I went to the BBC yesterday and they were finishing a giant map of the UK in the courtyard. You can’t really see the rest of the world as you’re hemmed in by the walls of the courtyard…I guess we’re too attached to little Britain
There are lots of domestic issues in this election – much the same as every election – but it’s a globalised world and Britain needs to recognise the opportunities of that. Australia has the same challenges of course.
The following day, Friday May 8th is Victory in Europe Day – the day to commemorate the coming together of Europe after the war. So the election result will be announced on that morning. I’m not talking about commemorating war, but recognising the peace, and the Europe that was constructed out of the ruins of that war.
On the evening of May 7th, BBC is showing its commemorative season about the end of the war, starting with a series by Steve Humphries of Testimony Films, called The Greatest Generation. About the people who built the welfare state and the society we now benefit from in Britain. Some very stirring stories here, and a trailer below.
Steve’s also co-written a book he gave me when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Bristol.
Channel 4 got a very good audience for the original film – The King in the Car Park – three years ago.
But it’s been a great programming idea to make his reburial into a new TV event. Well done to John Hay, the commissioner of the live event, & Darlow Smithson Productions, who also produced the original doc. For making us realise that the identity of a 500 year old king matters.
History has significance – both for our understanding of what happened then, and for what might happen. And in an election year in the UK, that’s very important.
Channel 4 (them again) did a terrific season of programmes on immigration, including Love Productions’ Immigration Street – reduced to a single documentary after certain parts of the community decided they didn’t want it made – and other programmes. One of them was a doc made by Malcolm Brinkworth of Touch Films about an election in 1964 – which took place on the immigration faultline. Immigration will be one of the key issues of the UK General Election.
History is a big part of SBS programming, but making it relevant and watchable is what matters to the audience. I must say that I haven’t been watching many of the films about the First World War. And in Australia, the Gallipoli drama series on Channel 9 hasn’t been getting the audiences the programme merited. This extended trailer shows that it’s a really sensitive and moving piece of work – well worth 3 minutes of your time.
History, and the lessons of the past, are so crucial to understand today. I for one am really proud of the television that brings it to life for us.
Any comments, questions, responses, ideas – all really welcome
Still on my Transfer Deadline theme, yesterday the BBC had a couple of outside experts giving their views on the players who might be on the market.Fifa Interactive World Cup 2014 Grand Final competitor David Blytheway and Football Manager expert Alex Stewart provided insight and analysis of players involved in deals from a gamer’s perspective.Got me thinking about games and TV.
Then I watched on the Guardian site an extract from the documentary “Drone“, by Flimmer Film, which includes a storyline about about the training of gamers to become drone pilots in the US military.
I have to say that I’m not a gamer; maybe I just haven’t found the right one. But it’s clear that that’s how many peoples’ brains are wired and the way they want to interact with content. So I know I need to find out more.
Doc filmmakers in particular are being introduced to this theme in many industry conferences.
The long-established Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) changed its format this year to Net-Work-Play with plenty of game- and online-related content and speakers in the sessions. Brave call by Joost den Hartog to turbo-charge the conference this year to appeal a very different crowd.
Games for Change is an annual get together in April as part of the Tribeca Film Festival; in Malmo, Sweden the Nordic Game Conference tries to make links between the gaming and filmmaking communities. The aim is I think to apply principles of ‘gamification’ (rather than always actual games) to factual or fiction ideas – using the ‘mechanics’ of a game to change the way stories are told. On a simple level this could be making a factual story more of a process of first person discovery. But I’m sure there’s more to it than that.
As the market for TV becomes ever more competitive, the audience fragments and public funding dwindles, you need ways to get the audience to find, love and share your content – games are surely part of the answer. I’d love to be able to find a game-TV hybrid that could work for mainstream audiences on SBS – let me know if you’ve got any ideas!
For me today is going to be a challenge to focus on work while keeping an eye on the info-fest that is Transfer Deadline Day. For those that aren’t into football, it’s one of the two days in the year (the other is the end of August) when the transfer window closes, and clubs are no longer allowed to sign players. The day is covered by the BBC and Sky on TV, text, radio, and probably carrier pigeon too. It’s known as the only business where people still use faxes to send contracts at the end of the window approaches, and no TDD is complete without a story of a last-minute paper jam which prevents a deal being done. Leaving shopping till the last day of the sales is something I can really relate to. I’m never through the doors first, unlike this lot…
The Football Transfer Window has been in place since 2002-3, which coincidentally is just before the acquisitions spree that started with new Terms of Trade being introduced for the UK production sector in 2004. This gave companies control of the righs in the ideas they created, and, therefore, made them valuable. Money poured in from VC and other investors in the UK, and from a cottage industry the production sector suddenly became a business worth billions. (Big thanks to Nick Ware who gave me the idea to connect these two themes for this blog even though he’s not into football!)
Britain’s status as the capital of production company mergers and acquisitions hasn’t changed. It seems that the main reason now to start an independent company in the UK is to be able to grow it fast and then sell it – it’s business, after all.
For Brits, most global revenues still come from America. At last week’s Realscreen summit, 70 UK producers were in attendance. PACT set up a British Pub in the lobby of the Washington hotel where it all happens. The UK trade association PACT also announced the setting up of a US organisation for UK companies and their US offshoots, – with offices in LA and New York to be set up this year.
PACT’s figures seem to show that the only full commissions for UK companies over the past two years were from the US – though this doesn’t include coproductions, as there have been plenty of those from elsewhere in the world.
Companies in the US have a struggle to hold onto the IP in the formats they create – the channels try and take as many rights as they can – but in the UK that IP is the foundation of their business. That doesn’t stop UK companies pitching, or investing in US companies – the size of the business there means that companies are still profitable even though the rights position isn’t nearly as good. Arrow Media’s John Smithson has a pithy column in Realscreen magazine and he returns to the theme a lot.
It does of course mean that the development focus for companies is on returnable formats, as this is what those investors want to see to get a revenue stream from the company. Like transferring a football player for an eye-watering sum, there’s no guarantee of success though; while ideas are still dependent on those capricious commissioners, there’ll always be a big element of uncertainty.
Now, how about a Transfer Window for production companies?
I’ve just spent a few days at FIPA in Biarritz, France. That’s the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels. A few thoughts from my time there.
There’s something about waves, beaches and lighthouses that is very inspiring. Even though I didn’t actually get to the beach.
Being in a beautiful venue with big windows, the Bellevue, made it a relaxing atmosphere – and easy to meet people (because you could spot them from a distance)
The audiences for the screenings are well dressed and – dare I say it – quite bourgeois
Fipa Industry was the conference/pitching side of the event. Good crowds for the France TV and Arte commissioning presentations, inevitably, but we had to work quite hard at the others. I gave one on SBS. It’s hard to get and keep peoples’ attention in a panel discussion or a presentation. My tips: stand up, walk around, smile, project, use pictures.
Ludovica Fonda from Mediaset Italy gave a really good presentation of Mediaset drama, which did all of the above. Inspired me to head to Milan to check what they might have that would work for SBS
Oh, and @FipaIndustry is a much better name than the previous name FipaTel, which sounds like a mobile phone company.
When you’re invited to ‘un cocktail’, don’t expect mixed drinks with little umbrellas and bits of fruit. It just means a drink. A couple of the ones at FIPA featured cider, which seems be a speciality of the Aquitaine region. Try the rosé one.
@smartfipa, the interactive section, was a real kaleidoscope of views, products, ideas. Paul Tyler of Handling Ideas did an excellent presentation. He said @smartfipa could have done with a bit more moderating to link and question the different elements – you have to treat these days like you would any sort of programming.
I was also intrigued to see the interactive ‘Planet Corps’ project which accompanies the doc ‘Life on Us’, which Simon Nasht is bringing to SBS through commissioning editor Joseph Maxwell @josmaxwell. Looked fun, with great ideas – like a travel website as the front page.
I was one of the seven commissioners/buyers being pitched to in the two pitch sessions. When we came to choose the best pitch, none of the three projects I’d picked was shared by any of the other judges, from France, Canada, Japan, Czech Republic & Poland. Maybe anglo-Australian tastes really are different…
It’s really tough to make films in and about Eastern Europe – buyers like me just don’t know enough about the countries there. HBO Europe is a very necessary commissioner of documentaries, and I hope it can continue the work its doing with filmmakers there. An HBO Europe project The Wellness Process was one of my favourite pitches (though I hope they think of a better title). Here’s the HBO Europe trailer from 2012
Debate is vital in events like these. Young journalists organised a ‘round table’ discussion of what the recent attacks in France meant for free speech, secularism, islamophobia, and whether there really was ‘national unity’ in France. Good initiative – the media obviously have a huge part to play in how France thinks about these issues.
Lauren, one of the organisers of Fipa Industry, travelled around Australia aged 20 in a VW combi on her own, not speaking any English – intrepid! (then she did Central America by bicycle…). Saw these Combis in a shop window. It made me realise how in TV as well as in life, you sometimes just need to take a chance and get out there
If you were at FIPA, I’d be very glad to hear your impressions, thoughts, gossip in the comments below
A new title for ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets’ – I’m a bit of a title fanatic, and this one didn’t draw me in.
An Asian presenter fronting a regular international show. Australia could do with more Asian faces
For lots more programmes from Channel 4 to live up to their great Born Risky tagline
After all the war docs from 2014, and the new swathe of them in 2015, how about something equally compelling about more peaceful achievements?
A series from the Tumblr generation – like TruTV are trying to do. Kudos to them for doing a full reboot of the channel
A way to get people who watch live sport to watch docs about sporting stories. They never seem to!
An Anime- K-Pop-factual mashup. I went to Seoul for the first time in the autumn, for Docs Port Incheon, and also met Korean producers at the ATF in December. But outside arthouse movies and kids cartoons Korean content is not well known in the West. So how about combining the two biggest genres in Korean pop culture?
And can we all think of a new word instead of ‘arts programmes’ so that programmers don’t keep saying they’re niche and cutting the slots? We all need creativity in our lives. Something to do with Going Out, or Dazzle – anything but Arts!
Last week’s Asia TV Forum was my first visit, and my first visit to Singapore.
Plenty of channels, distributors, funding organisations and producers in an airy exhibition floor in the huge Singapore Convention centre. The event was organised by Reed Midem, with support from the impressive Media Development Authority of Singapore.
It was good to be representing SBS at an Asian market – Australia’s nearest neighbours after all. I had to keep reminding myself that these companies represented a population of 4.4 billion people – in countries where media and television were developing fast.
So should more people have been there? The French were by far the biggest European presence, with 20 companies on two stands – thanks to the support of TVFI, very well run by Mathieu Béjot. Other than that, there were a few representatives from Europe and the US, but not as many as I would have thought. Beyond and Flame joined me in the Australian contingent, though there were also distributors selling to the Aussie market. Maybe the cost is simply beyond an independent producer, and it’s best left to the distributors.
The emphasis was on entertainment, lifestyle and drama – though melodrama or telenovela might be a better description for a lot of the fiction on offer. Acquisition rates may be relatively low in some countries, but there are a lot of territories and they’re hungry for content.
I had good conversations with a few channels, and with the MDA, about working together with SBS. I know it isn’t going to be easy, and the SBS audience isn’t particularly used to Asian programming. We show the Chinese dating show If You Are the One on SBS2, and it’s one of the top-rating shows on the channel. Well, the actual title is Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, literal translation: ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’
The show was based on Take Me Out, remade as Taken Out on Australian Network Ten in 2008 and axed after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China. Just goes to show that ideas can have new lives.
Although Aussies are frequent visitors as holiday makers to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Myanmar and all the rest, it’s hard to find the right way to interest them in content from Asia when they return. I’m pretty convinced that we’ll need young Asian presenting talent to act as a guide to the myriad stories that are clearly waiting to be told. Once I’ve found that it’ll be a question of finding a mainstream audience for them. Anybody know if there’s a blockbuster Indian dating show we could buy?
I’ve now visited Malaysia, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea in the past few months, and know that there are talented and entrepreneurial people to work with. But I also know I’ve only scratched the surface. I think that a lot more ideas need to be generated, and working relationships formed. I’d like to give it a go though.
Back to Copenhagen after a week in London. I spent it catching up with production companies, distributors, and going to a day at the Televisual Factual Festival. Well moderated panels on Specialist Factual, Popular Factual, and how to make docs in danger zones, an interview with Ralph Lee of Channel 4, and a room full of remote cameras to demonstrate using a ‘rig’ set up. Quite a few people that I knew, but even more that I didn’t. Great to be reminded by everybody’s clip reels of what had been on, and working, in the past months. Peter Hamilton’s recently done a good overview of the UK non-fiction market, well worth a read (and I’d recommend subscribing, too).
While there was plenty of discussion of the difficulties of operating in the UK – particularly as a smaller company – the view from the stage was still that there was a big market for a range of UK produced content, particularly factual, that new ideas were sought and would get through, and that producers were well placed to take advantage. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five all seemed to be in the same space for factual. Internationally, British content is doing well too – there were some big winners at the International Emmys last night. I know this is a rosy view and it’s really hard to get commissions – there are so many good ideas out there.
I met some new indies who’d set up in the great indie start-up craze as Televisual called it – amongst them Andrea Miller & Jerry Foulkes of Sunnyside productions, Fenia Vardanis of Melina Media. And companies from Bristol like Testimony, the ever-expanding Icon films, and Tigress who have all carved out a healthy part of the market without having to join the London shark-pool.
And they’re competing in a market with some big players. Discovery & Viacom have bought All3Media and Channel5, Endemol, Shine & Core Media have merged, and Warner has completed a rebrand of the production companies it bought through Shed. On the horizon is the move of BBC in-house production to be a standalone independent company, able to work for other broadcasters as well as the BBC. But if it has to carry BBC overheads and staffing arrangements, I can’t see how it’s going to compete.
All public broadcasters are having to change – mostly by downsizing – and my new colleagues at SBS are facing cuts announced last week – those for the ABC are much larger. But in truth the changes now imposed on the ABC have been happening for many years in the UK sector. It’s not just about saving money, it’s driven by changes in how the creative industry wants to work, and the ways audiences want to watch. The best result would be a more balanced ecosystem of independents and inhouse, and content that people want to watch and use.
Some of that public service ecosystem is on show this week at the IDFA Forum, Festival and DocLab – public service content in all directions, and all of it coming from independent producers working with or without broadcasters. I’m not saying it’s all made for the small screen, a lot of doc films see themselves in opposition to television and see their natural home as the cinema (and good luck to them).
The challenge for Australian broadcasters is to keep a focus on this public service content, rather than chasing ratings or focussing on the now not so new platforms. SBS itself has a real challenge to keep history, arts, social documentary, international themes on the channel. The opposition in Australia has so many battles to fight – about climate change, the environment, immigration policy, cuts to Science R&D funding, that broadcasting and the creative sector maybe don’t get enough attention. But as an outsider to Australia, it needs work.
My London week was rounded off by a Saturday night party for Anne Morrison, who’s left the BBC and is now Chair of BAFTA. She’s managed so much in her 33 years at the BBC, from 18 years running various factual departments, to driving the Nations and Regions strategy (how to move production and commissioning out of London and into the English regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I worked for Anne on). And most recently the BBC Academy, the BBC’s training organisation. (You should check out the material that’s available for free on their website, particularly the Journalism section).
It was great to see old colleagues, both from the BBC and the independent sector. The quality television programmes produced in that room really captured a lot of my past, and I felt pretty proud to be a part of it. But I couldn’t help feeling we were the lucky ones to have been able to work in such a well-supported organisation.
Thanks for reading till the end, feel free to share, comments welcome below.
There’s a national drive in Korea to make documentaries the next Korean international content success. Korea made a national project out of becoming the world’s biggest music producer through K-Pop. Pretty ambitious project for a country of 50 million people. But they’re now the fastest growing music industry in Asia, with a massive presence in Japan and inroads into China too. Psy’s Gangnam Style with its retro and knowing dance routine (2 billion views and counting for the video) was K-Pop’s breakthrough moment, though not really typical of what Korea generally makes – choreographed pop hits, auto tuned to within an inch of their lives.
Now the government has looked at Documentaries and decided that they are another form of international content that can be given a government boost and conquer the international market. So Docs Port Incheon, which ran at the beginning of November, benefited not only from healthy government funding, but also the industry focus that this provides. I was an advisor, with the lovely Karolina Lidin of Sheffield Doc/fest and Nordisk Film and TV Fund fame, and this was the first proper year of the event after a try-out last year. At the public pitching were representatives of investment funds that normally do movies, alongside public agencies, Korean broadcasters, and international commissioners, distributors and funds – all promising cash to some challenging documentaries. Catherine Olsen from CBC, John Lee from Tribeca, Esther van Messel from First Hand Films, Catherine Le Clef from Cat and Docs, Rudy Buttignol from Knowledge Network, Fiona Lawson-Baker from Al Jazeera English, Claire Aguilar from ITVS and Nihotpal Majumdar from DocEdge all attended.
The event was held in the Paradise hotel in the gritty port city of Incheon – enormous cargo ships full of the cars, TVs, microwaves and all manner of stuff that comes from Korea. The hotel TV showed Japanese baseball every morning (another sort of pitching).
There were many winners amongst the 22 Korean and other Asian projects pitched. The money that companies got in cash prizes, as well as post-production support – $500,000 USD – is a very large sum by any standards. It wouldn’t pay for entire productions but would go a long way. Several of the projects were then going to be pitched at a Korean pitching event at IDFA in Amsterdam next week – all paid for by one of the content promotion agencies.
The challenge for content producers and funders though is that the Asian market is pretty fragmented for factual. There’s China, which is huge but somewhat unfathomable for other Asian countries. Japan, which can be quite introverted and dominated by NHK. And then the rest, where independently produced content is something of an unknown quantity.
I’m hoping to do some consultancy in Korea to help the indie production sector. I was on a panel about independent production and international coproduction, (thanks to Wonjung Bae for organising it and IJ for moderating with aplomb. He made us all have a proper stretch after the first hour and a half).
I also gave a lecture to the pitching teams called Changing the Narrative about why documentaries matter to a country like Korea (download the Changing the Narrative presentation if you like). The UK’s indie story is a good one, and the big numbers that UK indies have generated make sense in government circles. Factual and entertainment formats are the driver in Britain, and could be in Korea – feature length docs don’t have the cash-generating potential they’re looking for.
And I’m sure they can come up with the right ideas to make use of all that lovely public development support – as a country they seem to be able to do a lot when they put their mind to it. UK indies as ever have spotted an opportunity in the country. There are already good links between some companies like OSF – their new BBC/Terra Mater series Wild Weather with Richard Hammond is coproduced with Paan Media Holdings of Korea, and goes out in ten days time in the UK. Amanda Groom of The Bridge, part of Argonon, runs a consultancy which specialises in setting up projects with Korea, and is very active there.
The companies I met at Docs Port are quite filmmaker-led – they could all do with spending more time and money on ideas development I’d say. The money is being spent developing a project, rather than helping them come up with ideas in the first place. The mixed ecology of docs and fact ent of many UK companies would be a good model for them – if they can get the scale in factual. For that, they need broadcasters to invest in indie production rather than their own in-house production, and that looks like a long way away. But with a determined government behind them, who knows?
Plus, there’s a channel called SBS in Korea – there’s got to be an SBS-SBS Korean-Australian coproduction, surely?
Korean producers have been active in factual events like Sheffield Doc Fest, IDFA, and will no doubt be present at the Asian Side of the Doc in Xiamen, China, next March. A couple like Ha Sinhae of Boda Media – who’s just brought back a prize from a festival in Sao Paolo for Here Comes Uncle Joe
– and Gary Kam who produced with Min-Jul Kim and director Seungjun Yi the multi-award winning Planet of Snail, are well travelled on the doc circuit. What they might need to do now is to build scale with something more TV-focussed like a factual series, perhaps for the Asian market in the first instance
Thanks to Seokpil Kang, Wooyoung Choi and Gary Kam for bringing me to Docs Port and introducing me to Korea. They were excellent organisers, so friendly and welcoming, and know how to have a good party without spending a fortune. I’ll be back.
There was a packed auditorium for the main debate at Wildscreen on Wednesday. It covered themes familiar to previous festivals, but no less important for that, according to Wildscreen veterans. How television wildlife films misrepresented the world and its environmental problems. How cute and fluffy animals don’t tell the whole story. How the word ‘Environment’ is a turn-off for commissioners. Questions from the audience came from people identifying themselves as from the ‘‘Save the Rhino’ or ‘Ocean Conservation’ campaigns. They were impassioned about the need to raise public awareness of habitat and species loss, including of the dreadful trade in shark fin soup which kills between 75 and 100 million sharks a year. The reality of climate change and our role in destroying our planet hung over everything.
On the panel, Channel 4 factual boss Ralph Lee presented a clip of the series Fish Fight, sitting alongside Will Anderson of producer Keo Films. The impact of Fish Fight on the policy of supermarkets, and European Union policy, including through social media is thoroughly documented and well worth a read.
But Channel 4 has had to set aside some of its campaigning work to keep its ratings up. I heard Ralph Lee say as he was leaving the venue that he’d been dining out on Fish Fight for three years. Alongside him on the panel, the BBC’s Science and Nature commissioner Tom McDonald squirmed a bit when asked if as a public service broadcaster they could do something like Fish Fight. He used the familiar BBC defence ‘we’re not allowed to do campaigns or be political’ – which seems quite weak to me. There’s nothing party political that I can see about a programme dealing with the food on our plates, or how the supermarkets behave. And Fish Fight wasn’t promoting a campaign group, it was an independently produced examination of the subject which got its message out. If there was a problem with dealing with such issues, shouldn’t the BBC be looking at Watchdog and other consumer journalism? Feel free to browse the BBC’s editorial guidelines to see how you interpret them, and how they apply to series such as Fish Fight.
Ralph Lee had cleverly assembled a reel of C4 clips – from a live show from the Space Race, the drama Utopia, and a Kevin McLoud design series – to demonstrate how environmental questions could be covered in other programme forms, not just documentaries about the natural world. The BBC’s science and natural history commissioner Tom McDonald also reeled out plenty of examples.
But this didn’t satisfy the audience, or me. The state of the planet is too grim, and climate change too grave an issue, for it to be just ‘smuggled into’ programmes. It really needs creative thinking and leadership from the top. Tony Hall of the BBC has brought about a change in the BBC to be an Arts broadcaster, and a Diverse broadcaster. And backed it up with money and resources. How about allocating similar funds and managerial will to making the BBC actively cover climate change and its effects? This BBC Trust report from 2011 on BBC’s Science coverage still seems to stymie debate in the BBC about the coverage of climate change issues – but it can’t be allowed to. TV has a bigger responsibility than that.
Joe Smith and Kim from the Open University, with the filmmaker Jeremy Bristow behind the camera, interviewed me for a research project about the coverage of environmental issues in broadcast media. A great subject, and it made me think hard about the responsibility of people with such powerful tools as cameras, TV channels and other platforms at their disposal – and often with money from the public.
The channel I’m now working for, SBS, has done a series looking at the origin of the seafood Australians eat, called What’s the Catch? – starting on Thursday 30th October. I’d like to see more campaigns and awareness-raising on the channel, and know I’m going to be asking myself with the same questions on the best way to get people to engage. It can’t be beyond us to work it out, can it?
Please comment on this, or email me. Thanks for reading!