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October 2017
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Studio showtime

Selecting a suitable TV studio for your production involves many logistical considerations, from how to handle the audience to the number of ‘star’ dressing rooms required. Jake Bickerton reveals which studios have the most to offer


There’s hardly a shortage of fully equipped TV studios in the UK, each complete with lighting rigs and galleries, and most able to adapt to suit the needs of different productions. The key to whittling down this long list and locating the most suitable studio for your production, besides simply opting for the one offering the best deal, is to focus on the logistical and practical implications of your show. Details such as the ability of a studio to handle different audience sizes, its facilities for presenters and guests and how easy it is to access the studio are key to a show’s success. It’s these considerations we’ve addressed over the following pages, through interviews with those running many of the country’s leading studios.

Different genres, little difference
As a general rule, the genre of programme makes little difference in terms of what’s required from the studio. By far the most important factor is whether the show has an audience. Pinewood Studios Group, home to Dragon’s Den, Gladiators, The Weakest Link, Not Going Out, and Harry Hill’s TV Burp, is typical in that, says sales director Paul Baker, “Lots of production companies use our studios to do lots of different genres.”
“There’s really very little difference in how we treat a production in terms of its genre of work,” confirms Derek Watts, studio executive, 3Mills Studios, whose TV projects include Hell’s Kitchen and Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live. Like most studios, Watts says, “We can deal with most types of production, whether a drama building its own set or a reality LE show, or a combination of the two. Most differences relate to whether it has an audience or not.”

Kids shows
The only type of production requiring a notably changed approach in studio setup is kids programming: “There are all kinds of things you have to do – check all rooms for dangers, have separate toilets, separate changing areas, and check all audience and staff too,” explains Paul Bennett, director of Northern Resources at ITV Studios/3sixtymedia. “We are able to isolate pockets of the building to accommodate these requirements.”
Bennett’s comments are echoed by Paul Austin, head of commercial management, BBC Studios and Post Production, home to many LE giants including Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Later with Jools Holland, Comic Relief and Strictly Come Dancing, who says that, although they don’t do many kid’s shows, these present a very different challenge to other shows. “There are very strict child protection procedures in place, you have to be very careful. The audience has to be CRB checked, and audiences from other shows can’t be given the opportunity to mingle with each other.” Also, he says, “For kid’s shows, you have to create an upbeat and happy feel, similar to quiz and comedy shows.”
For Jane Anderson, vp of studios, MTV, the challenge is to ensure different productions can work in the same space, whatever the schedule: “For six weeks the whole building was full of kids shows. We were doing three shows a day for the Cartoon Network and [BBC1’s] Missing Live was in at the same time. So you have to adapt the facility to cope with these very different type of shows, ensuring both clients have exactly the facilities they need.”

Coping with drama
Unlike conventional studio-based TV shows, the requirements of dramas are similar to those of feature films, requiring large, open stages in which to construct their sets. They don’t generally need lighting rigs or a gallery so don’t have to pay for a fully equipped television studio. “The difference between a TV show and a drama is dramas are independent to themselves – we provide support and let the guys get on and do what they want,” says Pinewood’s Baker.
Similarly, Watts at 3Mills Studios says that, with a drama, everyone comes in at the beginning to get their security pass, then they’re free to move around and get on with the task in hand: “We’re there to make sure everything is working ok for them, but once they’re in and have started they’re doing their own thing.”
Watts also reports that, with the credit crunch, an increasingly number of (non-drama) television productions whose first port of call would usually be a fully-equipped TV studio, are now seeing if savings can be made by opting for a sound stage instead: “Productions that usually use a TV studio have been approaching us as they can hire just the things they need rather than paying for things they don’t need to use,” he says.

Audience handling
Logistically, the most pressing and potentially tricky factor for any studio-based show is the audience; not only sourcing the audience in the first place, but also ensuring it can be adequately catered for on site and can easily access the studio in the first place. For Roger Morris, md of Elstree Studios, where large audience-based shows Big Brother, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Dancing on Ice are made, the location of the studio complex makes it well-suited for such shows: “You have to be accessible for audience shows so they can get there in the evening. You can’t be on an industrial estate or have to walk miles along a site,” he says. In terms of some of the specific concerns studios need to address when handling audiences, Morris adds, “You need buses and good lighting within the site and you need to think about the weather as a damp audience is not an attractive proposition – you have to keep the audience dry and happy. And there are things like wheelchair access to factor in too. We’ve 500 car parking spaces and are easily accessible from the motorway. All these ingredients make a difference.”
The largest and potentially one of the most hard-to-handle audience at Elstree is for Big Brother, which even attracts a hardcore of people willing to queue overnight for a high-profile eviction: “Again, the logistics, such as the number of loos, first aid facilities, police help and having a large team of ushers and security is the key,” says Morris. “There’s a great atmosphere and people don’t worry about the weather – the biggest deal is tidying up after them.”
Austin at BBC Studios and Post Production also points to location as key to attracting both a sizable and enthusiastic audience. “Getting the right audience for the show is critical and can directly impact on the success of a production. The fact that BBC Television Centre is hugely accessible by public transport – especially with the new Wood Lane tube station and Shepherds Bush Overground – is a major advantage in enabling productions to get the audiences they need,” he says. Other factors such as the newly opened Westfield shopping centre down the road have further increased the draw for visitors to the BBC: “People are increasingly combining shopping with the experience of seeing a TV show,” says Austin, and adds that, for shows like Strictly Come Dancing, “It has such a strong appeal that it draws an audience from all over the UK and guests book hotels over night, as they would for a theatre trip to the west end.”

Pass the vibe
Part of the studio experience, at least for the audience, is going to a studio with a lively, exciting atmosphere and some studios market themselves on their ability to create such a ‘vibe’. “We’re very fortunate as MTV is a cool place, people like coming here as it has a great buzz,” says Anderson. To help create the atmosphere, “The audience holding area is in the centre, not in some side annex, and has a big projector showing MTV or the client’s channels.”
BBC Studios and Post Production’s Austin feels the same about the BBC: “You get a buzz in the BBC. When Stevie Wonder was here for Jonathan Ross, you could smell the excitement; even Jonathan Ross was excited.” For Pinewood, a sure-fire way to create an instant appeal for the audience is keeping them in one of its film stages: “For Beat the Star, the audience is in the 007 stage, which instantly creates that buzz.” Similarly, says Morris at Elstree Studios, “If we’re doing a feature film, it creates a great atmosphere. And if you’re going to the Dancing On Ice studio you go past the Big Brother house on the way, so that adds atmosphere too.”

Getting in the numbers
Maidstone Studios, home to MasterChef, 1 vs 100, Catchphrase, Art Attack and Making Your Mind Up, can accommodate a massive audience of up to 2,400 in its custom-built Studio 5. When designing the studio, a lot of thought went into how to cope with the audience capacity, says general manager Kenton Oxley. For certain shows, “The council give over a Park and Ride car park for 1,000 vehicles, and the audience can get a shuttle bus here,” he says.
“The biggest thing we’ve done in Studio 5 so far is Big Weekend for Radio 1, which had a 2,400 standing audience. It’s about learning how to secure and deal with that level of audience from 10pm to 5am – we can handle that level of audience and there was no crime or incidence reported after the event.” With that number of people, “the studio has massive air conditioning facilities,” adds Oxley. “It gets hot with over 2,000 people and the lighting in there.”
Certain shows require a specific approach when it comes to audience handling. The Jeremy Kyle Show, recorded at 3sixtymedia’s The Manchester Studios, is a case in point. “It has its own special audience handling area as it’s a different kind of show and it’s essential the different factions of contributors don’t meet,” explains Bennett. “The layout of the building means we have dressing rooms situated at different sides of the studio, which enables this to happen.”
Pinewood has so many shows requiring an audience it’s created the Pinewood Audience Club so it has a broad spread of people on tap who are ready and willing to come and be part of the audience. The club has 10,000 members, and, depending on how many shows are being recorded, hundreds and hundreds of audience members might be on site at any one time: “It’s not an issue if loads of people are here at the same time as we’re spread over 100 acres and can accommodate coaches and cars and have shuttle busses to the station,” explains Baker. “Managing a large number of people on site is second nature to us.”

Presenters and guests
Another essential part of the studio experience is ensuring presenters and guests feel comfortable and relaxed in their environment. Debbie Hills, head of sales at London Studios, whose list of high-profile shows includes The Paul O’Grady Show, The Graham Norton Show, Loose Women, Have I Got News for You and Chris Moyles’ Quiz Night, says it’s all about making sure the on-screen talent only has to worry about their performance and not on practicalities.
“The on-screen talent doesn’t want to consider being in the studio environment,” she says. “We have to run a huge hospitality operation, with 25 to 30 dressing rooms and production areas – we recruit people from the hotel industry as the client-focused aspect is one we have to get right.” Hills highlights some examples to illustrate the level of client-focused servicing her studio provides: “Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady have dogs, so we’ve dog facilities in the dressing rooms. We need to know all our celebrities’ needs and preferences – if they want Oolong tea then Oolong tea they will have. Little details like that are really important.”
Likewise, it’s the little luxuries that count at plush private members club The Hospital, which has an HD studio providing space for corporate and broadcast productions. “Our clients can use our club and have dinner here. The building is a big part of the sell,” explains Studio sales manager, Anne Marie Phelan. “It’s very easy for us to cater for celebs. If there are any specific demands, there’s nothing we can’t get.”
As is commonplace with studios, The Manchester Studios provides an assortment of dressing rooms for presenters and guests, from luxurious suites to much more modest facilities: “We’ve star rooms with their own sofas and showers, standard dressing rooms, which are very comfortable but not as good as the star facilities, and also group changing areas too,” says Bennett. Unlike other studios, though, The Manchester Studios has an ace up its sleeve with its own deluxe top-floor penthouse suite: “It has a number of bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and lounge. We use it for really high-profile stars or for hospitality,” he says. “The likes of David and Victoria Beckham and Cilla Black have used it.”

Dressed for success
It may be something that’s taken for granted, but, says MTV’s Anderson, “You can lose a show on how many dressing rooms, green rooms, production offices and so on you’ve got, and clients also expect really nice production offices.” With this in mind, studios are typically equipped with a generous level of such facilities and spend time and effort ensuring they are spruced up to an appropriate standard. “Our production rooms and dressing rooms were all refurbished to a high standard last year,” says Maidstone’s Oxley. “We have three green rooms, five star dressing rooms and suites, and 20 standard dressing rooms. The stars really should walk in and be removed from everything so they can concentrate on the show.”
In keeping with the desire to keep presenters happy, Pinewood’s dressing rooms have “changed over the years depending on what stars need,” says Baker. “They are an integral part of the studio,” he adds.
Fountain Studios has 18 dressing rooms, which ordinarily, is sufficient. However, with The X Factor it sometimes has to bring in Winnebagos to house the dancers, backing vocalists, choirs and so on. Celebrity guests on the The X Factor also get their own Winnebago, “screened off by fencing so you can’t see it from the road outside,” says Joyce.                     

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