Catch the penny 

1 January 2003

In the past 10 years or so, the Commissioning Editor has become the main driver of new programmes into television. The Commissioning Editor will basically commission material either directly from in-house production units or from independent production companies and he will set the budgets for these shows.

Now, it is at this point where, in my view, the problems begin. If you were to look at various channel’s commissioning policies, they will insist on shows being given a budget in a set range.

Where as BBC would commission a make-over show with a budget of somewhere between £20-40,000 an episode, UKTV would commission a similar show with a budget of £5-10,000 an episode.

Why the difference? Well, it comes down to expectations. Because the BBC and ITV are the best known and biggest channels in British Television, we expect them to flash the cash for the big prime-time schedule.

Unfortunately, this can mean that shows that are not prime-time ideas can be given prime-time budgets and they have to find a way to spend it. That money could be better spent on programmes that really need it, such as dramas, sci-fi, and TV movies.

There is another problem. Because BBC1 and ITV1 are the two most watched channels still on British Television, there is a constant battle between the two channels, and they feel that not only must they flash the cash at prime-time, but all through the schedule.

This is a big mistake. You cannot fight a battle on all fronts simultaneously and expect to win them all. There are certain key battlegrounds in the schedule that need focusing on, and the main one is prime-time.

Outside of prime-time, there are other battlegrounds, that whilst still important, are nowhere near as key as prime-time, because there are far less available viewers for those slots. Breakfast, and late afternoon are the two battlegrounds.

Breakfast is key because of its being radio’s flagship slot, so TV needs breakfast to carry a similar weight, even though it wouldn’t be a flagship slot.

The Late Afternoon/Teatime slot is key because it is the lead in to prime-time, and because it is the secondary prime slot on radio, as those who come home from work switch on first their radios, then their TVs. Daytime programming and the overnight slots are far less important.

It is for these reasons that the US TV networks concentrate their network resources on prime-time programming. Prime-Time programming is the programming that most people watch, by a mile. Outside of prime-time, radio is the dominant media, with a far greater available audience.

In that sense, radio has another advantage, it only requires an open pair of ears, and it doesn’t even have to distract your attention from your work, or anything else you might be doing. TV, by definition, requires your full attention to get the most out of it.

Therefore, TV should make sure that by far the largest proportion of budget is available for prime-time, and that slots should not have budgets pre-decided before an idea is generated. After all, if the US networks pre-budgeted slots, would you have shows on, that cost over $1 million an episode, such as Friends or Enterprise? I don’t think so.

Some would say this is why US daytime TV is so bad, because so much money is spent in primetime shows, there is no money available for decent daytime programming, leaving us with cheap daytime talk shows and soaps in the US as the main daytime schedule. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

ITV regional companies have found they can make documentaries very cheaply, by using the same crewing arrangements as are currently used for News production. One cameraman, who basically shoots the footage, and a reporter/producer/director, who guides the cameraman to the shots they want.

Similar tricks can be applied to producing almost anything factual and indeed, such tricks are already being used by satellite and digital channels to produce programming at micro-budgets. The only limit to how low the budget can be comes down to the wage cost of the relevant crew, the cost of hiring an edit suite, the cost of transport to filming locations and the cost of videotape.

Theoretically, it is possible to shoot and edit a whole programme, in a matter of 2 days, for less than £1,000. This assumes you are able to travel between your home base and your filming location and back again in a day, are filming the entire shoot yourself and not purchasing any new videotape.

Not all of these can apply every time, but certainly, new programming can be produced a lot cheaper than most people realise, and indeed, cheaper than is currently being done by some channels.

The technology of broadcasting and production has improved to the point where programming can be produced very cheaply, but it relies on the creativeness and ingenuity of the producer to produce that programme as cheaply as possible.

If a producer knows he has a set minimum budget, it is no incentive to produce the programme at a level which could mean a part of that budget could be re-invested into prime-time programming. By not setting minimum budgets, by not setting any kind of budgetary limits on slots, money can be directed properly.

This will mean that where a show can be produced very cheaply, at a micro-budget level, it should do so. But also, where a show needs more budget for something like a specialist set, or special effects, then it should be able to get it.

This is why giving slots set budgetary limits is such a bad idea. It limits the creativity and ingenuity that a producer can put into their programme.

Minimum budgets do not encourage producers to spend wisely, and maximum budgets mean that a particular item that would make the programme work better, or make it special, might not be available to the producer.

At the end of the day, television is a creative medium. Surely anything that limits the creativity cannot be a good thing.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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