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Tories will have freer hand to dictate media policy

With the Conservatives set for a majority in parliament, they will now have a greater opportunity to dictate media policy than when in Coalition with the Lib Dems.

The Conservative manifesto picked out two areas of action specific to the broadcasting and production sector: notably the BBC licence fee and tax credits for the creative industries.

The Tories have traditionally been cooler towards the BBC than either former coalition partners the Lib Dems or Labour.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives offered qualified support for the BBC, saying: “We will deliver a comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries. That is why we froze the BBC licence fee and will keep it frozen, pending Charter renewal” [in 2016].

This implies that the Tories might bear down on the BBC budget in the next Charter settlement. It’s a prospect that will worry many in the creative sector, particularly the thriving independent production sector for whom the BBC is the largest commissioner in the market.

The Conservatives added that they will “continue to ‘top slice’ the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country.”

The rapidly negotiated licence fee settlement of 2010 established this precedent, with BBC income used for broadband roll out as well as the World Service and Jeremy Hunt’s Local TV experiment.

The Conservatives also used their manifesto to pledge to continue tax reliefs for the creative industries, which have boosted areas such as film, TV drama and animation. “We will continue these reliefs, with a tax credit for children’s television next year, and expand them where possible.”

Tellingly there was no mention in the Tory manifesto about the future of Channel 4. Press speculation in the run up to the election suggested that the Conservatives were looking at privatising the broadcaster, hoping to raise some £1bn for the Treasury.

However, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey played down this speculation in a BBC Media Show interview last month.

Posted 08 May 2015 by Tim Dams

Sundance study reveals barriers facing female directors

There’s lots of insight into the barriers and issues facing female directors in a new study published today by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles.

The study looked at how the careers of female directors had panned out after premiering a film at the Sundance Film Festival, and why there continues to be a huge gender disparity in film-making.

What’s interesting is that the gender gap widens progressively over the course of directing careers so that ulimately the ratio of male to female directors stands at just over 23 to 1 for the top 1,300 top films from 2002 to 2014.

The study found that women directed one-quarter of the 208 films in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014.

Of these, the study reported that:

- Gender is a significant factor in the types of stories told. Three-quarters of all SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies featured drama, comedy and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5 percent) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69 percent). Lead character gender was also associated with director gender. Male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads.

- Gender did not affect whether the Sundance Competition films received theatrical distribution. Of the 208 SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies from 2002-2014, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1 percent) and 31 did not. Female-directed films (88.7 percent) were just as likely to receive distribution out of SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition as male-directed films (83.9 percent).

- However, there are differences in the types of companies that distribute male- and female-directed films. Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company—companies with deeper pockets and greater reach.

- When it comes to releasing films on a wide release, above 250 screens, male directors outnumber female directors by a factor of 6 to 1.

- The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female director.

- The prevalence of women decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film. In 2014, there was a 25 percent difference between the percentage of female directors at SFF (26.9 percent) and the percentage of female directors across the top 100 films (1.9 percent). This is almost double the gap observed in 2002.

The study also used 59 interviews (39 male, 20 female) with buyers and sellers who were asked about the reasons for the lack of female directors in top 100 films. Forty-one female directors were also interviewed.

The key conclusions were:

• Perception of a Gendered Marketplace (44%): Female directors are perceived to make films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace. In contrast, films by males are perceived to reach wide and lucrative segments of the market. One explanation for this difference is the tendency to “think director, think male,” or to describe the job of a director or profitable film content in masculine terms.

• Scarcity of Talent Pool and Experience (42%): Industry decision-makers perceive that there is a scarcity of female directors and a small pool to choose from in top-grossing films. Those interviewed named, on average, three female directors who might be included on consideration lists. In contrast, 45 different women helmed one of the 100 top-grossing movies across 13 years, and over 100 different women brought a narrative film to Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2014.

• Women’s Perceived Lack of Ambition (25%): Participants mentioned or questioned the degree of interest women have in 1) the directing position generally and 2) genre-based jobs, including action and tent-pole films. Sellers were more likely to report this impediment than buyers were. However, when asked directly about their ambitions, nearly half of female directors (43.9 percent) interviewed articulated an interest in larger-budget, action or blockbuster films.

• Industry Gender Imbalance (22%): Responses described the skewed representation of women in the film industry. This includes the predominance of men in gatekeeping positions and an industry socialization process and/or culture (e.g., boy’s club) that is male-dominated.

• Little Support and Few Opportunities (14%): Individuals mentioned or questioned whether agents and managers are putting women up for jobs and the scarcity of chances or opportunities given to women.

• Competence Doubted (12%): Participants mentioned or speculated about beliefs that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew. When asked if their authority had been doubted, 70 percent of female directors interviewed answered that they had been challenged by a work colleague.

The study was authored by Dr. Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School.

“Female filmmakers face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies and ambitions. Now we need to move a heavy boat through deep waters, and WIF is committed to year-round action until sustainable gender parity is achieved,” said Cathy Schulman, President of Women In Film Los Angeles.

Posted 22 April 2015 by Tim Dams

Salary Survey 2015: results in full

Televisual’s 20th annual salary survey is now available to read in full in the Reports and Surveys section of our website.

Based on feedback from hundreds of Televisual readers, the salary survey reveals the weekly and daily rates for key jobs in the industry, as well as information about pay by sector, region, age and gender.

The survey paints a mixed picture of pay rates in broadcasting and production. 

On the plus side, the median salary according to the survey is £45k a year  compared to an average UK salary of £26.5k.

A producer can expect to earn £46.5k while an offline editor is likely to take home £47.5k. The median salary of a director is £58k; for a series producer and exec producer it is £70k and £90k respectively.

43.5% of respondents say their their earnings are up – compared to 14.2% who say they have fallen, and 42.3% who report they have stayed the same.

However, as in previous years, the feedback to the salary survey is dominated by concerns that tightening broadcaster programme budgets are continuing to bear down on salaries and working conditions.

Many individuals say they are working harder and for longer hours – but for little extra money.

To read the full salary survey report, click here.

Posted 21 April 2015 by Tim Dams

The campaign to save BBC3

The plan to close BBC3 as a TV channel was described as ‘the biggest strategic decision the BBC has made in over a decade,’ when it was announced last year by director of television Danny Cohen.

But an increasingly vocal campaign is arguing that the corporation’s decision is misguided.

Led by Hat Trick boss Jimmy Mulville and Avalon founder Jon Thoday, it’s a campaign that appears to be gaining traction. They aim to persuade the BBC to reverse its decision, just as it did with BBC6 Music.

The pair recently met with some 100 indies at a Pact organised event to explain their alternative proposals for BBC3. They are also meeting with the BBC Trust to lobby against BBC3’s closure.

Talking to Televisual, their determination to reverse the decision is readily apparent. Despite being rivals who have built up indies that between them produce shows such as Have I Got News for You, Episodes, Russell Howard’s Good News and Catastrophe, the pair make a compelling and forceful lobbying team.

They spell out their position in a rapid-fire but measured delivery. As soon as one makes a point, the other quickly picks up the argument and takes it further. “We are finding that more and more people are coming to us, and everyone agrees that, first, BBC3 shouldn’t go, and secondly, there are plenty of ways to keep it going,” says Thoday.

The pair stress that BBC3’s closure as a broadcast channel has not yet been approved by the BBC Trust. However, they say that BBC management has already begun dismantling the channel, pointing out that one of its staple shows, animation Family Guy, has just been picked up by ITV2.

Mulville says: “The BBC made a show of wanting to retain Family Guy, but it was cosmetic. The fact is that they are dismantling the channel and setting up an online service without the permission of the Trust – and the Trust are basically doing absolutely nothing.” He describes it as a “kind of quiet British scandal.”

BBC management, he adds, are not willing to engage with them to explore other options for the TV channel that would prevent its closure.

The pair has put forward three proposals for BBC3. Firstly, that the BBC should change its mind and keep BBC3 going. Secondly, that Hat Trick and Avalon with a consortium of other indies should buy BBC3 and run it under a different name. And thirdly, that they should form a ‘statutory corporation’ similar to C4 to run it as a not for profit broadcaster.

The first of these proposals has the strongest support from the indie community. This became clear at the recent meeting with fellow indies, where a straw poll conducted by Pact chief executive John McVay after the producers’ presentation revealed strong support for preserving BBC3 as a linear channel. But, according to a report in Broadcast, there was only a smattering of raised hands in support for proposals to buy BBC3 or set up a Channel 4-style public service broadcaster.

Steve Coogan and Henry Normal’s indie Baby Cow – producer of BBC3 hits Gavin and Stacey and The Mighty Boosh – has already backed their campaign, which is set to be joined by a high profile and as yet unnamed executive from the online world.

Mulville argues that an online channel needs to have a relationship with a TV channel in order for the online channel to work properly. “You need the synergy of both platforms…the future is multiplatform, not single platform.”

Both argue that BBC3 is an important service for 16-34 year olds, and that its closure would make the BBC ‘more middle aged, more middle class and whiter’. They point out that the channel has been a crucial gateway for new talent, ideas, executives and production companies in the TV industry.They also note that the BBC is the only broadcaster closing channels. “Everybody else is actually growing channels,” says Mulville. Replacing BBC3 with a +1 service for BBC1, meanwhile, is merely a “ratings grab where no money goes into programmes.” 

They explain that the BBC has invested around £1bn in the channel. To simply close it and move it online makes no business sense: rather the BBC could realise some of that investment by selling the channel slot while carrying on with their online plans for BBC3. Mulville and Thoday have previously spoken of paying £100m for the slot occupied by the channel.

The pair question whether the closure of BBC3 actually saves the corporation any money. The BBC has said the move will save £50m a year, but £30m will be reinvested in drama for BBC1. Further money would be spent on the BBC1 catch up service and running BBC3 online.  “We are not convinced there will be any saving,” says Thoday.

They also rebut criticism that their call to save BBC3 is motivated by self-interest as key suppliers of new talent and shows to the channel. They say they are not looking to become channel owners, and are busy running their own companies – and would prefer not to spend valuable time campaigning. “We are doing this because we see this as a disaster for the industry,” says Thoday.

Mulville admits their plan is driven by “enlightened self interest.” Their campaign against the closure of BBC3 was hatched nine months ago over a breakfast meeting. “We couldn’t believe they were actually closing a service they had spent a billion pounds of licence fee on, and had got working very well,” says Mulville.

What started off as a “cheeky bid” for the channel has now become very serious, they say. “We realised the BBC hadn’t thought of any alternative beyond just shutting it down,” he adds.

“If anybody can find an argument why it isn’t in the interest of the industry that money is invested in new programmes for young viewers, then I would like to see it,” says Thoday. Mulville chips in: “They already have a fantastic catch up service – BBC iPlayer.”

Cohen hit back at their plan to buy the channel in an open letter published in February, saying they could not use the BBC3 brand name for a commercial service, could not have the EPG slot which is reserved for public service channels and would not have access to a very large proportion of programme rights.

The pair responded by saying they did not want the BBC3 brand name, and that rebranding channels – such as Dave – is a well-established practice.  They also acknowledged that the BBC3 EPG slot is not within the gift of the BBC, but argue their proposals – which include an increase in original production spend of £30m – make more sense than a catch up channel. On the issue of rights, they say that programme makers who have produced shows for BBC3 would welcome the opportunity to continue providing programming for a linear TV channel ‘rather than see their work struggle for viewers on a much diminished online channel.’

BBC3 details
- The BBC announced plans in March 2014 to close BBC3 as a TV channel in autumn 2015 and to replace it as an online service. The change is subject to approval of the BBC Trust.

- Hat Trick’s Jimmy Mulville and Avalon’s Jon Thoday mounted a £100m bid in January 2015 to buy the TV channel, with a commitment to increase its programme spend.

- The BBC responded, saying “it’s not for sale because it’s not closing”.

- The BBC Trust is currently consulting on the managment’s proposals, and is set to publish its initial conclusions soon. 

- The BBC says its plans would mean saving over £50m a year. Of that, £30m would go into drama on BBC1. The freed up spectrum would be used to extend CBBC by two hours and to provide a BBC1 +1 service.

- A Save BBC3 petition, signed by more than 270,000 people, was delivered to the BBC Trust on Feb 15. Labour MP John McDonald tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons opposing the closure.

- The BBC3 content budget was approximately £60m in 2013/14, of which £54m was spent on originations including repeats. Its content spend will decline by approximately £30m as a result of the service changes.

- Mulville and Thoday wrote to the BBC Trust in February saying, if they bought the channel, they expected BBC3 revenues to be £150m to £170m, content costs to be £100m to £120m, and overheads to be £15m to £20m.

- BBC3 has a viewing share of 1.5%. Its average weekly 15 min reach was 20.5% in 2013. The total volume of viewing was 1.15 billion hours.

- BBC3 was launched on 9 February 2003. Hit shows to originate on the channel include Gavin and Stacey, Little Britain, Bad Education, Bluestone 42, Our War, The Fades and The Revolution will be Televised.

Posted 10 April 2015 by Tim Dams

Mip TV picks: best of British shows

The MipTV international programme sales market kicks off in Cannes this month (13-16 April).

As ever, there will be a significant UK contingent at the market, touting the best shows and formats made by British producers to international broadcasters. Up for grabs is a slice of the estimated £1.3bn that the UK generates each year from selling its television shows around the world.

Here, Televisual names its top Mip picks – the British produced shows that will be launched in Cannes that look set to generate strong interest from international buyers. They range from buzz dramas like Humans and Safe House, through to factual such as Bangkok Airport, comedy including The Delivery Man and entertainment formats like Prized Apart.
1. Safe House
Producer: Eleventh Hour Films
Broadcaster: ITV1
Distributor: All3Media International
Directed by Marc Evans (Hinterland, Collision), Safe House tells the story of a married couple who turn their guest house in the remote Lake District into a police safe house. Their first guests are a family at great risk, pursued by a violent man with an unknown agenda. Starring Christopher Eccleston, Marsha Thomason and Paterson Joseph, it’s billed as a compelling ‘event’ thriller, delivering a fresh take on the investigative crime genre. All3Media EVP of marketing Rachel Glaister says Evans has done a brilliant job directing Safe House. “There is a real buzz about this show overseas…and we are expecting a string of sales.”

2. Prized Apart
Producer Electric Ray
Broadcaster BBC1
Distributor  Sony Pictures Television
Prized Apart is a new primetime adventure game show for BBC1, filmed on location and in a UK studio. The show sees 10 men and women battle it out overseas in tough physical and mental challenges, in the hope of winning a life changing prize. Each week, the bottom placed contestants are flown back to the UK, to a studio hanger where their partners await. The partners must keep their loved ones in the competition by answering a set of questions in a head-to-head round against the other partners. If they succeed, their loved ones will get back on the plane to continue the game. Jane Dockery, SVP International Distribution, Formats, Sony Pictures Television, said: “Prized Apart is an adventure game show - a brand new genre that the market hasn’t seen before. Mark Linsey, Controller of Entertainment at the BBC, who commissioned the show last year, described it as a potential “game changer”. We’re hugely excited about this title.”

3. The Delivery Man
Production company: Monicker Pictures
Broadcaster: ITV1
Distributor: DRG
A comedy following a male midwife making his way in a woman's world, Delivery Man stars Darren Boyd and airs on ITV after a successful pilot last year.  Noel Hedges executive vice president of content at DRG, said: “Delivery Man is British comedy at its best: fantastic writing and acting from top comedy talent, a central fish out of water story running through it that is universal  coupled with hilarious physical comedy.  It's comedy for a broad audience no matter which territory.”

4. Humans
Producer: Kudos
Broadcaster: Channel 4, AMC
Distributor: Endemol Shine International
Humans is a new drama written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (Spooks: The Greater Good) set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a ‘Synth’ – a highly-developed robotic servant eerily similar in appearance to humans. When one of them joins the Hawkins family, the line between human and machine increasingly blurs. Billed as sinister, thrilling and packed full of emotion, Humans explores the rapidly evolving relationship between humanity and technology and asks what does it really mean to be “human”? Cathy Payne: CEO of Endemol Shine International, said: “British drama offers innovative storytelling that, packaged with a strong cast, has captured the imagination of television broadcasters and platforms worldwide. The British standard run has created the new term – limited series”
5. Home Fires
Producer: ITV Studios
Broadcaster: ITV1
Distributor: ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Starring Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond, Home Fires follows a group of women in a rural Cheshire Community with the shadow of World War II casting a dark cloud over their lives. As the conflict takes hold, and separates the women from their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, the characters find themselves under increasing pressures. Ruth Clarke, EVP, global content & co-productions, ITV Studios Global Entertainment said: "The impact of World War II touched the whole world, the events on the home front are less well known but no less relevant to a global audience. Home Fires is a fascinating story of how an extraordinary group of women kept a rural community together during a dark time.”

6. The Ark
Production Company: Red Planet Pictures, in association with Lip Sync Productions and Great Point Media
Broadcaster: BBC1
Distributor: Content Television
This one-off 90-min special is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and The Ark. It’s billed by distributor Content as “a timeless saga of family and faith which has a resonance across all cultures.” It certainly comes with a strong pedigree.  It’s produced by Red Planet, the team behind Death in Paradise, with scripts from Tony Jordan, writer of Life on Mars and Hustle, and a cast led by David Threlfall (Shameless) and Joanne Whalley (The Borgias). Greg Phillips, President, Content Television, said: “There’s a strong demand in the international market for stand out one-off event features – content which broadcasters can create a real buzz about – and with the UK’s BBC airing the drama just before MIP, we’re expecting interest to be high.”

7. 7 Deadly Sins of the Animal Kingdom
Producer: Back2Back Productions
Broadcaster: Discovery & Sky 3D
Distributor: Sky Vision
Actor Richard E Grant fronts this exploration of the seven deadly sins as seen through the perspective of the animal kingdom. For humans envy, lust, wrath, sloth, greed, pride and gluttony are sins – associated with shameful behaviour. But in the animal kingdom they are simply survival mechanisms. Leona Connell, head of global sales at Sky Vision said: “This series offers a truly fascinating and original way to approach wildlife programming which really pushes the boundaries, all in glorious 3D.”

8. Top Coppers
Production Company: Roughcut
UK Broadcaster: BBC3
Distributor: FremantleMedia International
Top Coppers is a new, gag-fuelled character comedy following the adventures of cops John Mahogany and Mitch Rust in the fictional world of Justice City, as they attempt to rid it of its deranged criminal underworld. It stars John Kearns (2014 Edinburgh Comedy Award-Winner) and Steen Raskopoulos (2014 Edinburgh Best Newcomer nominee). Sarah Doole, director of global drama at FremantleMedia said the series features some of the newest stars on the UK comedy circuit, adding: “Roughcut has a brilliant track record for creating comedy that travels.”
9. Banished

Producer RSJ Films/Seesaw Films
Broadcaster BBC2
Distributor BBC Worldwide
This character-led drama from Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Cracker) is based on the lives of the inhabitants of the first penal colony in Sydney and stars Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and David Wenham.  Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBC Worldwide said: “Banished has so much to offer international buyers and is a key title for BBC Worldwide. Even though it is set in 18th Century, it’s also a contemporary and very relatable story about friendship, betrayal and the fight for survival. This is fantastic original, big budget British drama, shot in a stunning setting and has real potential for a returning series.”

10. A Cook Abroad
Producer BBC Productions
Broadcaster BBC2
Agent DCD Rights
This 6x60-min BBC2 series sees six of the UK’s best known cooks take viewers on a culinary tour of the world’s most inspiring food cultures. Each travels to a different country to track down how history, geography and culture have shaped what we eat today. Hairy Biker Dave Myers uncovers Egypt’s 2,000 year old baking tradition and Tony Singh travels to India to explore the breadth of Punjabi cuisine. Other chefs include Rick Stein on Australia, Masterchef’s Monica Galetti on France, John Torode in Argentina; and Rachel Khoo in  Malaysia.
 Rick Barker, head of sales at DCD Rights said: “The unique combination of travel and food is an appealing mix for international broadcasters. Broadcasters are moving away from studio based cookery shows and are keen for their audience to get an authentic feel for cooking, local flavours, culture and the landscape.”

11. Bangkok Airport
Producer Keo Films
Broadcaster BBC3
Agent Hat Trick International
With access to all aspects of the airport, this Keo Films 6x30-min series introduces the quirky Thai characters and international travellers passing through Bangkok airport. The location proves a hotbed of stories as young tourists run into trouble overseas – from run-ins with the tourist police to treatment at the on-site medical centre and missed flights. Sarah Tong, director of sales at HTI, says Bangkok Airport has already sold to Australia, Denmark, Norway and Asia, and is confident it will be a strong seller throughout the rest of Europe and ROW. “One of the big selling points is that it’s highly entertaining with lots of amusing and quirky characters. Plus it’s hour long episodes, and there’s six of them – rather than the 2 or 3 that are often commissioned in the UK but make international sales a little harder.”

12. Ainsley Eats the Streets   
Production Company: Snap TV
Broadcaster – More4/Channel4
Agent TCB Media Rights
Ainsley Harriott presents this 6x60-min street food series, uncovering the local cooking away from the tourist traps of some of the world’s biggest and best known cities. TCB managing director Paul Heaney says Ainsley is a known international 'face' who brings the popular street food sub-genre to life and creates his own slant on well-established local delicacies, and at the same time as finding out more about the cities themselves. “We think there's a need for well-made food travelogue series across the world. Australia and Asia have already bought the series before completion, we expect more to come.’”

13. Code of a Killer
Production company: World Productions
Broadcaster: ITV1
Distributor: Endemol Shine International
From the director of Broadchurch and the producers of Line of Duty, Code of a Killer tells the true story of how DNA fingerprinting was first used to crack a murder case. Set in 1984 in Leicestershire, its stars John Simm as a brilliant scientist and and David Threlfall as a progressive police detective who unite to create the biggest advance in twentieth century criminal investigation. Code of a Killer is written by Michael Crompton (Kidnap & Ransom) directed by James Strong (Broadchurch) and produced by World Productions (Line of Duty, The Bletchley Circle, The Great Train Robbery)

Posted 09 April 2015 by Tim Dams

Interview: Susanna Dinnage, Discovery Networks UK

Discovery Communications’ growth has – until recently – seemed assured. The factual outfit has expanded around the world in 30 years, reaching 220 countries and territories. Over half its $6,265m revenues come from its international networks.

The UK is one of the key hubs in its global empire. Based out of offices in a Chiswick business park – appropriately next to an (artificial) lake and waterfall – the UK operation employs some 1,200 staff.

The office is home to Discovery’s 13 UK channels, as well as its international production arm DNI Productions. Discovery’s UK reach also comprises superindie group, All3Media, which it co-acquired last year with Liberty Global. It’s a major commissioner in the UK too, ordering shows from some 78 UK indies over the past year.

Highlighting Discovery’s UK ambitions, the broadcaster has also been reported as a bidder for C5 and the Premier League rights. It also took a controlling interesting in Eurosport last year.

Back home in the US, however, there hasn’t been so much good news for Discovery. Weak US ratings and falling ad revenue, and the fear that smaller TV networks like Discovery look vulnerable in negotiations with pay-TV providers, have taken their toll on Discovery’s share price – which has fallen more than 30% in the past six months.

As a result, there’s a sense that things are changing at Discovery. Newly installed Discovery Channel president Rich Ross spoke in January about diversifying the broadcaster’s male-centric audience and returning to its roots in documentary, after criticism for shows like Eaten Alive and Megalodon.

The word diversification also crops up frequently in conversation with Susanna Dinnage, the managing director of Discovery Networks UK  & Ireland.

“At heart we are a pay factual business, we always have been. But a lot of the growth has been from diversifying into entertainment and now sport. We have three very strong prongs to our genre offering.”

The Discovery Channel, of course, lies at the heart of its factual offer. The average age of a viewer is early 40s. About 70% are men, the vast majority married with kids. The most insightful stat about ‘Discovery Man’, says Dinnage, is that he is four times more likely than the average person to have had a motorbike when young. He’s now traded this for a family car.

Discovery’s entertainment ambitions have focused on female focused TLC, which launched here in 2013 and have broadened out the broadcaster from its male heartland with UK commissions like Katie Hopkins: My Fat Body alongside US imports such as Say Yes to the Dress and Cake Boss.

Discovery also has plans for Eurosport. The channel was linked with a bid for the Premier League rights, although Dinnage won’t comment on this. She says the strategy is to emulate Discovery’s international model of repackaging global content alongside some local commissions. It is early days, but she acknowledges that “we need to add fantastically locally relevant sports rights” to the Eurosport offering.

On channels like Discovery and TLC, Dinnage says the ‘sweet spot’ is finding shows that men and women can watch together.

Men, she notes, often struggle to take charge of the remote in a family home – so for Discovery Channel to build audience numbers, the emphasis is on commissions that men can happily bring their partners to watch.

“Co-viewing is really, really important,” she says. “If you want scale, you have to be careful about how niche you get.” The plan is to make the channel broader in appeal, aimed more at the family audience.

However, she plays down any sense of radical change, stressing evolution over revolution. She thinks Rich Ross will pull factual back to the Discovery core of “absolutely authentic, great stories and strong characters.” By way of example, she cites upcoming natural history series To Be King, which follows a pride of lions over 16 years.

But, in the UK, Discovery faces challenges from broadcasters like ITV and C4 which have moved into the adventure genre to attract male viewers. Discovery face Bear Grylls, for example, launched Mission Survive on ITV last month. Dinnage admits it is tough holding on to talent in such a competitive market. However, she cites Ed Stafford, who is making his fourth series for Discovery. Audiences, she says, respond to his authenticity. Other commissions include Hugh Dennis’ Churchill and Me.

It’s clear that Discovery isn’t content to stick just to factual pay-TV. With live TV viewing under threat from VoD and streaming, there is a sense that Discovery is positioning itself – through its production operations as well as sport and entertainment ambitions – for the new era of TV. Says Dinnage: “As an organisation, we don’t sit still…We look at every opportunity, we have huge ambitions for the UK.”

CV: Susanna Dinnage
Susanna Dinnage heads up Discovery Networks in the UK and Ireland, managing the region’s porfolio of 13 channels including Discovery Channel, TLC, Quest, ID, Animal Planet and Eurosport. Dinnage joined Discovery in 2009 and was promoted to the role of UK business head in October 2010, responsible for the company’s growth strategy for its largest market outside the US. Before joining Discovery, Dinnage was part of the launch team for Channel 5, Fiver and Five US over a ten year spell. She began her career at MTV Networks, specialising in audience insight.

Posted 24 March 2015 by Tim Dams

True Vision: a singular indie producer

Doc indie True Vision has had four single films on air this month. Founder Brian Woods talks with Tim Dams about keeping overheads low so it can produce ‘films that make a difference’

True Vision is, in the words of founder Brian Woods, a “highly unusual” business. The renowned doc indie, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, made its name with hard-hitting, revelatory films like The Dying Rooms and China’s Stolen Children. But, compared to other indies, True Vision stands out for producing almost entirely one-off films. It has only made one three-parter, C4’s 15,000 Kids and Counting, and one two-parter, BBC3’s Growing Up Poor.

Among indies, it is commonly accepted that it’s almost impossible to sustain a company by making single docs. They make little money and take up huge amounts of exec time, while series afford greater stability and revenues.

True Vision has just been through a busy period, delivering eight singles between October and March. Four have been onscreen this month: BBC1’s No Place to Call Home, on homelessness; BBC2’s Surviving Sandy Hook, about the 2012 school massacre in Connecticut; BBC1’s Kids in Camps, on refugee camps in South Sudan (pictured above); and ITV1’s Raining in my Heart, about children with cancer (pictured below).

“It’s not a conscious decision to only go out to make singles,” says Woods, who runs True Vision with his wife Deborah Shipley and filmmaker Jezza Neumann. “But we are very clear that we want to make films that have a social impact. And that has consequences – on the whole broadcasters don’t want a whole series of those.”

True Vision keeps overheads low. About one third of Woods and Shipley’s Chiswick home is given over to office space for True Vision (pictrued below). All its editing, grading and sound is done there, while a cabin in the garden acts as the meeting room. True Vision also buys rather than hires its own cameras.

This cost-conciousness doesn’t affect creativity, argues Woods, who points out that it’s not always important to use top of the range kit. For example, Neumann won an RTS Craft Award for factual photography for America’s Poor Kids – shot on a Sony PMW 200 and Canon 60D. “Our experience is that what you point the camera at is actually more important than the bit of kit you are using."

Woods and Neumann also shoot and edit their films, while APs are also trained up to be self-shooters. It often takes True Vision months or years to gain access to the people and institutions in its docs, so filming is done by those who have built up the trust and rapport with the contributors.

There are ten staff at True Vision, which can rise to two dozen depending on the films in production. Woods describes it as ‘very much a family business’ with a ‘fantastic team’ who are in tune with its ethos of producing films that make a difference.

True Vision, for example, runs its own trust, The Aletheia Foundation, set up to support the contributors to its films. It all started in the wake of The Dying Rooms, when £500k in unsolicited donations poured in from shocked viewers to help children in Chinese orphanages.

“When the stories of our contributors evoke a strong emotional response in viewers, and the viewers want to help those families, my feeling is that we have a duty to facilitate that if we can – and not just to say we are filmmakers, we can’t help.”

Woods cites the case of one of the kids, Obert, who featured in Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children. A bright child, he was filmed panning for gold but ‘essentially almost starving to death’ and could not afford to go to school. Now, as a direct result of viewer contributions, he has had his schooling paid for and has just achieved 11 GSCEs.

Producing films that make such an impact is ‘kind of addictive’, says Woods. And it’s a good time for documentary makers, with the BBC, ITV and C4 supportive of the genre. But, he adds, “I’d like to develop more series to give us more stability.”

Posted 23 March 2015 by Tim Dams

From Mr Bean to the Clangers: the UK gets animated again

From Mr Bean to The Clangers, a swathe of animations are now being made in the UK. Tim Dams on the decline and rise again of an industry

Just a few years ago, the mood within the tight-knit UK animation sector was grim. Broadcasters had cut back on commissioning and slashed budgets as a result of the economic downturn. The costly, labour intensive nature of animation also meant production was heading off shore to rival territories offering incentives, like Canada, France or Singapore.

In response, the industry fought back with a lauded lobbying campaign for an animation tax credit led by Animation UK. It worked, with Chancellor George Osborne famously announcing in his 2012 Budget that he was determined to keep Wallace and Gromit in the UK.

Now, nearly two years since the tax credit was introduced in April 2013, the animation sector has rediscovered its mojo. From The Clangers to Mr Bean, there’s a swathe of shows in production in the UK.

“The industry is in the best shape it has been in for a number of years,” says Pact senior policy consultant Rosina Robson, who oversees children’s TV and animation at the producers’ alliance.

A recent Olsberg SPI and Nordicity report on the impact of tax credits said animation production spend had risen from £46m in 2011 to £51.7m in the first year of the tax credit, 2013-14 – a rise of 11%. This included £43.9m on domestic UK production and co-pros, and £7.8m from inward investment production.

Animation producers certainly back up the official figures. Collingwood & Co boss Tony Collingwood describes the tax credit as a “life line” for the sector. He recalls that many in the industry were in a state of despair before April 2013 as they struggled to get shows fully financed.

“It has really set the whole animation industry alight,” adds Factory managing director Phil Chalk. Based in studios in Altrincham, Factory has, in less than two years, gone from making a single project to now producing five. These include 52 new episodes of The Clangers for CBeebies and Coolabi and six episodes of new satirical show Newzoids for ITV. As a result, Factory’s staffing levels have increased from 30 to 125 people.

Boosted by the 20% tax credit, a swathe of shows across the industry suddenly went into production after April 2013 – including Collingwood & Co’s Ruff-Ruff, Tweet & Dave. “It would not be in production if it were not for the tax credit,” says Collingwood. Ruff-Ruff Tweet & Dave is a co-pro for CBeebies and Sprout. “A lot of the CGI is being done in Singapore, but there is a crew of 20 people inhouse and outhouse in the UK who wouldn’t be employed if it hadn’t had happened,” he adds. “It’s a win win for the the government and industry across the board.” Collingwood & Co is now in development on new show Thorgar, and is planning to animate the entire series in England – employing some 40 people.

The tax credits, say producers, have finally put the UK on a level playing field with rival countries. US broadcasters, in particular, are chosing to invest in shows made by the strong pool of talent in the UK.

By way of example, Phil Chalk cites Scream Street, a 52x11-min series for CBBC and Coolabi. It took almost three years to pull together the financing, with the tax credit providing a vital fillip. “The tax credit helped enormously – it gives all investors confidence. It is often the last 20-25% of a production budget that is the most difficult to find.”

Meanwhile, Tiger Aspect is 18 months into the production of a new animated series of Mr Bean. Ten years ago, the original series of Mr Bean was farmed out to Hungary. Now a team of 50 is animating the series in Tiger Aspect’s office in Shepherd’s Bush.

Tom Beattie, head of Tiger Aspect’s animation department, thinks that making the show in the UK has improved its quality. “There’s not the hassle of directing by email,” says Beattie, who adds that directing teams of animators based abroad can be a false economy. “What you get back is not what you asked for. Then you’ve got to redo things and there may be extra charges ” says Beattie. “You’re fighting backwards and forwards and you end up with a middle ground of what you can both achieve for the agreed price.” With a UK team, things can even be changed and added in the edit because all the creators are in the same room.

Many of Tiger Aspect’s animation team have been trained up in CelAction, the 2d animation software favoured by UK animators. The ambition now, says Beattie, is to keep them together to work on an adaptation of Aliens Love Underpants.

Elsewhere, vfx company Jellyfish has responded to the upswing in production by setting up an animation studio in Brixton, where it is working on Floogals, produced by The Foundation/NeVision for Sprout. The 52x11-min series is a mixture of CGI and live action. It’s also making Amazon preschool pilot Buddy: Tech Detective – also with The Foundation.

Jellyfish CEO Phil Dobree says the animation studio now has 35 staff. “We are investing a lot in people because what we have noticed is that the art of traditional kids animation, which the UK used to be so strong at, has been lost as animation work has been almost entirely done in overseas territories. The people coming out of film school tend to be trained to do photo real animation – useful in feature films – but we want to get them up to speed with kids animation techniques.”

There was a concern that the sudden glut of animation projects would create a buyers market for animators, inflating prices. But that hasn’t happened, says Collingwood. He says Creative Skillset’s Skills Investment Fund, which collects a levy of 0.5% of production spend for shows that access the tax credit, has been put to good use to train people in CelAction.

The biggest problem is that the number of UK broadcasters commissioning animation remains small, with the BBC the key investor. CBeebies and CBBC are the first port of call for indies in the UK, but their budgets have been dropped since the licence fee settlement in 2010. “Hopefully, the animation tax break will encourage the others,” says Collingwood.

It is, however, possible that other UK broadcasters will start to commission more animation.

The new tax break for live action children’s TV is set to come into force from April, and will mirror that for animation with the relief available at a rate of 25% on qualifying production expenditure.

And this week Pact and the Ragdoll Foundation launched a campaign to to improve availability of good quality TV programmes for children.

Spend and hours of original content across the PSB channels have plummeted over the last decade, according to a report prepared for the campaign. It found that spend on PSB children’s content  has fallen by 95% since 2003, and the volume of PSB children’s content (first run hours) has fallen by 68% since 2003.

The report set out options for improvement which include a return to PSB quotas for original children’s programming.

The campaign, coupled with the children’s tax credit, could provide a spur for  greater investment in kids’ television – which could have a further positive knock on effect for an already busy animation industry.

Facts and figures from the animation world

- The UK animation production sector remains relatively small. Production 
expenditure on animation was £51.7m in 2013-14, supporting 1,100 full time 
equivalent jobs.*

- 22 animation productions began principal photography in 2014. 16 of these were domestic productions, the remainder inward investment productions. These include new series of CBeebies’ Sarah & Duck, produced by Karrot 
Entertainment; Toot the Tiny Tug Boat from Lupus Films for C5’s Milkshake; and One Night in Hell, Queen guitarist Brian May’s animation for Sky Arts.

- Six new CBeebies animated series came to fruition in 2014, largely thanks to the tax credit - including Pesky Productions’ Boj and Studio AKA’s Hey Duggee.

- The average full time salary in the animation industry is £31,772

- The median budget per minute of UK animations applying for tax credit cultural certification is £8,202. For co-productions, the budget per minute is £5,665.

- The UK has a long tradition of creating successful animation programmes such as Wallace and Gromit, Bob the Builder, Thomas and Friends and Peppa Pig.

- The sale of licenced merchandise from UK animation brands, such as Peppa Pig and Thomas and Friends, was worth an estimated £500m in 2013.

- The total economic contribution of the UK animation sector to the UK economy was £171m, supporting 4,700 full time jobs and generating £52m in tax revenues.

- The live action children’s tax credit was announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement last year, and is expected to come into force in April.                   

*Figures from the Economic Contribution of the UK’s Film, High-end TV, Video Games and Animation Programme Sectors, produced by Olsberg SPI and Nordicity

Posted 20 March 2015 by Tim Dams
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