“Well as you can see I am a lot shorter than people might expect. Television exaggerates people’s heights so to give you some idea of my actual height take my measure against this podium here. This podium is one foot high, so that gives you an idea. Thank-you very much, Bafta, for your incredible kindness in not only inviting me to give this year’s Television Lecture, but of laying on such a magnificent parade through central London leading up to it. I know how deeply the British public share our concerns about the digital future and the challenge of multi-platform delivery, which is why I’m sure they turned out in the large numbers they did this afternoon.
Now, my predecessor in this spot, Peter Bennett-Jones, argued last year that the BBC needs to be split into two divisions, one factual, and one entertainment. Indeed, many in the crowd in Trafalgar Square were telling me the same today … and I’ll be taking Peter’s advice tonight, and speaking just about comedy and drama, since that’s what I feel qualified to discuss. I also ought to point out that Peter is my agent so I suppose it’s appropriate he gets a 10% share of my argument this evening.
But I dedicate tonight’s lecture 100% to him. He’s been my mentor and model for nearly 20 years now, fighting to help me make the comedy I wanted to make under the creative conditions I needed to make it, and his generosity, idealism and idiosyncrasy for me represent totally what we are in UK Television when we are at our best. Especially the idiosyncrasy.
This lecture has the rather aggressive title of ‘Fight, Fight, Fight’. And to show I mean business, I also ought to warn you that I use the F-word three times this evening, and by that I mean ‘Fuck’. And that was one of them.
I had originally thought of calling tonight’s talk ‘Make Good Programmes’ and the plan was to be introduced, come over to the lectern and say, ‘Good evening. Make good programmes’ and then sit down again. But that would only have led to an awkward silence, followed by everyone heading downstairs to a glass of rather sharp-tasting white wine and then, with a free evening ahead of them, no doubt heading over to a rival talk Brian Sewell is giving on Titian at The National Gallery.
But ‘Make Good Programmes’ is all I’ve ever believed, it’s all I’ve ever want to believe. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Make good programmes, and they will come.
My only working principle, whenever we make something, is rather ruthlessly to concentrate on that rectangular screen on the monitor as I’m filming. What’s happening in that screen? Is it clear what’s going on? Is what’s in that monitor the funniest, the best it can be? Is it telling the story? Is it believable what those people are saying? And I will always fight to make it so, even if that means starting afresh, rewriting the scene, dropping an extremely expensive prop, ignoring a magnificent but distracting view the location manager sold his wife to get access to.
All of that, because that rectangle is all the viewer cares about too. Whatever device that rectangle is on may keep changing, away from the home and onto the tablet, but it’s still those same four sides enclosing what you’ve made. It’s an intimate connection between you and them. There may be a hundred people on set, we may measure our reach in terms of millions, but ultimately people watch in ones and twos, and with families and friends. TV is personal.
It’s personal for me. When I was growing up in Glasgow my father was self-employed, and had good times and bad times. In the good times, we lived in a nice house, but there were bad times. There was a particularly bad time when there were six of us in a two-bedroomed tenement flat in Glasgow. But even then, I remember television taking us out of ourselves. Us all gathered round and there being laughter, at Morecombe and Wise and The Generation Game and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. But also great illumination, with the likes of The World at War and Horizon and a fantastic series I remember dramatising Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, where he began his intellectual journey that was to lead to the development of his theory on evolution.
I personally felt grateful that British TV set itself apart from its international rivals in this way, not afraid to challenge, to stretch the mind and imagination. It stretched mine, it galvanised my creative ambitions, it gave me a standard to reach for, which is why I feel happy making television, and grateful and thankful that I’m making it in Britain.
That’s why I’ve called this talk ‘Fight, Fight, Fight’, because I want to encourage us to be more aggressive in promoting what makes British TV so good. And to be ambitious, arrogant even, in how we sell it to the world. Never to sell ourselves short. And I’ll be talking about my American experiences in a moment. But commercially, I want us all, especially the BBC, with a brand recognition up there with Apple and Google, to go abroad and prostitute itself to blue-buggery if need be in how it sells and makes money from its content, so that money can come back to production in the UK.
But more importantly, at home, I want us to be more vocal in fighting whatever attacks or restricts our creative ambition. The caution, the assault from politicians and press barons, the unnecessary constraints imposed by any executives who commission in their own image, according to their own agenda of tastes and priorities, instead of in creative engagement with the programme makers,
I want to banish forever the memory of a seminar a few years back, where a roomful of some of the best comedy writers in the country were told by executives, ‘here’s some of the topics we’re looking for in comedy … Builders, women …. No doubt they were inundated with scripts about a building firm who wanted to build a woman. I want to argue that programme makers, the creative industry in television, is its hugest asset, and will be the true source of any profit to come, and needs to be treated with respect and support.
Now, profit, the weasel word, profit. I’m not a naturally aggressive person, but one of the few times I’ve spoken out in public about television was after James Murdoch spoke up in favour of profit, and attacked the BBC for being far too good. I was frustrated that the BBC started apologetically looking at reining in some of its services, and apologising for having websites and digital channels and local radio. And at the time I said publicly I loved the BBC dearly but I was frustrated that, every time it was accused of a crime, even one it wasn’t guilty of, it would immediately hand itself in to the nearest police station. I also said the BBC should get someone to tell James Murdoch to fuck off, but it looks like that happened at the most recent MacTaggart Lecture [which was given by James’ sister Elisabeth Murdoch].
Now, it would take someone with a sick and twisted sense of humour to revel in the subsequent emotional distress that has befallen James Murdoch since he made that argument, which is why Bafta has asked me to give this lecture.
But I want to look at that provocative remark he used at the end of his MacTaggart Lecture, that ‘the only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit,’. That sentence riled me. It got to me. Not just because my first instincts were telling me it was the opposite of everything I believed, but also because of a niggling, troubling little emergency flare that went off at the back of my mind that perhaps there might be something in it. That independence is key. That creative independence is what defines British television at its best, but if it’s under attack, where is it to go if not into the arms of the moneymen?
Well, we’ll see.
So let’s, first, take a look at the world stage. British television was once the most admired, the most copied and influential in the world. I say ‘once’ because I think over the past five, maybe 10, years we’ve stopped thinking that. We’ve been surprised and gob smacked by how good American telly has become.
Bringing cinema production values to the small screen and attracting cinema talent. America’s best writers and directors have been enticed to the longer-form TV drama and as a consequence have given us the likes of The Wire, Damages, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. Some of these series have been called the greatest television ever made. Which is silly, because that’s Breaking Bad. Or is it Family Guy?
My epiphany was when watching an episode of Battlestar Gallactica, not the ’80s mullet version, but the high concept reboot from a few years back, where some of the central cast – held in captivity by the Cylons – resorted to suicide bombing to overthrow them. For an American show deep in America’s War on Terror, this was an astonishing piece of bravado from the programme makers, and it made me sit up and think about how gloriously daring we could be with television drama.
But American TV wasn’t always to that standard. In the 1970s and ’80s, that time when perhaps America’s political and cultural dominance was at its height, and when Britain’s great doubts about its identity and role were at their most pronounced, in those times we at least consoled ourselves with one unarguable, self-evident fact; American TV was glittery crap and ours was really, really good. Yes, there were iconic shows from the US like Kojak and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but these were just well made entertainments at the very tippy-topmost peak of a mound of dross.
We rejoiced in the vulgarity of their LA sheen, we enjoyed being appalled by the sausage-factory productivity, with regular, yearly seasons of 22 episodes or even more, typified by a famous Simpson’s episode where Homer raises money to fund a new, seventh episode of his favourite British TV show,
And we jumped up and down with barely concealed patronising glee that even a costume soap from us like Upstairs, Downstairs could be repackaged in America as Masterpiece Theatre. And we laughed, oh how we laughed, at their repeated attempts to take top quality British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and make a complete shredded turkey out of them.
And then, with The Sopranos we started identifying the appearance of quality, edgy television. We identified it with HBO. We maybe saw it as a one-off. After all, HBO’s slogan ‘It’s not TV , it’s HBO’ reinforced this notion that what we were watching was somehow an exception. But now as rivals Showtime and AMC and FX ape HBO’s commitment to a different type of television, with the likes of Mad Men and Dexter, and as the big networks catch the bug with high-concept shows such as Lost and, dammit, The Office, I think in Britain TV has gone through something of an identity crisis.
Why is this? Firstly, I think the increasing power and dominance of the commissioning executive (and by that I mean either genre commissioner or channel controller or scheduler – an executive who has some say in the commissioning of programmes) I think the increasing power and dominance they’ve had is partly to blame for this. Separating broadcasters from programme-makers gave those broadcasters a power that has grown and grown so that at times it becomes a form of diktat as to what the content should be.
“We want a animated sketch show about teenage car crash victims”; “We’re looking for more dramas about superhero weathermen fighting permafrost”; ” We’re after a sassy late-night antiques show”; “We want a multi-ethnic quiz hosted by an Indian Amanda Burton.”
Too often, the commissioning executive became the chief creative officer behind any show, the one coming up with the title, insisting on the key cast, determining the format, imposing hard-line notes on the script, influencing the edit. Very often the producers and key creative talent became the suppliers, the contracted creative labour, used to bring the commissioner’s project to completion.
We were told we, the programme makers, were there to make headlines, grab ratings, pull in the viewers, or ‘punch through the mix’ as I remember one memo put it. The discovery that reality was popular and cheap let to a downturn in drama and comedy, and an upswing in that colossally twattish decade of programmes that described their entire contents in their title. Top Ten Celebrity Mingers, remember that? The Boy Who Can Burp His Own Kidneys. Help Me, My Sister’s a Pope.
Apologies if you’ve heard this before, but I just think it typifies what was going on. I worked for Talkback, which was a comedy company, but then became much more successful making reality shows, and it produced House Doctor – one of its hits. Someone working at Talkback had decided that they were going to leave, and it was a brainstorming session for spin-off ideas from House Doctor. People were chucking in Garden Doctor, people were saying: ‘Garden Doctor, fantastic, people go into gardens, do them up, sell them, improve the house’. School Doctor: ‘fantastic, people go into schools, they turn them round, whatever’. Body Doctor: ‘fantastic, people go in and …’ at which point my friend, who was about to leave, stood up and said ‘that’s a fucking doctor’. Now, thankfully, the worst of those days are behind us but I do think we still expend too much of our energy trying to second-guess what the executives are after.
In comedy, for example, the agenda kept changing with a set of circular twists and turns more dizzying than the ones that got our gymnasts a bronze at the Olympics. Commissioners and controllers saying there’s too much single camera comedy on these days and they want some more studio audience sitcoms.
And then along comes Gavin and Stacey, which proves the audience sitcom is dead so we don’t need any more thanks. And then along comes Miranda and the appeal goes out once more audience sitcoms just like that. And then along comes The Inbetweeners.
It seems to go in cycles of four years. And yet controllers and commissioners seems to come and go every two years, so the cycle gets disrupted by another cycle inside the bigger cycle, until no one knows what we’re meant to be making and everyone is just sick.
I honestly don’t think that this was the commissioning executive’s fault; it was more a symptom of the dysfunctional nature of the job. Pressure on that exec to get the commission right, to get the ratings and the awards and the conversational buzz, against all competition. And that inevitably pushes them into wanting final say on all aspects of the programme. The more they have their say, however, the less say there is from the creative team.
On top of all this, because drama and comedy is so expensive to make, I think there grew up a tendency to think, we were lucky to be making it at all. It was a ‘beggars can’t be choosers mentality’ that gave the broadcaster the upper hand in dishing out notes and casting suggestions and schedule deadlines. It made it easier to say no without too much explanation. ‘Sorry, we’ve already got a show set in a county with cars in it.’
That’s the nature of the dysfunction: it diminishes the use of the greatest resource in British Television, the fund of creative talent of writers and performers and producers, who made the greatest television in the world. The more limitations and constrictions we impose on that talent, the more British television is diminished.
If we operate under a culture of caution and compliance, our TV industry will not flow at full strength, at a time when it has to. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several chances of working with American broadcasters, and I’ve had contrasting experiences.
There was a US Version of The Thick of It, which was piloted at ABC, and there I saw first-hand the network system. The notes from every executive, meetings with a roomful of vice-presidents laid out in crescent formation in swinging chairs. Every decision on casting, location, the look, even the colour of the ties, (although I was allowed to have final decision on that one), but every other decision needed approval and sign-off from above.
Then flash forward three years and my experiences making Veep with HBO. There, the conversations were direct, focused. Most heartening, the whole experience was about forming a creative relationship, a dialogue, with the programme maker. Their first words to me were, ‘we like what you do, why would we want to change it?’ Yes, there were notes and talks, but these were always supportive suggestions. If there was ever a difference of opinion over a decision, word would always come back: ‘it’s your show. It’s up to you,’.
That’s an extraordinary contrast, and it’s tempting to conclude that the big networks just aren’t the place to go to do the type of shows that we make here, the idiosyncratic personal stuff, the typically British stuff. But I think that’s wrong. Good stuff is made by the networks and the mistake in the end was ours for thinking that, though we came up with the programme idea, we weren’t best equipped to make it ourselves. We didn’t big ourselves up enough in the process. In fact, as my experience with Veep has borne out, confidence in our own ability pays dividends. Veep, though shot in America, with an American cast, has an all-British team of writers, all-British directors, all-British post-production from start to finish – titles, music, editing. The cast even came to London to rehearse.
It’s a lesson I need to hold on to, it’s one I’ve learnt. That we can make international television, but we need to make it our way because we have all the advantages of belonging to the best creative pool of talent in the world. The US comes to us for ideas because we have great ideas, but we are also the best equipped to make them.
For me, Veep is a start, but it signals that it’s possible, just possible, to enter not just a financial partnership with other countries, but a creative one as well. And we need to, because the market has become global, the potential audience, truly international.
I want to break off ever so briefly to show you a clip, I was thinking – given that we’re in the height of election fever over in the States – it would be good to see something funny about the American election and I scoured around various channels and networks and websites, and the thing that’s made me laugh consistently is this clip, which is fairly self explanatory. So if we just watch this, and we’ll talk about it afterwards.
There are three things I wanted to say about that clip, and I’ll say them very quickly. I could actually do a whole lecture. Firstly, it was done on the internet, so nobody commissioned it, someone went and did it off their own back. And that’s an example of how the internet has given us creative tools to write, to create, to film, to test out ideas.
It means that, whereas 20 years ago people were saying to me ‘how do I start? How do I get into comedy?’ and I would say to them ‘well, you’ll have to go along to a radio production, go to a writers’ meeting of Weekending and see if you can write for that,’ or ‘have you got a script?’. Nowadays, people are giving me CDs and DVDs and web links, and the ability to create off your own back means that actually there’s now no excuse, if you want to become a member of the creative industry within television, there is now nothing stopping you in terms of going out and being able to enact your ideas. Now, obviously, some things take a little bit of money, and need a little bit of support and financial backing. But the ability to grab people, especially if what you make is good, I think is now greater. Secondly, that clip was made in the US, but I can access it here.
The fact is that domestic audiences are becoming less and less attached to watching stuff made in their homeland, less and less attached to watching home-grown television. Are more ready to watch, no matter where it’s made. For that reason British comedy is now far more popular in America than it’s ever been, because people know where to access the stuff.
They know where to find Inbetweeners and Peep Show. We just started, this week, The Thick of It has gone out in the UK, but it’s now simultaneously going out on Hulu in America. We, in the UK, aren’t too fazed by watching Nordic drama, we’re not actually that fussed by where it’s made, as long as it’s good. And that’s an interesting thing.
Thirdly, I can watch that whenever I like. This removes the art of the scheduler, since scheduling becomes a personal gift to the viewer, who watches whatever they like. And I think, especially watching how the young view their television, or rather view content on YouTube on their laptop, on their phone, and have this expectation that they can access anything from anywhere in the world, and at any time they want it, I think that this inevitable revolution in viewing habits that people are frightened of is going to come upon us in the next three, four years.
What that means, though, is that content is supreme. That the programme commissioner, the scheduler, the controller has less of a vital job and that the responsibility for coming up with good stuff is back with us. Across the world, the cry is up for content. People want good stuff, and they’ll search anywhere to find it. Schedulers, networks are on the wane, and the makers of good stuff will be in the driving seat.
And that’s why it’s great we belong to the best creative industry in the world, but also why it’s essential that everyone, executives and producers, in British television prioritises good quality, challenging, imaginative programming because it’s only by doing so will we play to our strengths and stand out from the competition.
We are at our best not in committee, but when we’re at our most idiosyncratic. The best British television is the vision of individual creative minds, responding to the values and events of the society around them. But it’s not self-absorbed, it’s genuinely part of the wider spirit of what’s going on in a community, but a specific response to that spirit. It’s a challenge, or a celebration of it, or a critique of it or an affirmation of it. Because it’s individual, because it’s personal, it communicates, it connects with the viewer. Commissioning executives are at their best when they give space and encouragement to these individual responses. When they fund, and nurture and guide Graham Linehan, Adam Curtis, Nira Park, John Lloyd, Steven Moffat, Charlie Brooker, Julia Davies, Iain Morris, Simon Cowell, Jon Plowman, Shane Meadows, Aardman Animation, and hundreds more like them, producers and writers, many of whom are not household names, but who have a consistent passion for striking ideas, all part of the collective and exceptional TV talent in the UK.
I personally will always be grateful to Roly Keating when as Controller of BBC Four, he listened to my rather back-of-an-envelope description of what a fuzzy, semi-improvised, quickly shot, ensemble political comedy might be like and then gave me £200,000 and said, ‘see what you can make with this,’. We made the first three episodes.
And I think also something like the recent Star Gazing Live on BBC2, the astronomy show stretched nightly across a single week, was an example of great, creative commissioning, where time and space, literally, was entrusted to a group of individuals and experts, at a risk it could all fall flat, but given encouragement and profile – and in the garnering, great viewing figures and rewards.
The best commissioners don’t work over creative production, but alongside it. They don’t stare down at what’s on their desks, but look up and see what talent is there in the room and how it can be stretched and challenged and inspired to think about the best way to fill that rectangular screen in the corner. Look at the Olympic opening ceremony. There was the commission, ‘let Britain show the rest of the world what it is now,’ and it was entrusted to one man, Danny Boyle, to feel free to flesh it out. It was quirky, entertaining, and insightful. It didn’t please everyone. My favourites exchange was from the Tory MP Aidan Burley who tweeted it was ‘multi-cultural crap’ and a reply from @paulsinha who tweeted back, ‘if you think the ceremony is multi-cultural, wait till you see the sport,’.
But I think we got some sense of the energy and passion that went into that ceremony: it was a clear creative vision, and so it connected. Just imagine what would have happened if that same brief, ‘show the world what Britain now is,’ was instead given to a committee. If there had been boxes to tick, content to pick off.
Well, we don’t need to imagine, because we all remember the Millennium Dome Exhibition. When the government, the chief commissioner, decided the thing was too important to be left to mere creatives. So it thought it could determine the content, which was why the section in The Body Zone on creativity was a brain on a stick telling Tommy Cooper jokes.
Which mindless image brings me neatly onto the subject of politicians. Another reason British television has felt so disarmed, confused as to what it’s for or where it should be going, is because of the consistent, cack-handed, interference from politicians, goaded by the press, and the rather supine and scared way the broadcasting executives have failed to fight back, too scared to face the rebuke of the press headlines.
Governments, whether right or left, have become the commissioners in chief, nudging and cajoling the networks into their preferred business models without the slightest sensitivity or awareness of what the British public wants from its television service, or what the British TV industry is capable of.
Now, it’s all too easy to portray the average politician as a policy-wonk fed since the age of 14 on position papers on social policy and party outreach, professionally married to the job, ascetically weaned day and night on the company of his or her fellow party workers and political researchers, never seeing daylight, never watching telly, never having any cultural development outside whatever serves their policy purview.
This would be all too easy a caricature. But it would also be accurate. Because that’s what career politicians are like. By career politicians I mean those politicians who have worked the system well enough to gain office. They have no idea what the average member of the public culturally consumes because they are not average members of the public. They are specially bred adminadroids legislabating into an empty chamber and who experience everything through the matrix of their own political blueprint for Britain. Or, put simply, they don’t watch much telly.
The recent Leveson inquiry has thrown up many things, including the testimony of the late Jeremy Hunt. It’s interesting to notice that although people criticise the fact that we now have a transport secretary who’s scared of flying and an equalities minister who’s against gays, nobody has picked up on the fact that a man a lot of people want to see dead is now health secretary.
As we all remember, Jeremy Hunt was a firm supporter of the News Corp takeover of BskyB, writing a letter to the prime minister early in 2010, before he’d been decide to wave it through. In that letter of advice, in November 2010 , Hunt wrote: ‘James Murdoch wants to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world’s first multi-platform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad. The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the ’80s with the Wapping move. If we block it our media sector will suffer for years’.
No reference here to content, nothing about what this will mean for the British viewer, what form of programming it will unlock; what benefits it will bring to our viewing experience; how culturally it will have impact; what opportunities it will present to the creative industry. Nothing. Just a dry analysis of the cash nexus behind a digital strategy.
It’s a lack of imaginative engagement that, coming from someone who went on to become culture secretary, I find quite chilling. But it’s typical I think of how the political class view us. We are there to be badgered if we don’t conform to their message, if they feel we haven’t represented their side of the story well enough, or we are there to be bullied if we stray from their economic overview of what a broadcasting industry should do. If they feel it’s too downmarket; too upmarket; too expensive; not investing enough; too leftwing; too rightwing; too London-centric; spending too much money on outsourcing to the regions; not attracting key talent; spending too much on key talent. I say bullying because I do feel politicians, goaded by newspaper editors, have seen broadcasting, and particularly the BBC, as an easy target.
But now is the time to fight back. There’s a perfect alignment of the stars in favour of the creative forces behind television in the UK. It won’t last, so now’s the time to strike. The Leveson inquiry has highlighted public misgivings about how our politicians and the press operate, but also the events of the summer have given us a reminder of what the public actually values about British cultural life.
In much the same way there was a pride at the celebration of the NHS in that opening ceremony, I think there’s a growing recognition that the BBC, and indeed, the UK’s wider commitment across channels to public service broadcasting, has given us the very best television available.
The public will now never forgive anyone who meddles with British TV for political advantage or to further their own economic agenda. With a new director general there couldn’t be a better time to reset the board, and signal that we’re just not going to take that kind of interference any more. That we are proud, we relish our idiosyncrasy in television, that it defines our greatness, and that to diminish it is to sterilise our ambition. The facts now prove it.
When ITV regions were sold off to the highest bidder, and we ended up with the likes of Carlton (for whom, incidentally David Cameron did the PR) then ITV suffered the consequences in declining viewers, and reputation. This it’s now rebuilding, through a commitment once again, to quality drama and distinctive, idiosyncratic programmes.
As Sky realises it’s extended as far as it can, the number of subscriptions it can pick up through sport and movies, it’s had to commit to finding a whole new type of subscriber, one who’s looking for that quality, that high-end production values and scripted ambition that we used to associate with British TV, but which we now recognise in America.
And so it’s ploughing a fortune into new production, big new dramas and new comedy. It’s establishing relationships with theatre companies, and opera groups and book festivals that others can only dream of. We should be willing this venture to succeed. For years we’ve been arguing that Sky makes all this money and it should use it to fund original content, so I think it’s cheap and churlish point scoring to ignore them or want them to fail. But, the challenge now is for Sky to hold its nerve. Some shows won’t rate, the money can’t last forever. If it really wants to make its mark, it’s now got to find the new talent, engage with the young writers, find the next comedians and actors and show it can take risks with them as well. The reward for us will be that there is a genuine hunger and competitive fight among broadcasters for the best new drama and comedy.
If we can demonstrate that good programmes actually do mean good business, then we’ve arrived at a truly creative marketplace where there’s a genuine fight for content, a fear that the best might be going elsewhere if you don’t snap it up.
That dramatically shifts the focus back to us, the programme makers, to come up with more, new, startling ideas, absolutely unmissable storylines and settings, the sharpest writing. The commissioners will have to put more work into establishing relationships with key talent, cajoling, encouraging them to feel confident that once again they’ve found a home for their work.
This is the one profound impression I brought back from my work at HBO. That, actually, its business model is now inextricably bound up in its claims for originality and the close relationships it forms with programme makers. That it makes money from new subscriptions, and it can only increase its subscriptions if more and more people know they’re paying to get something different from their usual fare. And that can only happen if HBO keeps coming up with programmes that are more daring, or funnier, or more distinctive than the competition.
As a result, it makes a fortune, and can plug that back into production. It doesn’t run commercials and actually isn’t too bothered by individual ratings. Other networks are now copying them, like FX, Showtime and AMC. This way of making adventurous television is becoming the norm. It’s why American TV at the moment is the place most creatives want to go. At HBO, I found a refreshing commitment to me, the programme maker, a culture of backing the creative.
But here’s the thing, what makes US television so good now, this commitment to us, is not new. For it’s precisely what defined British television for decades. Our passion, our drive to make what felt different and adventurous, had been the hallmark of British television for 40 years. I like to think that, if it got lost recently, that was just a blip. That it hasn’t been forgotten, and that once again the circumstances are slotting into place whereby it has to re-emerge and stay with us if we’re to survive and then go on to re-take our position as the best TV makers in the world.
And that blip, that period we’ve just come through, where programmes were filtered through charts and schedules and executive brain cells and imposed on a creative workforce, that is precisely the old-fashioned mechanics of the big American networks that HBO and company are fighting free of. Just as US TV was excelling by copying the values of British programme makers, so were British channels falling into the worse habits of committee-driven American network TV.
I don’t know what it’s saying, but I wrote this speech on my iPad, which I bought when I was filming in America. So it must be on American settings, because every time I typed in BBC the autocorrect changed it to NBC.
I genuinely believe that times are changing, that networks are waking up to the fact that viewers will leave them unless they can commission daring and original shows. That there is now genuine competition among them for the best talent, that the internet and the international viewing audience now mean programme makers can circumvent traditional channels and commissioners if they feel they’re making no headway for them.
I believe that we may be on the verge of a tantalising moment in television, where the more good programmes we make, the healthier the audiences and the revenue. It will represent a final and fitting twist to those words of James Murdoch. He said that ‘the only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit.’ Could it be that soon the only reliable, durable guarantee of profit is independence? Only we can prove whether that will be the case.
It won’t happen overnight. It does need investment, we should be more aggressive in selling our content overseas. The BBC should be more aggressive, all of television should, against the politicians and press barons who seek to tame it and rein it in. It’s up to all of us to fight, fight to recapture first position with our ideas, but fight forcefully and loudly against all those who criticise what we do. We shouldn’t be scared of offending, or portraying a multi-cultural nation, or pouring money into talent, or making shows that split opinion, that occasionally fail.
We shouldn’t be afraid of abandoning caution and market research, nor afraid to write and produce from the heart, out of passion. After all, what better way is there to connect with someone, than a fight?
Thank-you very much.”
Armando highlights some incredibly important points which are interesting and important, for me as a writer.
That we need to fight for creativity, and it should be easier now because the creatives are being put back in the driving seat. Lessons learned from people like HBO, who tell the creative ‘whatever, it’s your show’ will filter into the British consciousness and hopefully we will have a revival of the 80’s (which seems to be happening in every other sector currently) where people were allowed to make the programmes they wanted. With Channel 4 being broadcast, there was a place for new, innovative ideas. Now this has become so much waste, but there is still talent out there, and thanks to the internet, it seems that people who have the talent inevitably end up making it.
Now, as a young aspiring writer, it is easier than ever to make something and get it noticed, like Armando said, and with creatives being put back in the driving seat, we can hope to see a wave of new talent hitting our screens, be they iPad or 3DTV. Hopefully I will be successful enough and time it just right to be able to ride that wave and make the programmes that I want to make.