Friday, July 04, 2008

Getting Beyond The Routine

With the Screenwriters’ Festival 2008 over, I was reading Paul Hoggart’s piece on the Broadcast website about Barbara Machin’s opening address on the Tuesday morning. The creator of Waking the Dead and writer of the recent Kiss of Death, which played with narrative as it shifted back and forth in time, telling the story from the point of view of the main characters, Machin’s impassioned plea was for less formulaic and more innovative television drama.

As Hoggart writes:

Her view is that in an ultra-cautious ratings-driven climate it is getting harder and harder to pitch unusual ideas. “I’ve talked to so many of my contemporaries in the past three weeks, and they all feel the same.” Her complaints echo the regular grumblings of critics and commentators dismayed by “safe” formulaic drama, or tired viewers who complain that their weeknight primetime schedules are cluttered with reality and lifestyle shows, long-running serials and samey generic drama.

Obviously that was going to get the audience’s vote, and Hoggart reports that her speech was greeted with enthusiastic applause. But, homefield advantage aside, is there really a “chilly climate” for innovative drama? Hoggart asks the opinion of Jane Tranter, Head of BBC Fiction, who, with a budget of £250 million, commissions all television drama across the four BBC channels.

[Y]ou might expect Jane Tranter (another speaker at the festival) to bristle at the critique - and her impatience is clear when we speak. She cites a string of recent BBC productions which have added something new to drama: broadcasting Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House in soap-opera length episodes, echoing the author’s original part-work publication; the cultural time-shifts involved in the concept of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes; the rejuvenation of Doctor Who; the structure and scheduling of Five Days last year, and Criminal Justice this week.

While that’s a good response and the award-winning Bleak House was a spectacular piece of drama, here’s the thing... it’s THREE FUCKING YEARS OLD! And that’s from the transmission date, so if you take it from the time it was commissioned, well, that makes it even older. Doctor Who is over three years old since it debuted and Life on Mars over two years old, and we don’t even want to go into how long that took to get on the screen.

I’ve read this obviously well-rehearsed, default answer for a while now, as it has bobbed up in the press, so much so that it could almost be accused of being a broken record. One thing I’ve learnt from working at animation studios and production companies and even back during the dark days at The Esteemed School of Art is: Resting on your laurels is a very, very dangerous thing to do.


At 5:29 am, Blogger qrter said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:31 am, Blogger qrter said...

(Sorry, made a mistake in my original post..)

My fear is that resting on your laurels is a lot less dangerous when you're funded by the government.

(To make myself clear on this - I'm not saying government shouldn't fund a public broadcast system, but it perhaps does take away some of the heat, if you will. That said, I also don't think any such goverment funded public broadcast system should be worrying about audience ratings, really. That's where all of this starts to become messy.)

At 9:08 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

God, I loath that kind of dissembling. Is Jane Tranter trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes or does she believe it?

I agree with the comment (above) but the fact remains that only if a government funded public broadcast system were fully paid for out of taxes could the argument of ignoring audience ratings (possibly) be sustained. All the time the public has to pay a licence fee for a service they might not (with all the other options now available) want, audience ratings are going to be a necessary evil.

Any Bill to transfer the BBC's funding solely to tax revenue would be hard fought in the Commons and, I think, lost. The alternative - to make the BBC a subscription service - would be unlikely to provide sufficient funding to do more cutting edge drama.

The cost of the virtual reality shows and talent competitions (compared with dramas and documentaries) is PEANUTS! And, at the moment, a few handfuls of peanuts gets a lot of monkeys sitting in front of the tellies...

At 9:54 pm, Blogger qrter said...

That's interesting. I'm actually Dutch (well.. half English, really) and we used to have a seperate licence fee here too, but about 8 years ago it was made part of income tax, so you more or less automatically pay your licence fee when paying taxes.

It was more or less done to save money, in the end it saved about 25 million euros a year.

So did this mean the Dutch public broadcasting system (consisting of 3 channels) would stop trying to directly compete with the commercial stations (must be about 8 or 9 of those, not counting international ones like MTV)?

Sadly, no! It's completely insane. Even Dutch public radio tries to compete with commercial radio. It makes no sense.


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