The CEO of indie Betty, Liz Warner, argues there is something faintly unhealthy about TV at present, a reliance on what has worked before, to the detriment of new and creative programme-making and we are losing a young generation of creative talent as a result. In this extract from new UKTV book 2024: The Future of Television, she asks: what ambitious young person today wants to serve an apprenticeship working long hours for little money in an industry that has, increasingly, lost its sense of fun and adventure?
Not so long ago, I had a breakfast meeting with the controller of a TV channel in a busy café. Next to us was a table of 15 or so exuberant twenty-somethings, celebrating over a beer, having a great time.
They looked like exactly the people you’d want working in your production company: young, hip, bright, creative – television’s potential future.
I was curious enough to lean across and ask who they were, and what they were celebrating. “We’re the editorial team behind a new online art magazine,” they told me. “We’ve just launched our first edition.”
Their eyes were full of excitement and their digital magazine (I pulled out my iPad immediately and had a look) had edgy video and energetic language – it reminded me of production teams 10 years ago. These were the kind of young people who would have been in television back then, keen to push the boundaries and challenge conventional thinking.
But what ambitious young person today wants to serve an apprenticeship working long hours for little money in an industry that has, increasingly, lost its sense of fun and adventure – and has become less diverse and more elitist than it was 10 years ago?
It’s this that worries me about the future of television: where will the new come from? We’ve already proved that TV can survive the digital revolution. In fact digital technology and social networks have so far worked in television’s favour, giving us new ways to share the programmes we love with other people. But how do we attract the brightest new talent, unless we give young people the opportunity to play with ideas and learn from mistakes, in the way the online creative industries do?
Television has become awfully safe lately. Maybe it’s something to do with the recession, TV’s risk-averse tendency reflecting what’s happening in the economy. The middle class economic squeeze has been mirrored by a middle-ground cultural squeeze.
Take a look at what’s on our screens, and you’ll find a polarisation of taste: either big feasts or fast-food snacking, with not much in between. Box-set favourites like Breaking Bad or Mad Men have trained audiences to expect long series, so television has responded with rich indulgent fare for viewers to binge on, such as Broadchurch, The Killing or batch-viewing several episodes of Grand Designs one after the other on the same night.
For smaller appetites, programmes such as Rude Tube or Countryfile are full of short items so you can sample just a few bites before jumping to something else. We may even be seeing the return of the magazine programme – though of course no one uses the m-word these days, guaranteed to kill any pitch, preferring instead to describe them as ‘multi-item narrative shows’.
Too much of what we like, however, is not always good for us and there’s also something faintly unhealthy about another recent polarisation on our screens.
On the one hand, there’s an obsession with the very rich, from Made in Chelsea to Downton Abbey, along with programmes that go behind the scenes at Claridge’s and Liberty.
On the other, there are tales of the underclass, dubbed by the media as ‘poverty porn’: Benefits Street recently drew five million viewers.
The irony is that today’s TV gives access to ‘forbidden’ worlds at the extremes of society, but offers very little that reflects the middle.
Again, you can’t help thinking of the way the middle class is being squeezed in the economy. Because it seems to grab viewers, I predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of this.
Squeezing out the middle ground isn’t all bad, as the average isn’t always interesting, but this polarisation and attraction to extremes makes us increasingly like the USA, with little or no room for subtlety within the mainstream.
This monotonous concentration on more of what’s worked before means there is less room for niche interests. The arts and other ‘specialist’ tastes are being pushed onto niche channels, as has already happened with children’s programmes.
As a result some of the mainstream terrestrials have become blander and more formulaic, very different from the ever-changing tapestry of viewing they used to offer. Maybe this conservative approach is a hangover from the recession too.
Television has become like people who daren’t move home and build the house of their dreams, instead staying put and investing in double glazing.
You can’t blame channels for wanting to hold onto audiences by giving them the tried-and-tested, but I worry about this approach, and what it means for the future of popular TV content.
One good reason for television to stop milking winners to death is that we should hold onto that sense of event which comes with a more sparing approach to scheduling.
The anticipation of a big once-a-year series, like The Great British Bake-Off, adds to the pleasure of watching it, and you appreciate a series like Sherlock or The Undateables (made by betty) because they leave you wanting more. Let’s not forget Chris Evans’s hit Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, which stopped after two series, and there were only 12 episodes of Faulty Towers. People will seek out events that can bring them together and inject a bit more joy into their lives.
But unless it makes a place for the new, TV will atrophy creatively. I don’t think television any longer attracts the brightest and the best. The cleverest, wittiest and most provocative brains are looking elsewhere.
When channels dare not kill a show still getting ratings, where’s the excitement in being a researcher on a TV programme plodding through its fifth series, when you could have so much more fun on a digital magazine creating something sexy and daring?
People no longer celebrate the eccentrics within the industry, the people willing to take a risk to make quirky and brilliant programmes, so there are no role models to lure young creatives to join us both on and off screen. Where are the new Michael Moores and Louis Therouxs, the Chris Morrises and Ali Gs? Where does the next Oxbridge comedy set find an outlet? All the innovation has gone to the internet. We need to attract those people who will challenge us, and help keep British TV at the forefront of experimentation and edginess.
We have been the most creatively fertile TV community in the world. Programmes devised by British indies are exported across the globe like Supernanny, Undercover Boss & Strictly Come Dancing.
For that reputation to continue, we need to pile some more manure on the creative patch, investing in ideas, and accepting that some will fail. I’d like the future to bring the fun back into TV and make it the go-to career choice it used to be for bright, hip young people.
The strength of narrative will become ever more powerful. We live in a world of information overload, and sometimes it can feel as if we are existing on a data diet of broken biscuits. People long for the intellectual nourishment of satisfying stories, and that is why dramas such as House of Cards, The Bridge or The 7.39 and others pull massive audiences. There will always be work for people who can tell a strong story, be they writers or journalists.
The future will be an era of curation. We’re in choice overload too: people want someone who can cut out the noise and help them make decisions about what to watch. We are no longer constrained by TV schedules – we make our own but there is a place for new arbiters of taste who will guide our choices. These could be the equivalent of the magazine editors or channel controllers of the future, curating an alternative schedule through Facebook or Twitter or some means we have yet to invent.
Learning journeys will increasingly be a theme. There’s pleasure and genuine joy in watching an authentic journey or real experience. It offers the enjoyment of escapism, be it a craft like quilting, baking, or building boats, or an adventure, seeing rare animals or simply learning to love.
Finally, risk will continue to be rewarded. Consider the plaudits for Gogglebox, or Channel 4’s bravery in making a plane crash on TV, the bold scheduling of Mayday or bigger commissioning decisions like Broadchurch or mainstreaming disability. Failing by making average-to-poor imitations is unforgivable, but trying something new when it strikes a nerve and wins hearts and ratings… therein lies success.
2024: The Future of Television, commissioned by UKTV’s CEO, Darren Childs, is available for free download now at www.corporate.uktv.co.uk
Share this story