I was senior manager at ITV just as the multi-channel environment and onslaught of Internet media was threatening the figures – both financial and viewing – of mainstream British broadcasters. As always when innovation arrives it’s the well-established companies that suffer most. They have become institutionalised, they have reigned supreme over their industry for many years and maybe they’ve started to rest of their laurels. It’s the young, hungry, passionate, nothing-to-lose newcomers who takes risks and try new things.
Previously the monolithic broadcasters – ITV, BBC – held the reins of creativity. They were the gatekeepers of ideas. They decided what viewers want (albeit with the aid occasionally of superficial viewer research) and they decided in what form that want would be delivered. With the Internet and multi channels suddenly there was competition – not just from new broadcasters but more particularly from the viewers themselves.
The Internet allows anyone to produce and publish a video, write and publish a book, create a magazine or newspaper. Yes that results in a lot of dross. Not every video, ebook or online magazine is going to be good. Gatekeepers – like commissioning editors and print publishers serve a purpose – they sift out the dross and bring the quality ideas to the market. But they don’t always get it right. How many times have hugely successful programmes been rejected at the pitching stage by a string of gatekeepers who just didn’t get it?
The real issue here though is the fear of failure that kills creativity. This is generally the reason for dull, repetitive television schedules. Profits plummet, the competition gets tougher and the pressure is on to maintain viewing figures and profit margins. So what is the general response to this challenge?
To play safe.
“If you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
New ideas are dangerous. New formats fail. New talent is untested. Our natural human reaction is to avoid danger. In TV you are only as good as your last job. If you have the misfortune to play a part in a failed TV programme it can affect your future prospects.
Commissioning editors do not have total autonomy. They have to convince schedulers, the research team, advertisers, as well as their boss that a new show will work. Failure is a big scary prospect – the press will jump on a bad show with glee. The commissioner, the producer, the presenters – all risk a blot on their CV. Brave people accept failure as a learning curve. No-one can really predict a successful show. What sounds fantastic on paper can be awful on screen – for a whole host of reasons (the quality of the original idea, the research, the quality of the production team, the relationship between commissioner and producers, the host, the slot – to name but a few).
Sometimes failure can damn an entire genre of TV. Many years ago Richard and Judy presented a live health show – health has consistently been the most popular subject on ITV’s “This Morning” which they fronted at the time. It didn’t work.
Richard and Judy were, and are, hugely talented successful presenters so they survived without much of a dent to their reputation but the concept of live health show took a beating. I heard commissioning editors thereafter quote that show as a reason why they wouldn’t consider a health format. If it wasn’t the presenters’ fault then it must be the subject matter. Viewers don’t want to see a health magazine show on TV.
But it’s wrong to ignore an entire subject area just because one show didn’t work. Surely that is a cue to do more research, brainstorm creatively and find a way to broadcast health that will capture the viewers attention. It was very many years before Channel 4 finally adopted Dr Christian Jessen and the hugely popular ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ brand.
“Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.”
Roger Von Oech
Fear of Failure.
So as ITV and BBC started losing viewers to new channels and the Internet the pressure was on. Senior managers feared failure. All too often if a show did not appear to be working straight away it was swiftly moved to a less important slot, or taken off air. They couldn’t afford – or weren’t prepared – to let the slide continue. We can quote a number of successful shows that would never have survived had that been the overriding philosophy in the past (Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses).
ITV has survived on the prime time diet of X-Factor, I’m a Celebrity, Ant n Dec – climbing into bed with Simon Cowell and mega agents James Grant in an attempt to hang on to Saturday night supremacy. It has avoided the risk of trying new on-screen faces – why bother when you have the superb talents of Phillip Schofield, Ant and Dec, and Dermot O Leary?
The BBC daytime schedule doesn’t appear to have moved on since the Victorian era (OK I’m going over the top but I am old, dear reader, and even I can’t remember a time before ‘Homes under the Hammer’ and “Bargain Hunt’!). If a programme appears to work and maintains regular viewing figures then often it will stay where it is rather than risk trying something new that may not work.
Ratings for X-Factor this year (2013) are struggling, ignominiously beaten by a baking show on the BBC. However ITV press office announced last week that ITV has commissioned both X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent for another three years.
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”
Peter F. Drucker
So where has the innovation gone? Well it’s all over the Internet, of course, and more TV producers are searching online for the next big idea or new talent.
And fortunately there are still commissioning editors and producers who are both brave and creative. Richard Watsham and Iain Coyle at UKTV are currently being lauded for their courage in taking on the Ross Noble Twitter-based (note the Internet-based idea) travelogue, ‘Ross Noble Freewheeling’. No clearly identified format, no prepared script, no guests booked in advance, no safety net. As Andy Devonshire the series director said a recent interview, Richard and Iain “waved us off with the kind of looks parents give as they watch their kids go into the shed to make them a surprise Christmas present with a chainsaw”.
Will it work? Will it get the viewers? Time will tell but let’s just be grateful that there are still TV folk out there prepared to take a bit of a gamble on an idea.
The BBC has been charged with bringing more innovation to the screen. One of the objectives set out in its Executive Work Plan 2013/14 is to “increase the distinctiveness and quality of its output”.
I’m sure I’ve heard this before from the BBC but maybe I imagined it. The wheels of large institutions turn very slowly and the internal politics of such organisations make it very hard to create change quickly and effectively.
The BBC is also charged with “sustaining and improving the BBC’s impact and relationship with audiences”. In daytime surely that has to mean creating a live element. How better to allow viewers in and create that sense of community that the BBC should be delivering?
But once again history has a trail of failed live shows from BBC Daytime. It’s a brave person who says, ‘let’s ditch the old formats that have served us well in viewing figures and try something new’ or “let’s ditch the established formats and try something that failed in this slot before’. It’s brave person who ignores the past failures and delivers a live, interactive, relevant schedule with a heart. It can work. There is a way to introduce interaction and innovation to the BBC mornings cautiously (yes that may sound counterintuitive but I’ve never been one for throwing the baby out with the bathwater!).
Actually I take it back about ignoring the past failures – learn from them (ie don’t hand over daytime production to a news team with no experience of lifestyle programming!).
Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that mistakes and failures are simply steps on the way to the big success. Don’t close down interesting avenues simply because someone previously stumbled on them.
Television is a business. It must make profits or satisfy a board. But television is also a creative industry and it MUST nurture the art of the idea if it is to succeed at its business.
These are fascinating times – watching the world of Internet media unfold. Our consumption of media will never be the same again. Viewers have more power than ever before. Broadcasters are under more pressure than ever before. But whatever the business model, the product has to be cared for and grown. And the product of television is ideas.
Be Brave TV people – Bring on the innovation!
“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honour.”
What do you think? Am I being unfair? How do you balance the need to satisfy shareholders and trustees with taking a risk?
Give me your examples of the latest innovative formats that I have missed. Tell me about the new talent that has appeared on TV somewhere.
What would you do if you had the power to make big decisions about what happens on TV? Leave your comments below or join us on Facebook.
By Shu Richmond