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01 December 2010

Tim Dams presents a review of 2010, a year when TV came back from the brink

Relief. That seems to be the single word that sums up the past year for many in the broadcast and production industries. The sense of relief is almost palpable, coming as it does after a nightmarish 12 months in 2009.

“In 2009, commercial TV was in a dark place,” says ITV director of television Peter Fincham. “Revenue went down very sharply. It created a very, very challenging environment for planning for the future. But in 2010, to some degree, the clouds have parted and we have seen a bit of sunshine.”

The facts bear out Fincham’s words. Average weekly viewing figures in 2010 are at a decade high, according to early Barb figures. TV advertising revenue will be 14% up by the end of the year, says WPP’s media buying outfit Group M. And pay-television subscriptions are running at a record level, with BSkyB crossing the 10m milestone.

The event TV phenomenon
One of the key drivers of all this growth has been the ‘event TV’ phenomenon. Entertainment shows like The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent were, of course, big last year. They are just as popular this year, or even more so in the case of Strictly. “The big entertainment bubble just keeps getting that bit bigger,” says director of BBC Vision Jana Bennett.

But it’s not just entertainment. Across drama, politics and sport, event television has reconfirmed TV’s ability to bring the nation together at the same time. ITV’s Downton Abbey and BBC1’s Sherlock attracted huge audiences of 10m and 9m respectively. And the World Cup and the Prime Ministerial debates drew in 16m and 10m viewers.

“Live TV audiences have gone up, even though we are in a world of lots more social media, twittering and video on demand,” says Bennett.

Fincham adds: “2010 has been a year that restores people’s faith in mainstream television in many ways.”

He says there’s a direct link between quality and big audiences. “Downton Abbey perhaps shows most clearly that you don’t underestimate the tastes of the public. They want quality, they want really good programmes. In a fast changing world, the enduring taste people have is for well made programmes in a very wide range of genres.”

In fact, Downton Abbey stands as a kind of TV beacon for many this year – possibly because its quality stands in stark contrast to so many tired looking, formulaic formats that dominate the schedules.

Veteran producer John Lloyd, creator of QI and producer of Blackadder and Spitting Image, describes it as a “superbly made piece of modern, popular television. ITV has had the guts to say ‘does everything have to be downbeat, contemporary and downmarket? Let’s do Edwardian England. And let’s do it well.’”

Audiences want quality
Lloyd thinks it points a way forward, away from “ripped off formats” and towards programmes of “expertise, style and quality” that producers can be proud of. Lloyd’s words chime with the thinking of Jana Bennett at the BBC, who adds: “There’s a quest out there for the new, the different and the very high quality – there’s an appetite for new things.” It’s also notable how audiences have looked for distractions to endless news stories about recession.

Stuart Murphy, director of programmes at Sky, says his commissioning team sat down at the beginning of the year to talk about how to respond to the recession on screen. “We were slightly nervous about trying to show people how to cope with the recession – in fact, we thought it best to ignore it.”

With some justification, he believes. The big TV theme of the year for Murphy is that people have wanted to laugh and to be entertained. He notes how E4’s The Inbetweeners broke out to become a huge hit, as did shows such as Glee. Sky benefited from this trend too, with An Idiot Abroad and Pineapple Dance Studios performing particularly well. It’s not just about comedy though.

Murphy thinks “kindness” and “warmth” are important in the current climate. He’s been surprised at how “uncomfortable, even nasty” The X Factor has become this season, and speculates that Daybreak’s launch problems lie in the fact that it lacks the warmth of GMTV.

The broadcasters' year on screen
On screen, the BBC has seen a big comedy push result in well-received shows such as Miranda, Rev, The Trip and Whites. It’s also been a strong year for science led by flagship docs like Wonders of the Solar System. New dramas such as Sherlock, Five Days and Five Daughters have also stood out.

On the commercial channels, broadcasters were held back by their parlous financial state and a lack of investment in new and original shows became very apparent. Critics weren’t the only ones to notice. International buyers were complaining at this year’s Mipcom programme market in Cannes that there was less original British programming to choose from.

Downton Abbey
aside, ITV’s schedule is heavily propped up by bankers like its soaps, big reality shows, comedy such as Harry Hill’s TV Burp and returning dramas like Lewis and A Touch of Frost. That said, Fincham points out that a new doc strand, Perspectives, launches next year as does a raft of new drama.

Over on C4, it’s a similar story. Familiar formats around cooking, property and body image abound. New drama like This is England 86 and Mo has been few and far between – but have performed well when they’ve hit the screen. Next year looks more promising for C4 with a slew of original new shows to slot into the very big gap left by the departure of Big Brother.

The end of an era
The demise of Big Brother marks not just the end of an era for C4 and but of a programme that changed TV forever. It also marks the demise, says Sky’s Stuart Murphy, of a certain kind of show on which the next generation of TV talent trained. “It was The Word, The Sunday Show, Rough Guides, The Big Breakfast and then Big Brother – a whole generation of TV talent trained on shows like that.”

Not everyone will miss Big Brother though. In terms of ratings, the series limped to a close. John Lloyd comments: “When you hear people from the RTS telling you what an interesting social experiment Big Brother is – well, please, tell them to fuck off. It is roadcrash television. It’s about laughing at people. It’s manipulated by cynical people. A real social experiment with Big Brother would be to leave the people alone, leave the cameras running and you would find that people get on – like the Chilean miners. One or two might have been isolated, but they would emerge firm friends.”

Regime change at commercial broadcasters
Behind the scenes, it’s been a year of regime change and rebuilding at the main broadcasters. Both C4, ITV and C5 saw new managements take charge.

C4’s new chief executive David Abraham moved quickly to restructure the broadcaster and announce more investment into areas such as film, comedy and drama. Producers sound impressed with his vision for the channel. Abraham recently gave a presentation of his future plans for C4 to the Pact council. Says Pact chief executive John McVay: “When he left, we were a bit wowed. It’s really nice having a chief executive from C4 who is economically literate, understands advertising and has a vision about where he is going.”

And ITV’s new bosses Adam Crozier and Archie Norman have enjoyed a year of growth on the back of strong ad revenues and ratings. McVay rates ITV’s new leadership, describing them as a “rational, reasonable group of people” and says that producer relations with ITV have improved since Crozier took over.

Channel 5, of course, has experienced a corporate bloodbath since Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell acquired the business. It’s busy reinventing itself with celebrity-led programming focusing on popular culture, which is only to be expected from a TV channel owned by a group that runs OK! Magazine, The Daily Star and The Express. But it’s run into serious trouble in its relations with producers, after a serious spat over payment terms with Shine Group and other indies.

Meanwhile, it’s been a year of rapid change at BSkyB. It acquired and rebranded the Virgin Media channels, launched a 3d channel and struck a big programming deal with HBO. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is now fighting to acquire the entire business, eliciting protests from rival media owners.

The BBC’s brutal year
But the BBC has perhaps had the most momentous year of all. The corporation sailed through the recessionary years of 2008-9 with stable funding, while its envious commercial rivals floundered. In a sense, the BBC paid the price in 2010 for its years of plenty. A constant stream of BBC criticism from politicians and the media, centring on high salaries and inefficiency, culminated in a surprise 16% funding cut as part of the government’s Spending Review.

BBC execs highlight the positive in the deal, though. Jana Bennett describes it as a “tough settlement” but one which gives the BBC “certainty about our funding model for the next six years.”

The internationalisation of production
It’s been a challenging year for producers, although more positive than 2009. Most indies say the TV market is currently flat or going through a slight upswing as ad revenues improve. “2010 has been better,” said Shed Media chief executive Nick Southgate in Televisual’s Production 100 survey. “That’s partly because 2008/2009 was so bad that anything is better than then. We’ve had increased turnover in the UK over the last year from it being flat the year before, which is emblematic of the uptick in the market. People are feeling a bit better and that maybe the worst is over. But it’s still incredibly hard and competitive.”

The really notable feature about the independent production market in 2010, however, has been how it has internationalised. The consolidation trend has continued, with the likes of All3Media snapping up Optomen for a reported £40m.

But most of the ownership changes this year have had an international element to them. Global groups such as Zodiak Entertainment acquired RDF Media, while US studios Warner Bros and NBC Universal took over Shed Media and Monkey Kingdom respectively. UK indies also expanded oversees, with the likes of Shine Group launching new operations in Europe and Australasia, having already made significant inroads into the US.

Says Jana Bennett: “The internationalisation of production continues, and that is running to the movement of talent internationally and the movement of ideas and formats.”

Smaller producers have found the going tough in the UK market, hit by declining budgets and fewer commissions from the major broadcasters. In response, they have also looked outwards, diversifying to find new broadcaster clients in the US or to raise money from international co-producers.

Bristol based Icon Film typifies the trend. It’s had great success with long running series River Monsters from US broadcaster Animal Planet. “Icon Films has grown consistently over the past year – despite tougher, meaner, leaner budgets and deal terms. A wide base of customers have cushioned the blow,” says Icon md Laura Marshall.

A year of technological upheaval
The stand out technological trend of the year has been the interest in 3d production. A year that began with Avatar becoming the fastest film ever to earn $1bn at the box office, has also seen Sky announce and launch its 3d channel in the UK. 3d was the key talking point at kit shows such as NAB and IBC, with the big post houses all investing in 3d. However, the feverish enthusiasm that swirled around 3d at the start of the year has settled down into a more realistic acceptance that it’s a premium rather than everyday technology.

Meanwhile, the reality of lower budgets has led to greater efficiencies in production. Interest in file-based workflows has picked up, with even the biggest shows such as Coronation Street adopting the technology. Cameras such as Canon’s DSLR models have proved hugely popular with cost-conscious producers.

The post sector, which endured a traumatic 2008-9, has remained relatively stable in 2010. It wasn’t free of casualties, with the likes of Barcud Derwen, The Club and Concrete going under. But it was nothing like the bloodbath of the previous few years, and many companies said they prospered in 2010 having spent much of 2009 reducing costs.

Overall, there’s a sense of caution going forward. This mood was best summed up by ITV’s Adam Crozier recently: “The economic outlook for 2011 is uncertain and we continue to plan on a cautious basis,” he said. Measured optimism is apparent, though. 2010 has been a “year of rebuilding” and “survival tactics”, concludes Jana Bennett. “We’re now in recovery.”


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