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Home > Media

Outside the box

20 October 2003

As if it didn’t have enough problems, the BBC finds itself in hot water (again) over its ongoing failure to comply with its obligations under the 1990 Broadcasting Act. This important piece of legislation aims to keep workshy in-house producers on their toes while stimulating and sustaining a vibrant indie sector by compelling the BBC to ensure that at least a quarter of its output is commissioned from the independent sector. And yet, despite being told that the 25% target should be a ‘floor not a ceiling’, the BBC has repeatedly failed to meet this modest target.

But not for long. In an attempt to satisfy the letter of the Act while ignoring its spirit, the corporation has hit upon a cunning ruse: take an existing long-running series and outsource its production to a friendly independent company – preferably one formed and staffed by ex-BBC boys and girls. A good example is Question Time on BBC1: a simple programme which requires no specialist production, but which is now made by Mentorn Productions – run by George Carey, who spent most of his career at the department which now commissions him to make it. This arrangement provides an easy 50 hours a year of ‘independent production’ without any risk of innovation. Brilliant! But there’s more…In early September the corporation announced that independents may now tender to cover – wait for it – horse racing. Yes, another lengthy piece of easy-peasy programming to get that quota up.

Channel 4 on the other hand is supposed to be TV’s land of the free and home of the brave. The risk-taking channel has long sparred with The Daily Mail, who only two years ago gave C4 the honour of having screened ‘the sickest TV show ever’ (it’s unclear whether they were referring to Brass Eye or Would Like To Meet). How things change. Viewers who switch on any weeknight between 8 and 10 these days could be forgiven for thinking that Channel 4 has actually become The Daily Mail Channel, such is its obsession with property and ‘aspirational’ self-improvement. With night after night of Location, Location, Location now giving way to Relocation… and now Location…: Revisited (brought to you in conjunction with assertahomes.com – Britain’s leading online estate agents) it’s no wonder the Mail recently described the ‘new’ 4 as Britain’s most intelligent channel. Perhaps they should stop flirting and just hook up? With the new Communications Bill relaxing media ownership rules, Lord Rothermere may be able to pull sooner rather than later.

And where did this sicko craze for housing shows come from anyway? Much of it can be attributed to the prodigious Liz Warner, an ex-commissioner at Channel 4 whose other claim to fame is having put Big Brother in front of our eyes. As if she hadn’t done enough damage while ordering shows inside the channel, she has now followed the well-trodden path into the world of production; and having set-up her own company – ‘Betty’ – she now receives regular commissions from her previous employers. Lovers of the ‘new’ 4 won’t be disappointed to hear that she will be keeping it real with offerings such as My Breasts Are Too Big – but it’s the size of her budgets, not her breasts, which are raising eyebrows. Small independent producers – some of whom survive by making one film a year – produce some of the most interesting work on the box because they are specialists. One such company, established for 20 years and surviving on an anaemic diet of music documentaries, recently had the temerity to question a Channel 4 commissioner over the ever decreasing budgets with which they are supposed to work. They were told in no uncertain terms that “Channel 4 doesn’t exist to make producers rich”. So they will probably be fascinated to hear that Liz Warner’s stated ambition for her new production company is to make “some lucrative high volume series” – or in other words, long running series made cheaply with large margins with the simple purpose of making the producer rich. With her old chums at Channel 4 writing the cheques her dream will surely soon become reality.

Speaking of music documentaries, Channel 4 no longer pays money for people to make programmes for their music ‘brand’, 4Music. Instead they graciously offer to screen your film if you can make it yourself. This means that only films with massive corporate backing can find their way on air. Last year saw a 90 minute documentary on Robbie Williams go out under the 4Music banner. Such a film might have cost any other department in the region of £500,000 to make but luckily Williams’s record company tapped into their promotions budget and paid for the whole film themselves. C4 didn’t have to pay a penny and guaranteed themselves massive audience share and, so, vast advertising revenues. This scam has been repeated in recent months with sponsored ‘films’ about musicians being produced ‘in conjunction’ with the stars’ record labels or – in one case – Levi’s Jeans.

So how can a struggling producer get a film out of 4Music? One surefire way is to work at the channel yourself. Channel 4 doesn’t produce any programmes; everything is commissioned from the independent sector. The one exception is 4Music’s ‘links’ between programmes and segments. These are produced in-house by one Toby Dormer. When a well-respected music films producer pitched a series idea to Channel 4 recently they were told that there was nothing left of their budget. So imagine his surprise when he discovered shortly afterwards that a brand new and previously unheard-of company – Remedy Productions – has just been commissioned by Head of Music, Jo Wallace, to produce a massive, 17 part series of half-hour films about music. Channel 4 didn’t yet know what the series was about or what it was called but promised that it would be confirmed soon. All of which seems strange for a channel which is meant to commission programmes on the basis of detailed pitches from producers. A call to Channel 4’s Press Office makes things clearer; Remedy Productions was recently formed by Toby Dormer – the man who makes the in-house links for the channel.

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