The Writers' Guild of Great Britain responds to the BBC Strategy Review

The Writers' Guild, a union representing professional writers, gives its verdict on the BBC Strategy Review: its terms are ambiguous, and there is an insufficient commitment to break the mould of conservative dramas, sitcoms and sketch shows.
The Writers'
5 June 2010

1. Introduction

1.1 The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is a trade union of about 2,300 members representing professional writers in television, radio, theatre, film, videogames and book publishing. It has long-standing and close relationships with the BBC, maintaining several collective minimum terms agreements governing writers’ fees and contracts, and is closely involved in negotiating arrangements for new services online, including “catch-up” and archive access.

1.2 This response concentrates on the sections of the BBC Trust introduction and the Director-General’s report that most concern our members – scripted drama and comedy programmes across all channels and platforms, including programmes for children.

1.3 The Trust emphasises the need for ambitious UK drama and comedy and outstanding children’s content. We endorse this and welcome it as one of the five guiding principles. But the word “ambitious” may mean much or little, and may mean different things to different people. We will address this below. Equally the word “outstanding” is tricky to define, and in the context of children’s programming – when the BBC is now the only serious UK provider – we should beware of considering it “outstanding” merely to be producing anything at all; nor should we judge “outstanding” as being whatever commands the biggest global market. Again, we will return to this subject below.

1.4 Under the heading “Events that bring communities and the nation together” we would note that there was a time when drama and scripted entertainment could truly claim to be included in this category – e.g. The Forsyte Saga, Steptoe and Son, Pennies From Heaven, Morecambe and Wise. Ambitions today seem to be at an altogether more modest level – is it too much to hope that a drama or comedy might once again grip the nation as one?

1.5 We agree with the Trust’s specific comments on changes to improve the distinctiveness of Radio 2. We have regretted the abandonment of topical comedy and we believe there are good reasons for reviving this type of programming.

1.6 We strongly support calls for a significant increase in funding for children’s services. We are active supporters of the Save Kids’ TV Campaign and we endorse their submission to you.

1.7 We believe it is imperative as part of the BBC’s public service remit that its services should be available on all platforms. It goes hand in hand with this for the BBC to be at the forefront of developing platforms specifically suited to the UK media environment, e.g. Canvas, provided they are open to all providers. But there is a warning for the future in the way the BBC iPlayer has quickly come to dominate the market, and arguably has distorted the market, for TV catch-up services because it has been provided free to all users (not just licence fee payers).

2. Ambitious UK drama and comedy

2.1 Ambitious in what way? The BBC can legitimately be ambitious not just to produce “the best” – whatever that means – but also to achieve high ratings, or high earnings from sales to overseas markets, DVD releases, etc. Unfortunately these different ambitions may work against each other.

2.1 Continuing drama series. For writers these series, such as EastEnders, Holby, Casualty and Doctors, provide much important bread-and-butter employment and are vital in identifying new talent and helping writers to establish themselves. They are popular and even habit-forming with viewers, and achieve high ratings. It is close to unthinkable that the BBC would drop, or even reduce, this kind of drama production. However some people feel the current crop of titles have been ploughing on for a long time, and it is many years since a new format has been tried. It is also undeniable that there is a preponderance of medical/hospital themes. It is hard to advocate the demise of established and popular series, but one is entitled to ask how any new ideas can come forward in this area of drama. While the BBC has made ever-increasing use of independent producers, few long-running series have been entrusted to indies, with the unintended consequence that the BBC’s ability to tackle more adventurous types of drama in-house has been damaged. We feel the range of in-house production should be re-balanced towards the high-end, original drama – this could mean that more continuing drama might come from indies, although this does raise its own issues about contracts being “guaranteed” potentially over many years, which could be unhealthy.

2.2 Returning series. There is a big range here, from Doctor Who and its spin-offs to Waking the Dead, Ashes to Ashes and New Tricks (it is possible to see this category as the natural home of cops’n’robbers). For writers these shows are a step up – mostly longer episodes, more complex characters and plots, higher production values – although the writer is still constrained by someone else’s format. There have been some brilliant shows, and if there is a criticism it is that commissions tend towards what is safe rather than what is experimental or ambitious, and here too there may be a tendency to stick with the tried and tested formulas too long, at the expense of newer ideas. Perhaps the BBC would be less nervous if a specific aim of innovation and risk-taking could be injected with which to counter the inevitable accusations that the BBC produced shows “no one wants to watch”.

2.3 Adaptations. There is no doubt that lavishly produced Austen and Dickens tick a lot of boxes – large, appreciative audiences, lucrative overseas and DVD sales. But these too are safe choices. They have their place, but where are the adaptations of 20th century classics, contemporary novels (e.g. Booker winners), world literature old and new? Not entirely absent, but rare enough. There is a growing interest in basing television productions on current stage plays, and this would be a challenging but rewarding area for the BBC to explore.

2.4 Original drama – one-offs, short series. It is the ultimate ambition of many TV writers to get their own original idea commissioned. Of course it is not the function of BBC drama to indulge the daydreams of screenwriters, but we feel the BBC is better at identifying talent and employing it mainly in format-based drama than allowing it to develop in original directions.

2.5 Sitcom. It is notoriously difficult to launch and sustain successful new sitcoms. Viewers remember the successful series of the past (Only Fools, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones) while conveniently forgetting less memorable offerings. We think the BBC should be prepared to make – and screen – more pilots, and should be prepared to back its hunches and let sitcoms get into a second or third series, bearing in mind that many of the favourites of the past were not overnight hits, but built up popularity gradually.

2.6 Comedy sketch shows. This is a popular style of show, but over the years has changed until now it is almost always a vehicle for writer-performers who devise their own signature characters and situations. While there is nothing wrong with such shows (Little Britain, Catherine Tate) we feel there is room to revive shows in which performers take material from a wide variety of sources, including new writers (The Two Ronnies was a notable past example).

2.7 Radio drama. It is obvious to everyone that the BBC is a world leader in this area and it has been distressing over recent years to see spending cuts – penny-pinching by comparison with the levels of spend in television – taking their toll. We have seen two excellent soaps – Westway and Silver Street – killed off when they might well have been saved by offering them to mainstream audiences. The matchless BBC World Service drama productions have gone. The Friday Play is being cancelled, leaving real doubts about the future of more challenging, risk-taking radio drama. As in TV, the statements are all about higher quality, risk-taking, etc., but the facts on the ground are safety-first and middle-of-the-road.

2.8 Independent production. The budgets imposed on independent radio drama producers are now so tight that some producers seem unable to meet their obligations to writers under collective minimum terms agreements. The margins are so narrow that what seems like efficiency to BBC number-crunchers risks becoming suffocation of the industry. This problem deserves attention.

2.9 Radio comedy. We are glad that sitcoms are still commissioned, even though they are subject to much the same difficulties as in TV, as stated above. But we think it is a pity that topical news-based shows such as The News Huddlines and Week Ending have disappeared with few successors. We welcome the intention to broaden the scope of Radio 2, including more speech radio, as we believe this is an opportunity to reinvent this kind of programming, which apart from being popular and accessible, also allowed many new writers to get their first few gags and sketches on the air – kicking off many distinguished careers.

3. Channels and services

3.1 BBC One. The stated aims are admirable, but they will fail if the BBC remains determined to win the ratings battle every day, in every slot. This policy underestimates the general viewer and has led to low-brow, repetitive television.

3.2 BBC Two. We welcome the aim to re-establish this channel’s reputation in drama through an increase in the volume and range of strongly authored programmes – single films as well as new series and serials, and opportunities for writers to experiment. BBC Two has lost its way and this seems to be acknowledged, and we hope it will be successfully tackled.

3.3 BBC Three and Four. These channels have yet to realise their full potential for piloting new shows and accommodating more original and experimental material. There is a strong impression of cheapness, overstretching thin ideas, and excessive repetition. On these channels shows can generally be produced more cheaply and there is less pressure to build up a mass audience. Some shows have successfully migrated to BBC One and Two, but this has been on a haphazard basis. The more ideas that are given an airing, the more unexpected success stories there could be. We agree with the new direction proposed for BBC Four and would emphasise that original and challenging drama is an essential component of a channel claiming a commitment to arts and culture.

3.4 Asian Network. We are surprised at the decision to scrap this channel and we think it would be better to rethink it rather than simply give up. The recent decision to scrap the soap Silver Street came with a promise to substitute other drama (albeit many fewer hours). This pledge must still be honoured, over and above other radio drama, even if alternative outlets have to be found.

3.5 Radio 7. We are puzzled by the statement that this should “be aligned more closely with [its] parent station” (Radio 4). Although most of the material broadcast on Radio 7 may have originally been created for Radio 4, it needs to be remembered that Radio 7 is an alternative to Radio 4, not an echo of it. Given Radio 7’s success in building an audience of over one million per week, it is hard to see why it needs to be fiddled about with.

3.6 Online. We think every BBC programme should continue to have its own web page(s), and as far as scripted drama and comedy are concerned, the writer (and other leading creators and performers) should be prominently credited on the first page. We also think the time has come for each programme website to contain a link to a page containing all the creative, cast and crew credits in a standardised style – not to replace onscreen credits and Radio Times listings, but as a new and permanent resource. It should be noted that established web sources such as IMDB and Wikipedia are notoriously patchy and inaccurate over TV credits compared to film listings.

4. Outstanding children’s content

4.1 The BBC has devised world leading formats for the very youngest viewers, but its recent record for school-age and teenage viewers has been less distinguished. The digital children’s channels are a terrific resource, but there should still be room for children’s programming that is good enough in its own right for slots on the main general channels. Strong, original drama and adaptations have been neglected.

4.2 We welcome the planned increase in investment in children’s programming but we think £10 million a year is much too little, and the extra money should come now, not in 2013. There is merit in the idea of extending the finishing time of CBBC to 9 p.m. – provided the extra time is given to more newly commissioned material, and not repeats.

4.3 Radio programming for children has quietly been almost dropped. If there is truly no future in radio for children (which we doubt) this should be clearly argued and debated and ultimately, if established, clearly adopted as policy. The rump of children’s programming on Radio 7 is intrusive to adult listeners and is not broadcast at times when many children are likely to be listening. It should either be dropped (perhaps in favour of an internet-only offering) or resuscitated, perhaps with a digital channel to itself.

5. BBC Online

5.1 To most people right now the BBC online is the iPlayer – technically brilliant, and likely to become vastly more popular in the near future, when many viewers will have set-top boxes (such as Canvas) that seamlessly put broadband internet material on to their living-room screens. With hindsight there must be serious questioning of the hasty decision of the BBC to make this service totally free. This undoubtedly distorted the market to such an extent that any possibility of Channel 4 and ITV charging for their similar services was destroyed, and it has added to the dubious impression that online material is always free, under which piracy and unauthorised downloading have prospered, to the serious detriment of all creators and rights holders (including the BBC itself). Not only that, but it has cut off a potential source of valuable ongoing revenue to the BBC. Even very low pay-per-view or subscription charges would have generated substantial revenues (and, we should emphasise, royalties to writers and other creators and performers). It is debatable whether this is now a horse that has bolted, but we think that even in retrospect this game-changing offering deserves market-impact and competition scrutiny at least as stringent as that given to the perhaps less damaging Kangaroo project.

5.2 There seems to be no good reason why, after the seven-day or series-stacking time limits have passed, most BBC programming should not continue to be available online, but subject to charges. If this is not pursued, with the planned launch of a BBC Worldwide pay-TV iPlayer service, we shall soon be in the ridiculous position where material is available on a pay-per-view or subscription basis everywhere in the world except for the UK. We think there will still be a place, although perhaps a declining one, for scheduled repeats and for DVDs. Online offerings could be available in a variety of versions suitable for different platforms, e.g. mobile, standard, high-definition.

5.3 The second major area for development of online services is to open the BBC archives. We endorse the emphasis that has been given to this project, which is now achievable in a way that would never before have been possible. We agree that a vast proportion of archive material is not really of commercial value, and if the finances can be made available, could be made freely available. But we do not think this applies to most scripted drama and comedy material, for two reasons.

5.4 The first reason is that most scripted material before 2003 was deliberately and knowingly commissioned on a contractual basis that provided for certain further uses only over a limited period, and those periods have either expired already, or will expire in due course. While it is desirable that this material should be available as part of the archive, this will necessarily involve re-clearing and licensing, and reasonable payment will be due to the writers. We doubt whether the BBC will be in a position to absorb these payments from the licence fee income, and therefore viewers will have to pay either on a pay-per view or subscription basis (a subscription could perhaps be an optional addition to the licence fee). This may sound alarming, but in fact a high proportion of the relevant material does have commercial value. This extends a long way beyond the type of material that has previously been issued on DVDs or CDs. Since online provision does not involve costs such as manufacture, packaging, freight, warehousing, etc., prices can be lower, and there is no requirement for a minimum level of sales before it is practical to make the material available. This response is not the place to go into detail about negotiations that have not been completed, but the Writers’ Guild can state that it is confident that we are well on the way to agreeing terms and structures that will make this possible. We accept that some material – perhaps the less popular and in some cases older programmes – may never have a significant commercial value, and we are ready to make arrangements to define and cover those parts of the archive.

5.5 The second reason why much scripted drama and comedy programming should not be given away free by the BBC is that to do so would distort the market for other providers and would indeed deprive the BBC of a significant new source of revenue. After all no one has ever expected the BBC to give away DVDs of its old programmes, and the ability to download and watch via the internet is closely comparable to buying a commercial recording.

5.6 We welcome the Director-General’s comments in this area and we believe this approach, combining free access where appropriate with commercial access to the exploitable back catalogue will be of value to the public, to writers and other creators – and to the BBC itself. ___________________________________________________________

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is grateful for the opportunity to participate in this strategy review.

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