to build early expertise in YouTube as it begins to move from the computer onto connected TVs in the heart of the living room.

One executive at the forefront of working with YouTube in the UK is Andy Taylor, the former digital media director of All3Media who recently launched Little Dot Studios. Taylor was among those that won funding from YouTube last year when the online video behemoth rolled out its original channels initiative in Europe.

Little Dot Studios comprises a team of nine people and runs All3’s YouTube originals initiative, including its two existing channels – Daily Mix and Body Talk – as well as launching more. The firm also runs All3’s 50 programme-related YouTube channels including Skins, Embarrassing Bodies and The Real Hustle, which feature clips from the existing shows.

For a 50% cut of revenues, Little Dot will contract out its services to other indies, creating YouTube channels for their shows. “It’s a good way to dip your toe into YouTube without great expense,” says Taylor.

As for the original channels that Little Dot runs, Taylor believes they will lose money for the next three years and describes them as an investment.

The Daily Mix, a beauty and makeover channel, is the most successful of its services. To date it has 194,000 subscribers and has had 10m video views.

“Our focus has been on getting subscribers and eyeballs,” explains Taylor. “It’s a bit like when C4 launched E4 or ITV launched ITV2 – they expected the model to lose money for three to four years. But they wanted an early foothold in digital TV.”

For now, though, YouTube is not really suitable for large scale indie producers. It’s difficult to work out exactly how much producers can earn from YouTube content as it depends on many factors – but one guesstimate is that a million views might earn $6,000. Given how difficult it is to achieve a million views, it’s not surprising that the YouTube production model is cheap, fast and young – suitable for bedroom bloggers, but not for large companies with big overheads. For now, it’s easy to see why many are sticking with what they know best – television.

Case Study 1: The digital show - D-Day: As It Happens

Windfall Films is making D-Day: As It Happens, a 24-hour history event that plays out across TV, web, mobile devices and social media on C4 this month. Digit, Windfall’s digital partner on the project, will deliver the website build.

The project will enable viewers and users to experience D-Day in real time. They’ll be able to track – moment by moment – what happened to seven people who were there on the day: each of them a real participant in the 1944 invasion. Through archive film, photographs, radio reports and other records of D-Day, the programme will trace the progress of the ‘D-Day 7’ (among them a paratrooper, a midget submariner, a nurse and a military cameraman) via the footage.

An hour-long TV programme on June 5 will tell the backstories of the seven and set out their missions over the 24 hours to come, and another programme on June 6 will recap the day and reveal what happened to each. In between, users will be able to keep up with their progress online, via Twitter, and through short-form updates on the channel. The television coverage will be presented by Peter Snow.

Case Study 2: The app maker - Heuristic Media

Heuristic Media, run by four colleagues including TV executive Patrick Uden (The Apprentice), started making apps for tablet devices in 2010. Their three key projects to date include Cyclepedia, London: A City Through Time and Python Bytes. All are made with extremely high production values, and have won acclaim for their design and depth of content. 

The app market is tough to operate in, acknowledges Uden, but the advantage is that you are producing for a global market. The four colleagues each invested £50k in the business, and expect to break even in three years. London: A City Through Time, for example, was launched in time for the Olympics and has sold over 50,000 units at £10 a piece.

Uden gives the following advice to wannabe app producers: build a portfolio of products and cross-fertilise and cross-promote; produce a world class app (“there’s no point in producing junk – if your app has people in it, they’ve got to be world class – Hollywood stars or people at the top of their field”). The big coming market for apps is education, adds Uden.

Case Study 3: The video stars - Jack and Finn Harries

Tales abound of young YouTube stars making it big thanks to videos shot in their bedroom. Two such stars are Jack and Finn Harries, twin 19-year-old brothers (and the sons of Andy Harries, the founder of drama producer Left Bank). Their YouTube channel Jack’s Gap has racked up an impressive 1.8m subscribers and 79million views.

A collection of quirky, humourous vlogs that look homegrown but clearly are produced with care and verve, JackGap was initially intended as video diary of Jack’s gap year. But when he introduced his twin Finn into the videos, the views suddenly shot up. The twin factor clearly appeals to the site’s avid young female fan base. Described by one TV exec as “the One Direction of YouTube”, the pair have since been picked up by talent agency Avalon and are reported to have been offered a Sky TV series and Capital Radio show. 

They are making money too. When Jack’s Gap hit 10,000 subscribers, the twins received an email from YouTube. Jack told The Daily Telegraph: “They gave us a username and password to log in to Google AdSense, and there’s an account balance where you can see your money go up and up.”

Case Study 4: The digital play - Animal Vegetable Mineral

Bafta winning producer Rupert Harris is good example of a television executive who’s moved decidedly into the interactive world.

He helped set up cross platform production company Animal Vegetable Mineral in 2011 and has since attracted backing from the Technology Strategy Board and venture capital funding from Korea and the UK to develop cross-platform game driven entertainment concepts. These include CR3ATOR, a half hour TV entertainment format billed as Robot Wars for the connected generation. It’s a combination of game and TV show, where gamers fight each other in virtual robot battles. Those that make it to the top of the game’s leader board are invited to take part in a live action studio show where their robots battle it out on the big screen.

“We haven’t moved from TV into gaming. TV has moved from a linear to a more interactive medium and we’ve just adapted and moved with it,” says Harris, who says that AMV is monetising projects through commissions, sponsorship, game revenues and advertising.  Harris adds: “You no longer need a broadcaster to air your ideas.  Digital mobile platforms have offered the opportunity to have a direct relationship with the consumer – we crave this and what’s more we have the skills and tools to build and develop this relationship. It means we can optimise the games and the shows with highly detailed user feedback and responses.”

Posted 12 June 2013 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Ben Wheatley's A Field in England

There are several unwritten rules about low budget filmmaking. One is to avoid period drama, another is don’t film outside on location.

Yet Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England does both – and more. Wheatley, who has made a name for himself as the inventive, resourceful director of Kill List and Sightseers, shot the black and white film in 12 days in one field with a cast and crew of less than 40 people – on a budget of under £500k.

It’s been done at great speed too: the whole project has gone from idea through script-writing, production and post and release (on 5 July) in less than a year.

Set during the English Civil War, it’s a psychedelic story of a group of deserters who flee from a raging battle through an overgrown field. But they are captured and forced to search for hidden treasure their captors believe is buried in the field – the cue for a descent into chaos, arguments and paranoia fuelled by a vast mushroom circle in the field.

A Field in England is produced by Wheatley’s Rook Films, and is the first film to be backed by Film4’s talent and ideas hub Film 4.0. Notably – and very unusually – Film4.0 fully funded the film. It’s part of a Film 4.0 plan to foster “freedom and agility in film-making,” says executive producer Anna Higgs.

Wheatley had previously proved himself to be a master of low-budget film-making with his debut Down Terrace, shot in just eight days in one location. Wheatley says he learnt on Down Terrace that a “pragmatic script” was crucial for keeping the budget in check.

So, A Field in England, written by Amy 
Jump, does without lots of locations, sets and characters. And even though it’s a costume drama, the actors don’t change clothes. “Once we set the parameters, 12 days of shooting seemed like a luxury,” says Wheatley.

It was shot on location at Hampton Estate in Farnham – in a field that was previously used as an overspill car park for Hollywood shoot Jack the Giant Killer.

Producer Andy Starke says the ethos of Rook Films is simply to try to keep on filming new projects, and not get bogged down by trying to set up big budget, vfx heavy features that need “10,000 hobbits bounding over a hill.” Starke adds: “We didn’t want to get stuck in a world of financing. You can get very old waiting for films to get financed.”

That’s not to say the film is cheaply produced – or looks cheap. “Creatively it’s the best thing we’ve done,” insists Starke. “There’s no point in being clever and making a cheap film if it’s a bad film.

Wheatley and Starke stress that they tend to use the same experienced crew from film to film – a group of friends who all work very fast but in a relaxed way. “A lot of them also work on Top Gear, so they know what a hard shoot is,” says Wheatley.

Improved – and cheaper – technology has also helped keep the budget in check. Wheatley and Jump edited the film from their homes on FCPX, with Starke – who is from a post background – also providing back up. The rushes are all shared online between the key creatives.

The film is shot primarily on a Red Epic, with a Canon C300 as the back-up camera, but with cheap plastic lenses bought on the internet or 
even home-made lenses constructed out of children’s toys and glued together by Wheatley and DoP Laurie Rose. “Because they are so badly made they create a lot of artefacts, flares and misting that gives a really interesting almost antique feel that really worked for the film,” says Wheatley, who thinks that this reflected the constant shifting of the characters’ perspective after they’d taken mushrooms.

The lightweight cameras allowed the film to be shot in a roving, documentary manner. It meant the actors could concentrate on their performance rather than the fixed position of the cameras, says Wheatley.

A Field in England is set to be the first ever film to get a true ‘day and date’ release in the UK – in cinemas, on TV, DVD and video-on-demand. “We wanted to release it to as big an audience as possible to reflect the sense of energy and passion that the film’s been made with,” says Higgs.

Indie films struggle to break through without a big P&A budget, so the day and date strategy is a bid, adds Higgs, to build "eyeballs and buzz" for what she hopes will become “quite a cult, trip of a movie.”

A Field in England is released on 5 July

Posted 11 June 2013 by Tim Dams

Commissioner Q&A: Jan Younghusband

The BBC’s commissioner for music and events, Jan Younghusband, talks televising the Proms and Glastonbury, explains what kind of music works well on TV and sets out the shows that she is looking to commission

What’s the biggest challenge in televising a Proms concert? Ensuring we’re making the best possible choices for the TV audience and capturing the experience of being at the concerts for the audience at home.  Doing what we have always done isn’t enough. We discuss for months in advance which concerts we can cover, and how best to do them. 

How do you make Proms concerts work best for a TV audience? Our TV audience loves to know that little bit extra about the music we show, so we concentrate on telling the stories behind the works and bringing in expert historians and musicians to unravel how it’s done best.

Glastonbury is back after a two year break this year. How’s the BBC covering it? Our plan this year is to deliver as much access as possible through streaming content from all six stages for the first time. Again the task is to deliver the atmosphere of Glastonbury to the audience at home, so a great deal of work goes into figuring out camera and presentation positions.
How many hours of music and events do you air on the BBC a year? We create over 250 hours of original music programmes for television alone.

Which recent commissions have worked well for you?
Our audience expects good journalism, opinion, a new angle on something familiar, unique access, original story-telling, expert opinion and great performance.  Our recent David Bowie: Five Years documentary for BBC Two is a great example of how this comes together. It’s great to hear musicians explaining how new songs come to life. Recently we’ve had terrific feedback on programmes such as:  Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, The Sound and the Fury; Rolando Villazon on Verdi and Antonio Pappano explaining Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Coming up we will have David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy with over 40 pieces of specially filmed performance in the venues where it would have been originally heard years ago. And we have just announced next year’s Young Musician with a new jazz Award. Supporting young talent is also a crucial part of our work.  The BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury is a favourite hang-out of mine.
What kind of music is not working so well anymore on TV?  How has the genre moved on? Classical performance is not an appointment to view in the way it used to be.  I think this is because the audience prefers to choose when they have time to sit down to an opera or concert.  They catch it up over time, not when it’s first scheduled. It’s really important that the BBC continues to deliver access to great performance, not just for our audiences now but for the future – so we create a rich archive to draw back on.  BBC Four is reaching up to 1m viewers now for its archive films.

What shows are you looking for? On BBC Two we are looking for the next landmark series.  Howard Goodall’s Story of Music was so original, we are trying to find the next thing which will take music out of its box and shake it up a bit. I look back on iconic series such as Lenny Bernstein on Music or Wynton Marsalis on Music, which break free from the norm and show us music in a whole new way. More like this would be great, but it’s not easy to find them. The BBC Four audience loves the archive, and reliving their past musical life.  So we are constantly looking for new ways to unlock the archive. Rock and Roll Britannia recently on BBC Four, for example, was a great story with delicious archive. BBC Three tends to focus on special events and festivals. We are leading up to Bollywood Carmen Live, a Bollywood music drama based on the Carmen story which is a live public event in Bradford on June 9th.

Which arts/music shows on rival channels have you admired recently?
Grayson Perry on Taste (Channel 4). He is a truly original storyteller. I would listen to him talking about anything. Fresh insight is so important to great TV.  I can’t wait to see what he will do next.

Tell us about what you’ve been watching, reading and listening to outside work?
The Royal Philharmonic Society awards – I was inspired to see the work of the Kinshasa Orchestra and the Sphinx Organisation Detroit, and others who enable young people to make music in impossible circumstances. My guilty pleasure includes spending a weekend watching the complete series of House of Cards back-to-back.  I also can’t wait for The Paradise to come back on BBC Two.  I just read Toni Morrison’s book Home.  I love the way she maps the day-to-day lives of her characters with such lyrical precision.  I have also discovered a brilliant Indian poet, Tishani Doshi. I went to see Blue at their comeback concert at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It was packed out with fans just having a great night out. I love their acoustic songs.

Posted 05 June 2013 by Tim Dams

Making British animated movies

The British animation sector boasts a wealth of talent, who are active across commercials, digital and television. But, with the notable exception of Aardman Animations, very few producers ever manage to get animated feature films off the ground.

Shoreditch-based Nexus, however, is hoping to change this. The animation studio, known for Oscar nominated short This Way Up, Cannes Grand Prix winning ad Back to the Start for Chipotle (pictured) and high profile Superbowl spots, has now moved decidedly into features.

Nexus recently won funding from the BFI Vision Awards, worth £200k, to develop a slate of animation features. And it’s just partnered up with Claire Jennings to work on the slate.

Jennings’ impressive CV includes Oscars for producing Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit and short film Father and Daughter. She also worked on the Pingu franchise at HIT, and was recently president of entertainment at US studio Laika.

Nexus co-founder Chris O’Reilly admits that animation’s long lead times mean that it could be four or five years before the first project from the partnership comes to fruition. He says that Nexus is aiming to produce animated films at a European price point and at a lower point in comparison to US studio features. “We’re planning to make independently financed animated features – films with a heart, visual spectacle, and magic.”

He says that raising money for the animated films will be tough, but adds that there is a growing global appetite to fund animated features – citing French studio StudioCanal’s recent partnership deal with Aardman.

And Nexus will be able to tap into the “amazing creative workforce in London.” Says O’Reilly: “This is an exciting development for Nexus and for UK animation as a whole. There have been few opportunities for the UK’s incredible animation talent to develop features.”

Posted 05 June 2013 by Tim Dams

Any room on TV for single docs?

Who Gives a F**k About Single Documentaries? is the provocative title of a session at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest (June 15).

Ahead of the debate, we asked the four speakers to give their view – getting their take on the health of single documentaries in a television landscape dominated by fixed rigs and long running access series.

Are the broadcasters commissioning enough singles and are they commissioning the right kind? And at a time where there is more commercial pressure on broadcasters and production companies, are both sides playing it safe?

Olly Lambert

The channels always claim to like the idea of single docs.  But the reality of having a single director, who might have an attitude or, gasp, a ‘point of view’, seems to give a lot of comm eds the editorial heebie jeebies.  So many new directors are getting subsumed into the rig show behemoths like 24 Hours in A&E or One Born, where individual voices or styles are not really required, as so many stylistic and tonal decisions have already been made and “signed off” from on high.  It’s breeding a kind of documentary monoculture, drowning out the distinctive voices and creative risk taking that single docs can offer.

Lina Prestwood
Channel 4 commissiong editor, docs

Docs are having a renaissance, but finding new voices and first-time directors for singles in the age of big access and rig shows isn’t as easy as you might think. With their long-term APs, DV directors and often edit producers accustomed to working within an established house-style, many are suffering a sort of imposters syndrome when faced with a single. Conversely, others see themselves as ‘seasoned’ having spent hundreds of hours in galleries and edits but may lack the narrative detective skills that come from spending anywhere near as many hours in the living rooms of their contributors.   

Ed Coulthard
Managing director, Blast! Films

On one level single docs just don’t make sense. They’re perilous and unpredictable for broadcasters – and for production companies, they’re time-consuming and usually don’t make any money. It’s no surprise that in (slightly) more commercial broadcasting environments, like the US, they barely exist at all. Yet without them, to me at least, factual TV doesn’t make sense. It would be all Tesco’s and no Fortnum and Mason, all Amazon and no independent bookshops.  And of course they do make sense for indies too – not just in nurturing reputations and directors, but it’s where the innovative series like The Undateables or Gypsy Weddings came from.

Anna Miralis
Channel 4 commissioning editor, docs

Single docs work well for C4. The schedule can easily accommodate them and they are not crowded out by bigger series and formats. Docs connect with our viewers and they frequently deliver a large audience. Singles enable you to act quickly – to immediately jump on a story – or to access a diverse range of voices. In the past year I’ve commissioned films on everything from dogging, to social media stalkers, gypsy fighting to children behind bars. The appetite for singles works well with the channel’s different strands, first time directors in First Cut and a range of new and established talent in Cutting Edges and True Stories.

Posted 04 June 2013 by Tim Dams
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