The last 30 years have brought big rewards for independent television producers, but now the broadcasters want a slice of the pieby Peter Bazalgette / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
It was nice to see Bruce Forsyth in “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Is the sun setting on the golden age of the British independent television producer? If you were one of those fortunate baby boomers we keep reading about at the moment and you went into television production, you were doubly blessed. Anyone born in the 1950s or early 1960s was just getting into their professional stride when the three big opportunities came along. The first was in 1982, when Channel 4 was established to commission shows only from independent producers. Many people started their first company then, among them Alex Graham with his outfit Wall to Wall—more of him in a minute.
Then in 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s government forced the BBC and ITV to outsource a quarter of their programming, something many of us producers set up shop to exploit. Finally, the Communications Act of 2003 allowed producers to own the rights in the shows they made. Their aggressive exploitation of these rights has led to an extraordinary achievement—when last analysed, Britain had captured more than half of the worldwide trade in television entertainment formats. One of the most successful of these has been Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? ITV paid for the pilot and took the risk airing the first series. And, as the monies flowed into its independent producer Celador from the 100-odd countries it sold to, how much did the channel get? Zero. The answer to the question: “Who wants to be a millionaire?” in the Cole Porter song is, “I don’t.” ITV apparently didn’t either—but it does now. The channel is determined that this shouldn’t happen again and is just one of the parties intent on dismantling the regime favourable to the indies.
On BBC1, another of the independent sector’s format juggernauts rolled on through August and September: the eighth series of Who Do You Think You Are? I invented Who Do You Think You Are?, but unfortunately not this one. About ten years ago I sensed genealogy might have some mileage and pitched a show to BBC2. It involved tracing the family of a member of the public and introducing them to relatives they never knew they had. It didn’t really work. Ordinary folk = not very interesting. And they were even less interesting when they were being introduced to distant cousins who left them cold. Shortly afterwards, Alex Graham of…