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Interview: BBC Studios director Mark Linsey

The director of BBC Studios, Mark Linsey, sets out his stall as the corporation’s production arm prepares to launch into the market next month. Tim Dams listens to his pitch

It doesn’t take long in the company of Mark Linsey to work out how the boss of BBC Studios is positioning the corporation’s production arm when it launches into the market next month.

The word ‘creativity’ pops up in conversation dozens of times. The new structure of BBC Studios is ‘all about driving the creativity’ and ‘empowering creativity’ within the organisation. The inhouse production team is looking forward to ‘taking its creativity’ to other broadcasters. Rival indies, he says, will appreciate the BBC’s ‘commitment to creativity’. Just in case the focus is not clear, he adds that success will come if ‘our creativity is as high as it is now.’

The launch of BBC Studios as a fully commercial operation on April 1 looks set to be a pivotal moment in the short history of the UK production sector.

For the first time, the BBC’s inhouse production arm will be able to go out and pitch for business from rival broadcasters. At the same time, the corporation has scrapped the guarantee that 50% of all BBC programmes are made inhouse – meaning that nearly all BBC commissions will be up for competition.

Linsey, who began his career in the indie sector before rising to BBC controller of entertainment commissioning and then acting director of TV, took over the BBC Studios project in March 2016 in the wake of Peter Salmon’s abrupt departure for Endemol Shine.

Since then, Linsey has steered BBC Studios through a complex regulatory approval process, which culminated with BBC Trust approval in December. He has also restructured BBC Studios, creating three genre divisions – scripted, factual and entertainment run by three execs with business and commercial backgrounds: Nick Betts, Lisa Opie and Roger Leatham (see box on next page). Linsey has also cut some 300 jobs at BBC Studios. At launch, total staff numbers will be around 1600, a mixture of continuing and fixed term contracts.

Linsey says he sought to make the leadership of BBC Studios as flat as possible. “I wanted to get rid of as many editorial and management layers as I could, so I brought in three leaders who are known for their operational and business nous.” Their role, he explains, is to empower the creative heads underneath them to do their best work. The factual department, for example, has six individual units within it – from Science, headed by Andrew Cohen, to Unscripted Productions, the new home of popular factual shows such as Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow, run by Jon Swain.

Each unit will have their own development teams. “We want to invest in their creative ambitions,” says Linsey.

Citing BBC Studios’ shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, Planet Earth II to Mrs Brown’s Boys, Linsey stresses the range of its programming. “It all does point to us being the best programme makers in the world, quite simply. When you look at the range and creativity, it is quite unique.”

This breadth of BBC Studios programming is undisputed, as is its geographical spread with bases in cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Salford and Glasgow. Linsey says this “commitment to having meaningful production bases right across the UK” is another real strength of BBC Studios in its pitch to broadcasters, allowing it to “make programmes that reflect the UK.”

But its ability to win commissions in the face of indie competition is less sure. BBC Studios always came off worse when directly competing with indies under the Window of Creative Competition (WoCC) that set aside a 25% share of BBC commissions to be contested in the open market. 

“We have to be more competitive. We recognise that,” says Linsey. The way to do that, he says, is to be “as focussed as we can on our creativity.” Indeed, the restructure, he says, has been about making BBC Studios more competitive. “We need to have the flexibility in our operating model, and to employ people in the way our competitors do. We need to make sure we are being efficient so we can focus as much of our spend as possible on creativity and programmes.”

But will top creatives need better incentives to work at BBC Studios, when greater riches may be available in the indie sector? Linsey replies that part of the pitch to creatives to work for BBC Studios is the range of opportunities it offers to them. “If it is in drama, you can be writing a script that is Doctor Who-like and that has commercial and reputational ambition. Or it could be a two-parter which has reputational capabilities, such as To Walk Invisible.” BBC Studios, he adds, will continue to produce “reputational one-offs”, which are eschewed by some indies in favour of the commercial holy grail of a returning series.

Is this sustainable though? “Yes, I believe it is – if we can make ourselves as efficient as possible. We can use the more commercial aspects of our business to support the less commercial.”

He adds that BBC Studios will also look to the indie sector to mirror their reward structures. “Obviously if we are going to operate competitively in the marketplace, we need to be able to offer the sort of incentives that already exist in the market place. So we will be working really hard to make sure that we can reward people appropriately.”

Linsey says he has already begun having “high level conversations” with other broadcasters in the UK about the BBC Studios offer. (No detailed pitches are allowed until April).

The feedback he has had is encouraging. “What appeals to them, and why they are saying the door is open, is they look at the shows we produce…and they know we can deliver quality and know we can deliver value. Because that is something we are used to doing for licence fee payers.”

And he believes the opportunities for BBC Studios are significant. Domestically, he says the BBC is “without doubt our main customer, that is where our focus will be. But we will be – we are – talking to other domestic broadcasters.”

In the US market, he points out that the BBC has long made programmes with PBS and Discovery, so “we have good relationships globally already.” He also cites the opportunities from SVoD players, noting that that BBC Studios is working on the Amazon and BBC commissioned adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Yet Linsey is also acutely conscious of the challenges that BBC Studios faces in its launch year. “While we are a well established producer…we are going into a different market that is highly competitive. And there will be adjustments for us to make sure we are at our competitive best. So we need time to develop and mature in the marketplace.”

The BBC Trust has already acknowledged the challenges facing BBC Studios. When it gave its approval to BBC Studios, the Trust pointed to research from consultants OC&C which concluded that BBC Studios would lose share of UK commissioning spend to 2020 – and that its total share of commissioning spend would not exceed 13% of the market. OC&C said it believed only a ‘conservative number of programmes’ would be produced for other broadcasters and that this, together with the move to contestable BBC commissioning, would initially result in a falling share for BBC Studios.

Even so, many in the indie production community have voiced concern that BBC commissioners will favour their BBC colleagues. BBC Studios, after all, won the first open tender for Question of Sport. It lost the second, Songs of Praise, but won the important tender for Holby City. Linsey plays down the fears: “We are not going to win all the tenders. The process sits with commissioning. It is very fair – it has to be in everyone’s interest that there is a level playing field for studios as much as indies for content.”

Indeed, Linsey is clearly aware that the launch period for BBC will come with myriad challenges as well as opportunity. Asked if BBC Studios’ reported £400m turnover will rise or fall as it moves to a commercial footing, he says: “My expectations are pretty realistic. I think it will be hard to…you haven’t got the 50% guarantee anymore, there is uncertainty of revenue around that, and you have the backdrop of tendering, that adds to the uncertainty. I think that £400m figure is based on the 50% guarantee. We have to manage expectations around that figure.”

Linsey concludes: “I think it is going to take us a while before we bed in as a business. We have to allow and expect that. For me the real success will be if our creativity is as high as it is now. I believe if your creativity is strong, then success will follow.”

Most indies believe the launch of BBC Studios should be positive for business because of the removal of the 50% inhouse guarantee that BBC Studios enjoyed. 

“I don’t think anyone sees this as a bad thing. It has opened up the BBC to independents,” says All3Media COO Sara Geater, who is also the chair of Pact.

She warns that the indie sector will have to keep an eye on the relationship between a commercial BBC Studios and its public service parent. Specifically, she flags up the need to be ‘careful’ about the BBC or BBC Worldwide cross subsidising the Studios arm. She also says the BBC has to ensure indies have a level playing field when competing for commissions, and that pricing is fair and transparent.

Most indies assume BBC Studios stands to lose more than it will gain from 1 April. “It’s a tough ask for the BBC,” says Mentorn and Pioneer chief executive Jonathan Hewes. “Refocusing from one broadcaster to producing for anyone who will give you money requires a very different skillset.”

There are three key production divisions in BBC Studios: Factual; Scripted; and Entertainment, Music and Events. Around 1600 staff work at BBC Studios, which has a turnover of £400m.

1. Scripted
Director Nick Betts
There are three units within Scripted, each with their own focus:

Doctor Who, Silent Witness, War & Peace, 
Rillington Place, Our Girl, Father Brown, Luther, Thirteen
Continuing Drama
EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City, Doctors,  River City and Pobol y Cwm
Mrs Brown’s Boys, Tracey Ullman’s Show, Jonathan Creek, Two Doors Down, Josh, Inside No.9, Citizen Khan, Only Fools and Horses, Miranda, The Office, The Thick Of It

2. Factual
Director Lisa Opie
There are six units within Factual, based around the UK:

Natural History Unit (Bristol)
Planet Earth II, Life in the Snow, Springwatch, Natural World, Big Blue Live, Elephant Family and Me
Science Unit (London/Glasgow)
Forces of Nature with Brian Cox, Horizon, Stargazing Live, Trust Me I’m A Doctor, 
What’s the Right Diet For You
Documentary Unit (London)
Murdered By My Father, The Met: Policing 
London, The Secret History of My Family, 
Our World War, Britain’s Forgotten Slave 
Owners, Louis Theroux: Savile and Life 
and Death Row
Unscripted Productions (Bristol/Cardiff/Belfast)
Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow, DIY SOS, Simply Nigella, Gardener’s World and Bargain Hunt
Topical and Live  (London/Salford)
The One Show, Watchdog, Rip Off Britain, Arctic Live, Building Cars Live, Volcano Live and The World’s Busiest Cities
Pacific Quay Productions (Glasgow)
Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets Of Orkney, Countryside 999, This Farming Life and Imagine

3. Entertainment, 
Music and Events
Director Roger Leatham
The exact stucture of this wide-ranging department is yet to be announced. Its shows span entertainment, factual entertainment formats, music programming and national events coverage.
Strictly Come Dancing, Let It Shine, Question of Sport, Dragon’s Den, Children in Need, Sport Relief, Later with Jools Holland, Glastonbury, 
The Proms, New Year Celebrations and Remembrance Weekend

Posted 23 March 2017 by Tim Dams

The fixed rig gets adventurous

Two new C4 shows - Mutiny and The Polygamists - reveal how the fixed rig is becoming ever more flexible. Their producers explain how the rig is now just one tool among many for telling a good story.

Big Brother famously ushered in the era of fixed rig production. The technology employed on the reality format was used on the first fixed rig ob doc series The Family in 2008 and then on One Born Every Minute in 2009.

Since then, the rig has become a staple filming device in hospitals, police stations, schools and hotels, allowing programme makers to film people in an authentic way in spaces where they couldn’t easily put crews.

Recently, the rig has started to move out of these traditional TV precincts into smaller, more intimate spaces. In 2015, Channel 4 – acknowledged as the home of fixed rig docs – broadcast Renegade Productions’ The Tribe, which took the rig to a tribal village in southern Ethiopia. More recently, Rogan Productions placed a fixed-rig of cameras inside a small, family-run gun shop in Michigan for Channel 4’s Gun Shop.

The rigs themselves have changed too. Often the rigs are smaller and more flexible, and are used in combination with observational handheld cameras.

The BBC, which for many years eschewed the fixed rig, has started using mini-rigs in this way too – as just one tool amongst many to capture a story.

For example, Keo Films BBC1 cancer documentary, The Big C & Me, used a mini-rig to film in a room where people are given chemotherapy.  BBC1’s Ambulance also had a mini-rig in ambulances, but also made use of footage filmed by handheld cameras.

Two new Channel 4 shows – Mutiny and The Polygamists (w/t) – are good examples of how the rig is moving into newer, more adventurous spaces.

The Polygamists, from Keo Films, uses a rig as well as handheld cameras to film the complex dynamics of Fundamentalist Mormon family life.  

The 4x60-min series features a group of Fundamentalist Mormons living in the Utah desert, in a community where their homes have been carved into the face of a vast sandstone rock. The homes have all the mod-cons of most houses – it’s just the family set up is different. One family, for example, consists of one husband, three wives and 12 children.

Vicky Mitchell, series producer of The Polygamist, says the production team debated long and hard about whether the beautiful Utah environment was the right place for a rig, which might tie them to a domestic setting and feel too claustrophobic.

So they decided on a balance between a rig and handheld cameras. “We felt this at its heart this was a series about plural marriage and juggling multiple relationships. And what the rig is incredible at is giving you those unguarded moments of intimacy. We felt the rig would capture the more subtle dynamics of the relationship between the husband, wife and sister wives.”

The house of one Fundamentalist Mormon family house was rigged, with 14 cameras and 17 positions placed in the communal living spaces. Two traditional handheld crews also filmed. In the end, some 70% of the footage was captured by traditional filming, and about 30% from the rig, which was set up by Ben Hoffman at the Complete Camera Company.

“I think that is the way things are going these days. We’ll see more and more shows that have a rig element to them – the rig is becoming another tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal like a GoPro or an Interretron,” says Mitchell.

One of the big concerns for the production team was how to balance the rig and handheld footage. The latter was shot on an FS7 with prime lenses, giving it a filmic quality. Even though rig cameras have come on in leaps and bounds, they are no match for FS7 footage. However, Mitchell says this is not such an issue for audiences. “When rigs were starting out, people agonised about how to marry up the two styles. These days it is less of an issue. If the audience is engaged with your stories and your characters, then I don’t think they really care if one thing looks ever so slightly different than the other.”

Another good example of how rigs are adapting is Mutiny. Airing this month, the doc sees nine men replicate the long journey in a tiny open boat across the South Pacific made by Captain Bligh and a handful of loyal men after the Mutiny on the Bounty. 

Produced by Windfall Films, footage of the journey was captured by two embedded crew as well as a handful of fixed rig cameras attached to replica 23ft wooden boat. One, for example, was placed at the top of the mast, giving good coverage of the boat. Others, says Windfall chief executive David Dugan, were excellent at capturing footage when the embedded crew were too busy to film, or to pick up unexpected moments, like dolphins swimming past or quiet, unguarded moments of conversation on the boat.

The boat was rigged by Steve Selfe, the founder of on-board camera specialists Extreme Tec. He says: “The main challenge was to make a system that was easy to change over by very tired crew in all weather condition and carry on working for 60 days in extreme conditions.”

The system worked as follows: four broadcast quality, miniature HD waterproof cameras in fixed positions were connected to a hub that provided power and mic pre-amps. In turn, the four cameras and sound were connected to a master Odyssey recorder which could record for 12 hours if needed. 800 watts of lithium batteries powered the system and needed changing twice a day.

All video and audio was time code synchronised to a master clock on board a support ship, which followed about two miles behind. The live pictures were also transmitted back to the follow ship for the production team to log. The support boat was crucial, but tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, says Dugan. “We were typically two miles behind. We obviously wanted them to have the experience of being adrift in the Pacific without us interfering too much. But it meant we could monitor what was happening, partly as a safety issue and also so our edit producer could just see what was happening. The stuff we picked up was not broadcast quality though, so we still needed to retrieve the hard disk and swap them over. “

In fact, the kit was changed over twice a day via a complex but rudimentary method which saw fresh recorder and cameras loaded into a waterproof barrel and thrown off the back of the support boat on a 200m line for the Bounty’s End to pick up and swap over.

Footage from the rig and embedded cameramen was also complimented by pictures filmed by DoP John Livesey, of Floating Focus Facilities, who captured the boat to boat sequences and operated a drone used on the shoot. Dugan says the kit held out well despite being given “the most horrendous punishment” in a unforgiving environment. “Sea water is just the worst thing for any kind of cameras system.”

Case study: Mutiny, C4

David Dugan,
executive producer

Windfall Film’s C4 series Mutiny recreates the 1789 Pacific journey of Captain Bligh after the Mutiny of the Bounty

Why did you use a rig on the boat? “We had two embedded cameramen who were getting quite a lot of material. But because they were also crew members, things sometimes got too busy. Also we wanted the opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations that might just occur when they were not filming.”

Tell us about the rig. “We had tiny little cameras, rigged at various places. One looked down from the top of the mast – it gave a lovely top shot of them all.”

How did you get it to work out in the Pacific?
“It involved quite a bit of engineering. We used an Odyssey system, which meant all the material recorded on to a hard disk which we then had to retrieve twice a day. We also had a wireless link to our support ship which followed a couple of miles behind and could pick up the signal.The stuff we picked up was not broadcast quality though, so we still needed to retrieve the hard disk and swap them over.”

How did you do that? “In a very complicated way. We had a complete change of kit,  so the cameras, the Odyssey etc, were loaded into in a waterproof barrel and thrown off the back of our support boat on a very long line. The Bounty boat would slow down and sail in, hook up the barrel, take out the fresh cameras and hard disk and put in the old ones.”

What kind of footage did the rig provide?
“It provided coverage. It was really good when you had rough weather or things happened like dolphins swimming past when we didn’t have the camera recording. It was different. It just gives sense of what it’s like, with wide angle shots, of being on this boat.”

How did the rig stand up to the sea? “It was given the most horrendous punishment and sea water is just worst thing for any kind of camera system. These cameras were pretty amazing. The thing we were most worried about was the connectors to the Odyssey hard drive, we didn’t want to get water into that. So we had a very well thought out, protected, bag with water proof seals on it. The boat could have turned over and righted itself and it would still have been fine.”

Case study: The Polygamists

Vicky Mitchell, 
Series producer

Keo Films’ The Polygamists is an upcoming 4x60-min series for Channel 4 about a group of Fundamentalist Mormons living in Utah

What did you rig?
“We rigged one of the houses used by a family with one husband, three wives and 12 children. The house is split into three apartments. Each wife has their own separate apartment – and all are interlinked – and the husband spends a night with each one on rotation.  The house is in an extraordinary place, blasted into an enormous sandstone rock in middle of Utah desert.  We had two exterior cameras, then cameras in each of the communal spaces in each wives’ apartment. We had 14 cameras and 17 positions.”

Where was the production team based? “This Fundamentalist Mormon community is entirely off grid. Each family has solar shed to power their houses, about 100m from their houses. Our team set up home in the  solar shed. It was in the middle of the baking desert heat – it was pretty unbearable. We set up our gallery in the solar shed, then had to dig trenches to run cable to the houses. The rig team was very small – there was four of us. We had two traditional handheld crews there as well.”

What were the challenges of filming in a domestic setting? “It is not action packed drama like you get in a hospital or school. You sit through a lot of people washing up or watching TV. You have to hold your nerve and trust that something will happen. The magic is in the detail. It is in the tiny interactions. Particularly with something like plural marriage, the rig allowed us to capture the fault-lines and foibles of the relationship in a way which traditional filming couldn’t do.”

This article is taken from the March issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here

Posted 16 March 2017 by Tim Dams

The Televisual Book - out this week

The Televisual Book, a compilation of the best of Televisual magazine’s authoritative industry surveys, reports and features from the past 12 months, is published this week.

The 2017 edition of the Book is an indispensable, in-depth guide to the UK creative industries. It reveals the key talent, trends and kit in production as well as being a source of inspiration for programme makers.

The first section of The Televisual Book reveals the leading production companies in the UK, and is based on Televisual’s long-running Production 100, Film 40, Commercials 30 and Corporate 50 surveys.

Part two of The Televisual Book throws the spotlight on commissioning and funding. It opens with a look at commissioning trends in factual, drama and entertainment, and moves on to reveal top tips for budgeting productions, courtesy of The Production Guild. Part two also includes the highlights of Televisual’s annual Salary Survey.

Next, The Televisual Book focuses on the best kit in the production market today, showcasing the most popular, reliable and industry-rated technology.

We move on to the shoot in part four, which comprises a series of production masterclasses from top programme making talent; there’s input from DoPs, directors, aerial specialists and lighting experts. We also include highlights from Televisual’s annual Studios Report, which profiles the main studio spaces in the UK, as well as excerpts from the Outside Broadcast Survey.

Last but not least, the book moves on to post production. Televisual’s benchmark Facilities 50 survey rounds up the top post production companies as well as revealing the underlying trends in the sector.  We also hear invaluable craft advice from the world’s top editors and colourists. And we look at archive and music too.

The Televisual Book is free for subscribers to Televisual or costs £60 per copy. To subscribe to the magazine or to order a copy of The Book, click here

Posted 08 March 2017 by Tim Dams
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