No R&D, please, we’re TV

2nd April 2013

First day at work for new BBC Director General Lord Hall. His morning e-mail to all staff is here. Advice? Well, nurture the arts, please, and perhaps especially performance on television, but other than that I will leave it to others – including the mostly sensible contributors to The Observer, and Melvyn Bragg as well. Instead, I want to muse a little on the inability for television to work with independents on true research and development. I’m not thinking about technology R&D here, which the broadcasters, and especially the BBC, have shown themselves to be rather good at, but what we might think of as programming R&D. And I don’t mean the development of individual programmes, like commissioning scripts or securing access. Rather, I am concerned with deep R&D, thinking about the ways in which particular programme forms or genres might develop and trying to come up with radically different ideas. This kind of R&D is pretty much structurally impossible for broadcasters and independents to collaborate on.

Let’s say that I believe there might be an entirely new way of thinking about a form of television that most people feel has had its day. I don’t know exactly how examples of this kind of television might look and work for audiences, but I have a strong hunch that given new production technologies, developments in social media and emerging forms of collaboration, there might be a way to reinvent this kind of television in ways that will unlock new audiences and extend a broadcaster’s public service concerns.

The way things are at the moment, all I can do as an independent producer is present a specific programme idea to a broadcaster and have that considered – and most likely rejected – in isolation. There is no opportunity, no structure in which I might be able to engage a commissioner in a dialogue, maybe unlock some funding and then work together towards an idea and a new way of thinking and doing that at present I may have only a dim sense about. Collaborative R&D of this kind has no place in the system.

The framework within broadcasters and independents work across all broadcasters now was effectively put in place as Channel 4 came together in the early years of the 1980s. It was then that a new channel charged with being a publisher of programmes worked out how to solicit pitches, how to have them budgeted on an individual basis and how to contract project by project. Much has changed since then, and not least the role of the commissioner which has become far and away more determining, but the focus on the individual programme for exchanges between broadcaster and producer has not.

Once commissioned, productions have little space for r&d and even less imperative to make room for it. Programmes need to be a success, each and every one, and they have to deliver either audiences or awards, and preferably both. Any R&D project most likely has ‘failure’ as its middle name – and at the very least there has to be the recognition from the start that this may be the case.

All of the focus on the individual production now feels limiting, especially when the real innovations in recent years have been – and most certainly in the immediate future will be – not just be about what is on the screen but what is around that in other media and in the multiple forms of engagement of and interaction with the audience. And having the opportunity properly to explore the editorial aspects of such innovations seems ever more essential.

Not that this is all about money. Of course it would be great if there was proper programme R&D funds on offer. But my concern is also that dialogue and debate at a fairly deep level is necessary for true innovation to be achieved. If it is just the independent trying to fly solo, any advances will of necessity be limited – and in any case would most likely be ignored by the broadcasters. If broadcasters and independents could explore together, the process would unquestionably be richer and far more effective.

Lord Hall has plenty on his plate – and in his ‘In’ tray – for the moment, but the day may come, with Savile forgotten and the renewal of the charter looking likely, that collaborative R&D might be an idea whose time arrives.

Image of ‘Old school TV shop in America’ from Stumptown Blogger.

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