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01 December 2011

2011 proved there's a lot of life in television yet, with huge audiences tuning in to watch everything from the Royal Wedding to Downton Abbey. Tim Dams recaps on a landmark year for TV

What a year. 2011 has been marked by a series of momentous events that have played out on screen – from the  Japanese Tsunami, the Arab Spring uprisings, the killing of Colonel Gaddafi, the London riots, the Royal Wedding to the European debt crisis.

And often these key events have been about the TV industry itself. In a year of big stories, one of the biggest has been the fall out from the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, which scuppered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bid to takeover BSkyB.

The hacking story effectively overshadowed the year’s other big TV industry story – the cutbacks at the BBC which will see 2000 jobs go, budgets trimmed and BBC3 move up to Salford. It also clouded Sky’s significant announcement that it was planning to double its investment in British TV content to £600m by 2014.

Perhaps bolstered by so many historic world events, it’s been a good year for television in terms of bums on seats. An early look at Barb data shows that 2011 is running neck and neck with 2010, when average weekly viewing figures were at a decade high with viewers watching just over 4 hours a day. The theory that people stay in and watch more television during difficult economic times looks increasingly true.

Once again, one of the key drivers of this viewing growth has been audience appetite for shows with scale –  the ‘event TV’ phenomenon. Big budget entertainment series like The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent have, of course, been big for many years. And they are retaining their popularity, despite wobbles for The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent this year.

But it is not just entertainment. Across drama, factual and news, TV has proved its ability to bring the nation together at the same time. The second series of Downton Abbey, for example, bowed out in November with over 10m viewers – the largest audience for a TV drama in a decade. “Downton Abbey has given us back that cosy Sunday evening viewing we remember from our childhood,” says Spun Gold md Nick Bullen. “On a broader level it’s got the nation talking in the same way that Dallas gripped us 30 years ago.”

ITV director of television Peter Fincham says the renewed success of Downton raises a wider point for the TV industry in 2011. “We have had a particularly good year in drama – and that requires significant investment. It shows that if you want a mainstream channel, you have got to invest – you have got to keep a schedule of original programmes in front of an audience.”

Factual has also proved to be a surprising draw. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding scored 8.7m viewers in February for Channel 4, its highest rating since Big Brother in 2008.

Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt says 2011 was the year when “baking hit the big time and global warming became watchable in Frozen Planet.” Indeed, The Great British Bake Off was perhaps the year’s most surprising hit, peaking at 5.2m for BBC2. It’s also been a strong year for constructed reality with The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea fighting for newspaper column inches. “Both have raised all sorts of interesting questions about how you can get a narrative feel into a schedule without commissioning conventional scripted drama,” says Hunt.

Then, of course, there was the year’s biggest rating event, the Royal Wedding, which peaked at 26.2m viewers across all channels.

Such impressive ratings suggest that mainstream television is more than holding on to its own in the face of increased competition for viewers from social media or video on demand. In fact, ITV director of programmes Peter Fincham says viewers are using the rapid advances in technology simply to watch more television programmes. “There’s been a huge growth of iPlayer and ITVPlayer time shifted viewing,” he says “And yet there’s a strong sense that linear schedules and a wide range of channels that show range of well made, well funded programmes are not losing their appeal.”

Many believe that 2011 is the year that TV learned to work with new technology, particularly social media, rather than fear it. Says C4’s Jay Hunt: “I think factual TV as event has come of age, often helped by audience interaction on Twitter. Stand out moments for me included Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret and Hippo: Wild Feast Live which both brought in large young audiences and trended on Twitter.”

Hunt’s point is echoed by Twofour managing director, Melanie Leach, who says that new technology has really started to influence the shows that the indie makes. “It’s pretty unusual for us to be developing shows for C4 that don’t have lots of second screen applications,” she says. “Lots of people are in this space, so I imagine there will be quite a glut of new shows next year where the audience are really heavily involved.”

Leach adds that Twitter is also influencing the way programme makers think about their shows, citing Twofour’s well received documentary series Educating Essex. “The influence of Twitter and the way it trended on Twitter was extraordinary – it was really important for us as programme makers. For the first time we could see the nationwide conversation that our audience is having with the show.”

The other big technology trend to affect television has been the ongoing rise of user generated content. As the quality from camcorders and mobile phones has continued to improve, it’s led to more and more broadcasters making use of UGC this year.

In many cases UGC has underpinned the coverage of the big events of the year, says Tom Brisley, creative director of Arrow Media, offering an immediate and raw window into breaking stories, capturing unfolding events as they happen. The last moments of Colonel Gaddafi were captured on a mobile phone camera, and broadcast around the world. The full horror of the Japanese Tsunami was revealed by UGC. And UGC played an important role in revealing the scale of the London riots.
Advances in camera technology have also led to the emergence of ever more ambitious rig shows that appeared on screen in 2011, such as 24 Hours in A&E, Educating Essex and Seven Dwarves. Meanwhile, the much hyped 3d boom failed to take off – but David Attenborough’s Flying Monsters 3d did win the very first Bafta award for a 3d show.

Business for both broadcasters and producers has been tough but, somewhat surprisingly, better than expected this year – despite the gloomy economic backdrop of the European debt crisis.
Perhaps that’s because business could only get better after the savage cuts that the broadcast industry experienced in 2009.
Producers say that commercial broadcasters, buoyed by an unexpectedly resilient advertising market, have been spending again this year, looking to stock up on new shows. ITV, for example, recently posted good interim results, showing revenues up 4% to £1.5bn for the first nine months of the year. It also added that ad revenue was up 2%.

Channel 4 has been very much back in the market, with slots to fill post Big Brother and is working with a broader range of indies.

Sky, meanwhile, has emerged as a real production force thanks to its pledge to commission more UK shows. Sky One is starting to become must watch, with shows such as League of their Own and An Idiot Abroad giving it a much clearer identity. Discovery, with former C4 boss Julian Bellamy at the helm, is gearing up its production ambitions in the UK. Channel 5 also feels like it finally has a clearer direction and more opportunity for producers after raising its profile with the acquisition of Big Brother this year.

David Granger, md of Made in Chelsea producer Monkey, believes the climate has improved dramatically from the year before. “There are far more commissioning opportunities across all channels,” he says.

Arrow Media’s Tom Brisley echoes this, highlighting that British producers are looking ever more outwards for commissions and financing, particularly to the US: “The factual world has been more buoyant over the past year. Both at home and in the US, broadcasters are ramping up their factual output, and ‘scale’ is the buzz word.”

Billy Macqueen, joint md of Baby Jake and Pet Squad producer Darrall Macqueen, adds: “Like many UK indies, international sales are key to our future and 2011 has shown that overseas broadcasters are hungry for well-made and original UK content – a promising sign not just for us, but for the industry as a whole.”

But, amid the positives, it’s worth reflecting that business remains very challenging. Spun Gold’s Nick Bullen speaks for many when he says the past year has been ‘very tough’ for independent producers. “Available slots are becoming few and far between, margins are being squeezed from all sides and broadcasters’ expectations do not always match their budgets.”

Peter Fincham agrees that there are likely to be challenging times ahead: “The wider economy is in a scary place. I wouldn’t be so foolish to say that it doesn’t affect television – of course it does.” On a positive note, he  argues that the appetite for television seems to be enduring and growing, noting that people are still buying large numbers of TVs. “Compared to 2009, in the wake of the  financial crisis in autumn 2008, there was a sense of, ‘Oh gosh, where will this end, will budgets hold up and will people cut their way through recession?’ We end 2011 with all the main broadcasters committed to investment. In the case of Sky you see a broadcaster committed to a substantially larger investment. And that’s because if you want an audience, you have to invest in content. There is no short cut to getting an audience.”

A better than expected year for production has also translated over to post-production. The shrinking budgets and difficult climate of recent years forced post houses to focus on tightening up their offer to clients, and to look at ways of ensuring a solid, sustainable future. “A lot of management time goes in to saying, ‘Right, what’s next,’ says Prime Focus UK md Simon Briggs. “The recession made smart people smart again. The challenge to business over the last few years has made everyone think hard about how to be successful.”

And success can come from surprising places. One of the year’s big success stories was Danish import The Killing on BBC4. A 20 hour foreign language drama series that demanded very close attention across many weeks, it proves that viewers still want to sit down in front of the television and watch something with range depth and substance as much as they ever did.
It’s success, thinks ITV’s Peter Fincham, should be noted by everyone in television. “You don’t stand out from the crowd by being small in the modern world,” he concludes.



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