Production balance 

23 May 2011

Remember the days of regional ITV? Granada produced World In Action, Central produced Family Fortunes and The Cook Report, and Thames (R.I.P.) productions ranged from The Bill to This Week. Even the likes of Anglia managed Sale of the Century, Survival and Trisha, and relative newcomer Meridian produced the drama Hornblower.

All of this was to change over the last fifteen years, with only STV, UTV and Channel remaining as separate independent Channel 3 franchises. Even breakfast show producer GMTV – still technically a separate franchise after the Digital Economy Act – is now part and parcel of ITV plc, so where is all of this leading us?

The last 30 years or so has also seen a parallel growth in independent production companies, spurred on by the creation of Channel 4 in 1982 and roughly coinciding with the second major ITV franchise shakeup which had made a few TV producers redundant.

This has ultimately led to the situation where one broadcaster’s production facilities are used to make programmes for what might be regarded as a rival broadcaster, with (for example) ITV Studios making programmes like University Challenge which are shown on a BBC channel because ITV the broadcaster doesn’t want to show them anymore.

After years of divesting regional production assets – only London and Manchester remain as major regional base locations – ITV plc now wants to reinvest in television production, but with the contemporary slant of exploiting ideas as opposed to location, with Graham Norton and Graham Stuart’s So Television being a potential high profile target.

This could lead to several high profile BBC shows being produced by ITV, which is great news from ITV’s perspective because, to quote, “the BBC is rich prime-time soil [for impressing buyers] when it comes to overseas sales”…but what about the BBC’s own reputation in this instance?

Of course there’s the expectation that Norton himself could jump ship to ITV if suitably impressed by their attentions – and ITV’s obviously hoping that this will happen – so the BBC could end up being held hostage by ITV as a consequence; anything Norton-related could automatically transfer to ITV if cancelled by the BBC (and still viable).

BBC One controller Danny Cohen recently said that foreign co-productions were the way forward for major drama series, ensuring additional investment as well as making sure that the BBC retains domestic rights instead of Sky eventually snapping up acquired US imports (Heroes, Mad Men, etc.) like it normally does.

Perhaps it’s also time for the BBC to further secure its domestic production arrangements, ensuring that good ideas get used but also protecting its own income streams at a time of austerity as well as the corporation’s reputation in the process, because a lot of things of real value could oh-so-easily end up in the hands of others instead.

This will ultimately necessitate revisiting that controversial “Window Of Creative Competition” policy, originally set as an ideological encouragement marker for independent producers but also criticised for lining the pockets of large companies such as Endemol instead of putting investment into genuinely fresh talent and ideas.

The BBC cannot afford to sit on its hands for ideological reasons whilst ITV and the rest snap up surrounding production assets for collective gain, because the sum of the parts will end up being much greater than the whole.

Because the BBC is still much, much, much more than just another Channel 4.

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