Still failing after all these years

Writers and producers of BBC television drama are being stifled by the corporation's top-down commissioning system. 

Peter Jukes
19 June 2015

Nostalgia for a golden age of television drama? A still from the BBC's Sherlock. Image: Flickr/interior_animus

During the phone hacking scandal that erupted in the summer of 2011, prompting Rupert and James Murdoch to close the News of the World and abandon their bid for the remaining shares of BSkyB, it rapidly became apparent that the political ramifications were more to do with over-concentrated ownership than press regulation. Owning then nearly 40% of the press, and on the verge of taking over Britain’s biggest broadcaster in terms of revenues, Rupert Murdoch was more powerful in media terms than Berlusconi (and the Italian media mogul is at least a citizen of the country he dominates). It was a glaring example of market failure and what Adam Smith calls the ‘special problem’ of monopoly.

Yet, whenever I point this problem out to defenders of News Corp, such as Paul Staines at the Guido Fawkes blog, they come back with the same quick rejoinder: “the BBC is a monopoly too! And one you are forced to pay for…”

Many defenders of the BBC are stymied by this Tu Quoque argument. The BBC certainly isn’t a commercial monopoly, and is rapidly being outstripped by other global players. But there is an element of truth in this accusation. One reason I felt confident to cover the hacking scandal and aftermath (The Fall of the House of Murdoch, Unbound, 2012; Beyond Contempt, Canbury Press, 2014) is because whenever anyone reiterated “what about the BBC?” I could prove that I had already inveighed - at some cost to my job as a TV dramatist - against the monopolistic stranglehold that the BBC held over drama.

In what must be considered one of the longest career suicide notes in history, my 2009 piece for Prospect Magazine, Why Britain can’t do The Wire, went viral and was reported in the Guardian. The thesis was simple: the relative standards of UK TV drama had dropped catastrophically compared to the US. This wasn’t for lack of talent as the number of British actors, writers and directors in US drama proved (and still proves). Something was rotten in the state of domestic TV, and I argued it began with the market leaders, the BBC, who had instituted the most top down and centralised commissioning system possible, predicated on one or two people deciding most of the nation’s dramatic output. This, rather than a shortage of supply or demand, led to the disempowerment of writers and creators, and Britain losing its former role as an enviable centre of dramatic and directorial innovation.

Breaking Bad Blues 

Six years on, little has changed. Under its outgoing head, Ben Stephenson, the BBC drama department has created a string of more adventurous serials on BBC 2. ITV, bouncing back after a dip in advertising revenues, has returned to form. But most writers, actors, production designers and directors would agree: the technical advances in filming and storytelling in the US are leaving us far behind. Though the American media market is five times ours, that’s been true since TV was invented. It doesn’t explain why, starting with HBO 20 years ago, US drama has gone from strength to strength in both popular appeal and a race to the top in terms of content.  

Does it matter? Compared to news or documentaries or big cultural events like the Olympics, is drama such an important part of the BBC brand that it deserves reform?

It certainly matters to powerful political figures such as the Mayor of London, the man most likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. At a Charles Wheeler award ceremony last month, which was followed by an interview with Alan Yentob, Boris Johnson’s main comment to the long serving BBC arts exec was “Breaking Bad is bloody brilliant.” He demanded to know why the BBC couldn’t make something as narratively entertaining and psychologically gripping as the AMC series which depicted a chemistry school teacher, Walter White, becoming New Mexico’s top crystal meth manufacturer.

Yentob didn’t have a compelling answer, other than to say again how big the US market is, and then talk about opening the BBC archive of shows to the license fee paying public.

That familiar first answer – we can never match the US in size and therefore quality – doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Some of the most influential dramas in the last five years have come from Sweden and Denmark, who have viewing audiences as relatively small to ours as we are to the US. In the last few years Scandinavian countries and the even smaller Israeli TV industry (who made the originals of In Treatment and Homeland) have exported more successful drama formats to the US than we have.

But the reference to the archive and the BBC’s historic legacy was even more dispiriting. The nostalgia for a lost golden age is echoed in the most often cited examples of exported BBC drama hits – Sherlock Holmes and Dr Who. But these formats are 100 and 50 years old respectively, hardly innovation. This miasma of cultural regression and retreat is not only visible in the content of so much drama output, dominated by kitchen sink soaps or revived costume dramas (e.g. Poldark), it’s also visible in the personnel.

In terms of the diversity of crews, producers and cast, British media has gone demonstrably backwards since I wrote my essay for Prospect. As Lenny Henry points out, 2,000 members of the black and minority ethnic communities have left TV production since 2006, even though the sector has grown by 4,000. If, as Greg Dyke said a decade ago, the BBC was ‘hideously white’, the face TV drama presents today has become even more pale and wan, leading to a drain of talent across the Atlantic where black actors can play a variety of non-stereotypical roles, and Asian actors aren’t constantly discussing arranged marriages or forced to wear the hijab.

There’s an easy solution to this, some say: a market solution. While preserving the BBC as a news and documentary brand, many of its more commercial drama and entertainment offerings could easily be spun off into the private sector, and the success of US drama might suggest the profit motive is the magic wand.

With over 30 possible broadcasters and distributors to pitch to, Los Angeles is a sellers market for innovative TV concepts, whereas the commissioning system in the UK more closely resembles a royal court, with various projects being made or abandoned depending on which executives’ fortune is going up or down. Breaking up the Beeb would lead to Breaking Bad.

But privatising the drama output of the BBC would not solve the problem of monopoly: it would aggravate it. Many drama productions are already made by so called ‘independents’, most of whom have actually been swallowed up by global companies such as Sony, 21st Century Fox and NBC. Since most BBC drama commissioners have spent time in the ‘independent’ sector, or are destined to leave for higher pay there, the revolving door problem – commissioners commissioning themselves when they leave – is one of the key reasons British drama is so lacklustre. Unlike in the US, where the writer is king, drama here is effectively in the control of executives who use it to leverage their careers into the ultimate goal: a million-pound buyout.

(Perversely, the US also has much stronger unions, and the Writers Guild of America [full disclosure I am a member] has the power to close down production and insist on writers’ creative control. In contrast the British Writers Guild is a pusillanimous shadow.)

That may seem a cruel analysis of the very talented and committed people still working in TV, and of course there are many exceptional dramas around. But there are not as many as there could be, and the fault lies not in the individuals, but the system.

Taking out the corporatism

At the moment, then, BBC TV drama exemplifies the worst aspects of the mixed economy of British broadcasting: all the downsides of top heavy centralised bureaucracy, combined with an uncompetitive commercial sector in which the money somehow rarely makes it to the screen in terms of quality.

The corporatist collusion between the private and public service sectors has historically led to the BBC paying ridiculous fees for ‘talent’ (see Jonathan Ross) and high commercial salaries to senior executives (like former Director General Mark Thomson) on the basis they have to agree the ‘going rate’. Yet, with little option of employment except by ITV or another public service broadcaster, Channel 4, there’s no way of testing a market rate, and the BBC is victim to all the self-serving downsides of a narrow cartel.

There are precious few slots for producers to pitch to anyway, even with the advent of Netflix and Amazon as potential partners. The demise of drama on the BBC TV Channels 3 and 4 only aggravates the problem of uniformity. Though an increasing number of international sales has led to ostensibly big-budget shows like Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude, that experiment is hardly ground-breaking in terms of content, borrowing mostly from Scandinavian and US formats. Despite the talents of the writer Simon Donald, British execs don’t seem to be able to foster the collaborative ‘writers’ room’ and ‘show runner’ models which make long running seasons both sustainable and inventive (for an example of the difference, compare the two UK seasons of House of Cards with the three US seasons so far).

Unless something changes in the way drama is commissioned, selling off BBC drama will be like rail or healthcare privatisation, replacing a public monopoly with some private ones.

Giving the license fee to a range of broadcasters through some kind of central fund would just add another bureaucratic tier to the process, providing an excuse for commissioner intervention and caution. A BBC Trust that disburses money to worthy production companies would have all the problems of picking winners, with check boxes against diversity perhaps, but no devolution of decision making to the people who matter: the writers, actors and directors.

However, there is one way the BBC can encourage competition, innovation and diversity without going down the routes of privatisation, or becoming another quasi Channel 4: it could force pluralism into the system by creating more producer and writer autonomy, and by removing some of the huge overheads of centralised commissioners. 

I first started writing drama in the early nineties when channel controllers, until then just schedulers, were only beginning to intervene in commissioning to shape channels in their own image. A trusted producer writer team, like Kenneth Trodd and Dennis Potter, could make The Singing Detective with minimal interference. Individual drama departments – series’, single play strands, serials, historical dramas – all had their own commissioning budgets. The regions were also independent then, and something rejected by TV centre in London could still turn out to be a hit through BBC Birmingham, Manchester, Wales, Northern Ireland, or Scotland.  

None of those structures are really applicable now, given the change in both Britain’s social and broadcasting landscape. But pluralism 20 years ago demonstrably led to more variety and ingenuity, and US TV producers looked at our drama output with envy, while they were stuck with Dallas and Dynasty. Yet while the US moved on, broke up some of the broadcasting cartels, and created a form of TV writing team work more akin to Silicon Valley start-ups, the BBC has gone backwards to a tottering hierarchy of drama executives with a massive bottleneck at the top. Given its 20th Century industrial structure, it’s no surprise BBC drama still specialises in 20th century products.

While it may take a while to imagine a new system while preserving the innovative principle of public service broadcasting, it’s not hard to spot what is currently dysfunctional and out of date. The domination of channel controllers, whose rise to power was then matched by the centralisation of drama departments is a uniquely British phenomenon. But channel controllers are probably one of the few groups of people left who still care about the various rebrands, strands and peculiarities of their schedule. The public are beginning to disbundle TV content in the same way they are online for articles and features in news and magazines. Overnight audiences have halved since I started writing for TV, with growing numbers playing catch up or download, on the long tail. Channels will become increasingly irrelevant to the audience. The middlemen will be cut out. Product will be key.

Yet it’s the executives who still have power, and they are unlikely to write themselves out of a job or surrender the joys of being the nation’s storyteller by proxy. That’s why little has changed in the six years since I wrote my Prospect warning. Now this ignored problem could become an existential crisis for the BBC. With a party in power that is highly suspicious of the public sector element of public service broadcasting, and an upcoming charter renewal, those in control could lose power at a stroke, catastrophically. The only way some of them and nation’s ranking as a top world dramatist can survive is if they create a more plural system – and tap the upsides of a heterogeneous mixed economy.

The appetite for great British TV drama has not diminished. The BBC still has a brand and a focus on quality which could make that happen. But only if it drops the crony corporatism.

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