Public service broadcasting in Britain is under threat. The British government proposes to reduce the size and scope of the BBC and an independent inquiry into the future of public service television has been launched with the aim of ensuring its principles to “inform, educate and entertain” are upheld.
If it’s to be successful, the BBC will need to evolve, build on a dynamic broadcast landscape, with less fear of crowding out and more courage to shape and invest in new markets. And one way to achieve this is by nurturing talent in the independent sector.
What we have seen with entrepreneurial journalism, we are seeing with the independent production sector in Britain: it is fast becoming a source of creativity and innovation in the delivery of programming across media platforms and internationally.
Some stand-out programmes are being produced whilst evolving alongside digital channels; such as the eight-part natural series Our Planet made by Sliverback Films for Netflix.
Yet there is a rising conflict of values between broadcasters and independent producers. And it is a test for the public service environment to assess which structures are necessary to increase the chances of establishing symbiotic partnerships with the independent sector as well as implementing its mission.
At the moment we are seeing British producers being bought by US companies, such as Discovery and Liberty and there is a real threat to the future of PSB posed by the consolidation of the independent sector.
“The creative culture of UK production would be snuffed out by foreign owners who put profits ahead of risk taking” warned Channel 4 boss David Abraham last year. And as he predicted, the seven biggest super-indies are now all foreign-owned and dominating the market.
Another danger to British broadcasting is that ideas are continually being missed in a punishing process that can be risk averse and arrogant. Complaints about the commissioning process made by the independent sector argued that it is often slow: lead times from pitch to production sometimes taking up to 18 months.
Meetings are “unreasonably rescheduled” and commissioners are typically branded as “patronising and high-handed”. Many producers working in development have been left demoralised as a result as well as companies having to overspend on research and development because of poor editorial guidelines.
What the BBC can learn from what we’ve seen with the growth of independent journalism:
1) Contracting out more content and services is one recommendation for the future of public service broadcasting to be more open and pluralistic. Specifically, I think the BBC should be shifting towards becoming a curator and away from a cultural monolithic institution. This would ensure diversity of perspectives, services and choice.
2) Television is no longer simply the omnipresent ‘box in the corner’ but experienced and produced across a range of screens, websites and technological platforms. And established public service broadcasters need to reconfigure and reimagine what PSB can offer in the new media scene. Working with the independent sector on this mission would see indies move away from producing profitable, commercial formats.
3) Another recommendation would be a new system of employing freelance producers at the BBC as this is an astounding source of variety. A strong talent pool and relationship with independent workers would undoubtedly breathe fresh air into the Corporation. Freelancers bring a colossal amount of talent to British programme-making and it is the BBC’s job to support them in creating great original work.
4) Perhaps most importantly and my final point, let failure be an option. It now seems a long time since the BBC enforced a discreet and enabling management: where artists were free to experiment; commissioning was not mired by lengthy bureaucracy and the stakes were relatively low and ambition high.
This is not something that will happen overnight – it is a work in progress – but ultimately by building new structures between public service broadcasters and the independent sector, good ideas could become a reality no matter where or who they originate from.