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Preparing for a 4K future

2015 trends: Will 4K Ultra HD go mainstream in 2015? In a word, no. But Televisual has included it in the top themes of the year because 4K is the future of television – and 2015 will see important progress along the road to widespread 4K production and broadcasting.

A recent poll conducted as part of Televisual’s Production Technology Survey estimated it would take five to six years before 4K goes fully mainstream. Unlike the industry’s fleeting obsession with 3D, respondents were sure that 4K would take off.

For now, 4K television set sales are slow but are starting to pick up as prices fall. A 40” Panasonic Viera Ultra HD set is currently available for £699, for example. All the big brands, including Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony, now offer large ranges of 4K TVs.

Cost of the sets aside, the key reason that 4K Ultra HD sets haven’t been flying off the shelves is that there is currently little to watch in 4K.

Very few broadcasters around the world are have launched 4K channels. In the UK, the key players are still testing the technology. Sky, for example, recently shot the Ryder Cup in 4K as part of an ongoing trial. The BBC, meanwhile, has experimented with 4K broadcasts during big sporting events, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the World Cup.

For now, most 4K content is streamed via internet by outfits such as Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix.

Netflix has announced all its originated content, including House of Cards, will be shot, posted and streamed in 4K. It’s also offering all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad in 4K, which it has remastered from the original film negatives.

Amazon is serving up shows such as Transparent in 4K.

However, consumers need a fast broadband services of around 20Mbps to receive 4K via the internet.

4K shooting is starting to take off as 4K cameras don’t always command a huge investment over HD cameras. Blackmagic, AJA, Sony and Panasonic all offer very affordable 4K models.

Televisual’s Production Technology survey found that a remarkable 23% of respondents had shot in 4K over the past year, on cameras such as the Red Epic or Sony F55. 33% planned to shoot in the format in 2015.

Many said they are filming in 4K to future-proof their productions or because they want to achieve the best quality visuals possible for a high-end doc or commercial.

Fewer have mastered in 4K though, choosing to downconvert to HD for post production. The amount of data captured when shooting in 4K is immense and requires a great deal more and a great deal faster storage, along with much more time-consuming back-ups and much more powerful (and therefore more expensive) equipment to playback and monitor 4K content. This all has significant cost implications.

Still, the industry believes that 4K workflows will become increasingly common as prices start to fall and the technology improves over time. Just as HD workflows slowly but surely replaced SD production methods, so too 4K will steadily move centre stage in production.

Posted 23 December 2014 by Tim Dams

YouTube starts to come of age

2015 trends: It’s nearly ten years since the first YouTube video, Me at the Zoo, was first uploaded by the site’s co-founder Jawed Karim.

Since then YouTube has become the third most popular website in the world, behind Google and Facebook – where more than six billion hours of video are watched every month.

Despite it’s huge popularity, it’s fair to say that YouTube remains something of an enigma for the TV industry.

That’s essentially because YouTube and TV are platforms for very different kinds of content: YouTube works best for individuals who produce short clips with low production costs, while TV favours more expensive long form programming and is a much more collaborative medium.

YouTube also remains a difficult place for TV producers to make money. It’s estimated that one million hits – a substantial number for a YouTube video – will generate less than £1,000 in ad revenue. And that’s before YouTube takes its 45% cut.

Yet producers recognise that YouTube is a brilliant place to test out new ideas and to showcase content to a global audience.

Barcroft Media CEO Sam Barcroft produces content for YouTube, including one piece – The Only Man In The World Who Can Swim With A Polar Bear: Grizzly Man (pictured) – which has been viewed over 27m times. But his company also makes traditional factual TV. He said: “You can use YouTube as part of your business mix. Am I making a great deal of money out of it? Not really. Does it make people interested in my business? Yes.”

Barcroft said that traditional TV still provides the majority of his company’s income, but that YouTube was a great place to experiment with ideas for TV. 

A YouTube presence is also a useful calling card, which allows broadcasters, brands and other potential clients to see your work.

360 Productions head of development Emma Parkins, who works on science YouTube channel Headsqueeze, said her indie had won business with Microsoft as a result of its YouTube work. “It’s a shop window – people come to us as a result.”

TV execs also recognise that YouTube is where the next generation of talent is likely to come from. YouTubers like beauty vlogger Zoella make content that is watched by millions of young viewers.

Little wonder that major TV players are getting into the act, with many investing in multi-channel networks (MCNs) – companies that work with multiple YouTube channels to help monetise their content and talent.

Disney, for example, bought Maker Studios, home of YouTube sensation PewDiePie, while DreamWorks has  acquired Awesomeness TV, Warner Bros invested in MCN Machinima and Shine Group runs ChannelFlip. Fremantle Media recently invested in Divimove, the largest European MCN, while Rightster acquired Base 79. Expect these deals to start paying dividends in 2015.

Posted 23 December 2014 by Tim Dams

The rise of the over the top TV players

2015 trends: When Netflix confirmed its first UK production, The Crown, last month it underlined the impact of the OTT service on the broadcasting industry here.

The epic, big-budget royal drama teams up screenwriter Peter Morgan, producer Andy Harries and director Stephen Daldry. Just like House of Cards, the UK commission proves Netflix is now a serious player with serious budgets in the UK industry.

Fellow subscription-based OTT player Amazon Prime Instant Video is also ramping up its activity in the UK. Its first UK commission, the third series of Ripper Street, launched last month. Amazon has also greenlit Left Bank Pictures to remake Sky1 drama Mad Dogs for the US market, and is piloting an adaptation of Philip K Dick novel The Man in the High Castle from UK indie Big Light Productions.

Of course, the UK commissioning levels Netflix and Amazon have so far been limited, and are confined to very few UK production companies.

But the OTT players are also buying up UK content for distribution. Netflix, for example, picked up Red Production’s Happy Valley for the US market. For producers who have been mourning the decline in valuable DVD income for years, subscription based OTT services are becoming a useful source of income.

Chief creative officer Ted Sarandos recently said Netflix aimed to offer at least 20% of local content in each market it launched.

The relationship between OTT players and content creators will only grow in the years to come, as they seek to take advantage of their ability to distribute direct to millions of homes and devices via the internet.

It’s part of a slow but undeniable shift in power away from the traditional TV players to tech companies which now have their own means of distribution through high speed broadband.

Other Silicon Valley platforms, perhaps Google/YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, could also start to create long-form content. After all, if a former DVD platform like Netflix can create content, so can anyone.

Traditional pay-TV broadcasters like HBO and Sky have recognised the threat, launching their own subscription-based OTT services HBO Go and Now TV. 

UK terrestrials, meanwhile, have seen their viewers increasingly make use of their free OTT services like BBC iPlayer and 4oD. Indeed, BBC3 is to close as a TV channel in 2015, and will only be available online.

Certainly, the wide availability of OTT services across multiple devices as well as their user friendly interfaces and access to vast libraries is challenging the revenue streams of traditional pay-TV providers and undermining the historic importance of scheduled terrestrial channels. This only looks set to continue in 2015.

Posted 23 December 2014 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: London New Year's Eve fireworks

The 10-minute pyrotechnic performance that is the The Mayor of London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display was the highest rating show on TV last year – with an audience of almost 14m. Not bad for an event that was initiated in 2003 by the Mayor’s office as a marketing exercise to promote London.

Back then, our TV screens used to turn to global cities like Sydney, New York or Paris on New Year’s Eve for their firework displays. London’s offering, by contrast, was simply a bit of knees up in Trafalgar Square, while most TV coverage was focused on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Corporate events producer Jack Morton Worldwide – whose credits include the opening and closing ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games  – has overseen the show since inception. The brief says project director Jim Donald of Jack Morton, was to put London on the map by creating a “New Year’s Eve media moment” – one that would put it at the front rank of the celebrations by global cities.

As the fireworks have grown in popularity to become one of the world’s leading displays, so too have the organisational demands on the production team. Hundreds of thousands of people now line the banks of the Thames to watch the display. To cope with the numbers, this year will see the introduction of ticketed viewing areas for the first time.

Yet the show is primarily designed for TV audiences, says Donald. The ambition, he adds, is to create a show that is unique to London – one that uses landmarks like Big Ben and the London Eye to showcase the capital to the world.

For such a visual event, it’s surprising to learn that the production process first begins with the music. Around September, the Jack Morton team put together a sound track of the year, referencing key news events and top tunes.

The music then dictates the pace and tempo of the firework display. Pyro designer Darryl Fleming, of Titanium Fireworks – who has worked on the London Olympics – designs the display second by second, thinking about the look and mood of the show, from slow and subtle sequences to bombastic crescendos. As part of the preparation, Titanium produce a pre-viz animated film which maps out the display so everybody involved in the production has a good idea of what to expect.

In total, Fleming will fire off 12,000 fireworks on the night. They are launched from three barges, laden with 30 tonnes of equipment, in front of The London Eye, which itself has 2,000 fireworks on it.

The big challenge, Fleming says, is that the audience is “360 degrees around you… and fireworks and members of the public don’t mix very well.” This becomes a big issue in case of bad weather, specifically high, easterly winds which blow towards most of the audience. “You have to have very detailed curtailment plans,” says Fleming.

Adding to the pressure of producing the event, the team cannot load up the London Eye with fireworks until 5.30pm on New Year’s Eve. They can, however, pre-rig the Eye in the days before, allowing them to slot in the fireworks at the last moment. “It is the most nerve-wracking moment – we are still building the most iconic part of the show with six hours to go with the audience in front of us,” says Fleming.

Everything is usually in place by 10pm. The BBC team charged with broadcasting the show is based out of an OB truck in the Ministry of Defence car park. There are ten camera positions feeding into the live broadcast, as well as a helicopter too.

BBC editor of ceremonial events Claire Popplewell has worked on some of the biggest live events of our time, including the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee, and professes not to get nervous ahead of these. But, she says, “This one makes my stomach flip – you don’t get a chance to rehearse.” The most important thing, she adds, is to capture the moment that Big Ben strikes midnight.

The music, lights and fireworks are then automated to fire. As soon as they do, says Popplewell, the OB truck starts to shake and is drowned out by noise. In the midst of all this, her team are trying to work out the right sound mix and balance for the images that are being broadcast to the nation. There are plenty of challenges to deal with along the way too: smoke from the fireworks can drift and obscure key camera positions, while rain can also make shooting difficult.

She tries to frame shots so that the landmarks of London form essential parts of firework show.  Donald adds: “We’re really trying to create a show that is unique to London architecturally - so when you see it through the cameras, you couldn’t be anywhere else.”

Planning for the Mayor of London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display involves over 85 organisations, including  all the emergency services, transport providers and local councils. 306 crew work on site from the 27th December to ready the show - rising to 2,658 crew on the night, including stewards. The display, with 12,000 fireworks, lasts 10mins and 50 seconds and is synchronised and triggered by GPS to Big Ben’s chimes.

Client Mayor of London

Production company
Jack Morton Worldwide
Broadcaster BBC

Project director Jim Donald

Executive producer Tim Collett

Creative director David Zolkwer

Pyrotechnics designer
Darryl Fleming

Lighting designer Durham Marenghi

BBC executive producer Claire Popplewell

BBC producer Victoria Simpson

BBC production manager Caroline Abbott

BBC engineering manager Jeremy Turner

Posted 19 December 2014 by Tim Dams

Is change really in the air for TV diversity?

Are we at a historic tipping point in the long and often shameful history of diversity in the television industry?

Judging by a slew of initiatives announced in recent months by the BBC, ITV, Sky and the BFI, there is a sense that times might be changing for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers in the creative industries. (see below for full details).

Of course, things could hardly get any worse. BAMEs make up 14% of the total UK population, but just 5.4% of the creative industries, according to Creative Skillset’s most recent census.  That’s down from 6.7% in 2009.

The dire figures published by Creative Skillset, as well as passionate interventions by Lenny Henry and government support from Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey, have sparked a round of industry activity on diversity.

Veteran diversity campaigners are confident that real change is the air. “I’m telling you, from my experience, this is the most exciting time we have had dealing with this issue…things are changing,” said Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has worked in TV as a presenter, producer and regulator, speaking at an RTS debate on diversity at the House of Commons last month.

Others are more cautious, though. Speaking at a session devoted to diversity at Televisual’s Factual Festival last month Simon Albury, chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, said there had never been more progress. He added, “Now the new initiatives are great, but they have been overspun and they are far from adequate. There’s much more that needs to be done, but a start has been made.”

Others fear the diversity issue will take a generation to sort, because the TV industry is so deeply nepotistic and continually hires from within a narrow talent pool. It’s self perpetuating too, with an intern culture that favours white middle class kids who can afford to work for free in London.

Albury says that without sustained, external political pressure the broadcasting, film and creative industries cannot be trusted to advance diversity.

Industry execs say that this political pressure has been applied effectively by Vaizey. The Culture Secretary noted, at last month’s RTS event, that Sky’s diversity targets are the most ambitious in the UK industry. Other broadcasters, he added, “could do better”.

Vaizey described ITV’s proposals as “slightly more opaque” and said some regard the BBC proposals as “very unambitious” and that there was “absolutely no doubt at all that diversity will be at the heart of” discussions when Charter renewal kicks off after May 2015’s election. He said he awaited C4’s proposals, due to be published in January “with eager anticipation.”

Vaizey has steered clear of backing quotas and legislation to tackle the issue, as called for by Lenny Henry. But he has pledged not to let the issue fall of the political agenda. If nothing happens, he warned that broadcasters should be “wary of what policiticans might come back with.”

Certainly, it appears that broadcasters genuinely want change – but some are moving faster than others.

Sky has been lauded by many for setting aggressive targets both onscreen and offscreen (see below).

Sky director of entertainment Stuart Murphy says the decision is as much a business opportunity as an ethical issue.  “We want to reflect the world we’re in,” he says, adding: “If we don’t get viewers and subscribers, we go out of business. The fact that 14% of Britain is non-white is a total commercial opportunity for us firstly to make sure 20% of people on screen are non-white by the end of the next calendar year.”

Murphy believes indies should have no trouble hitting the target. “If an indie comes to me and says that out of 60m people (in the UK) and an enormous media industry that's not just on TV, but in film and on the internet, that one of their six senior people can't be non-white, I would not think they're telling the truth, or they have not worked hard enough.”

The BBC, meanwhile, is accused by Albury of “placing its own BAME targets in the long grass, beyond licence renewal, in 2017.”

“The BBC has provided us with a torrent of warm words and some interesting initiatives, but the truth is, that the BBC has failed to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to BAME employment,” says Albury. He argues that the £2.1m set aside for the Diversity Creative Talent Fund is not enough. “When the BBC wanted to drive regional production, it ring fenced money, where it matters. The result was an increase in regional production by 400%.

The BBC’s commissioning editor for religion Aaquil Ahmed defends the corporation’s diversity initiatives, pointing out that its workforce has more than the double BAME staff than the industry average of 5%.

He says progress is happening, but that “it can often take time and there are often other people or things that have priority as well.”

Channel 4’s deputy creative director Ralph Lee says the whole industry has really come together to tackle the issue as never before.  “In the next two or three years, if we get it right, we could bring about lasting change in the industry.”

He adds that sorting diversity is not a quick fix though, and says C4 will publish its guidelines in January after consultation with its indie suppliers. “We have to consult them, and we also have to put in place training and guidance that will help them bring about the change, not just say there’s the problem, there’s the target, over to you.”

In particular, C4 and others are concerned about the legality of implementing targets to boost diversity. The Equalities Act is seen, ironically, as a barrier to positive change because it prohibits employers from making hiring decisions based on ethnicity.

Broadcasters are now asking politicians to provide guidance for how they can navigate the Equalities Act to lawfully implement positive action.

In the meantime others want money, not just targets, to sort out the problem. Simone Pennant of the TV Collective says: “We’ve been having this conversation for years and years and years…we’ve had various different schemes and initiatives. What we need is some money to jump start an industry.” She backs a significant ring fenced fund for BAME production companies, as outlined in the Lenny Henry plan.

Pennant worries that the momentum of recent months could peter out, as it has done in the past. “There’s a real concern that we’re going to continually have this conversation,” she says. And that could be disastrous for the industry too. “What’s happened is [BAME] people are no longer looking at the broadcasters to get their content away. They’re recognising that there's digital, there’s online, there’s various different places. The world is getting smaller.”

Diversity Timeline

July 2013: Creative Skillset releases industry workforce survey, showing that the participation of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers in the creative media is down from 6.7% to 5.4%.

November 2013: Oona King chairs Diversify event at Bafta, a one day forum on diversity launched in response to Creative Skillset figures. Speakers include Lenny Henry, Gurinder Chadha, Amma Asante, Pat Young, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Danny Cohen.

January 2014: Culture minister Ed Vaizey hosts diversity summit for UK creative industries. 30 senior execs attend the two hour meeting, where Lenny Henry calls on broadcasters to ringfence money to increase BAME people on screen and behind the scenes. His proposals are dubbed ‘the Henry plan’

March 2014: Lenny Henry delivers the prestigious annual Bafta television lecture, calling for new legislation to boost diversity.

June 2014: BBC director general Tony Hall announces package of measures to boost diversity, including a £2.1m Diversity Creative Talent Fund, a senior leadership training programme for six execs from BAME backgrounds, and a new Independent Diversity Action Group to be chaired by the DG. Existing targets are for on-air BAME portrayal to increase from 10.4% to 15% by 2017 and off air from 8.3% to 10% in 2017 and 15% by 2020.

July 2014:
BFI says UK film productions that receive money from its Film Fund must adhere to new diversity quotas. The BFI’s ‘three ticks’ assessment requires films to demonstrate commitment across three areas: screen diversity, off screen diversity and employment opportunities.

August 2014: Sky announces targets to improve BAME representation. By the end of 2015, all brand new, non-returning shows on Sky entertainment channels will have people from BAME backgrounds in at least 20% of significant on-screen roles. All original programmes will have someone with BAME background in at lest one senior production role. 20% of writers on all shows will be from BAME backgrounds.

November 2014: ITV director of television Peter Fincham writes to producers to launch its Social Partnership programming, asking them to make sure programmes visually reflect the diverse make up of Britain and to think about broadening the diversity of their workforce.

November 2014: C4 reveals that it is on the brink of revealing its diversity initiative to be launched in January. Commissioners will be expected to meet clear diversity objectives, with their bonuses linked to performance on the issue.

Posted 08 December 2014 by Tim Dams
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