June 2021 Newsletter: Crying all the way to the bank.
As summer reaches midpoint and lockdown rules ease, television viewing tends to fall off when the weather is better because people are desperate to be outside. So, it is worth looking back at the last couple of months to see what’s been going down in the world of television.
BROADCAST magazine is an essential source of information on television in the UK but also globally. In an article on what independent producers think there are some memorable quotes:
“Scripted production has been badly affected (by Covid issues) due to the long shoots, cost of production and cast continuity.”
“Budgets are under huge pressure and broadcasters are slashing them time and again.”
“The commissioning process is much slower and more risk averse now. It has been much harder to win fully funded commissions from broadcasters, which now have a bigger appetite for low-cost factual.”
An interesting development is coming into television funding: AFP. Ad-funded programming. It is mainly factual and entertainment cashing in on this new revenue stream, but as budgets are stretched (audiences are so much more fragmented because of the increasing choices) so commissioning editors will find ways of accepting money from brands. Dominic de Terville of Zinc Media is quoted in Broadcast as saying “Brands have realised they need to be part of the content…” I think it is also because producers and broadcasters have realised they can supplement their budgets.
I go on a lot about giving audiences emotional experiences, and this can be brilliantly seen in factual programming. The BBC’s commissioning editor for daytime and early peak (Scotland and Northern Ireland) Muslim Alim, has written a fabulous piece in Broadcast about a show called CORNWALL:THIS FISHING LIFE. He says the show’s “depth and emotional punch reeled me in…the series is about so much more than fish. It is a collection of intertwining stories about family, expertise and survival.” You could use that last sentence to describe LINE OF DUTY, or BODYGUARD, to use two legendary drama series.
Alongside this has been the increase in co-productions: well I think many of them are really co-financing, because budgets are stretched. So, producers are now having to piece together more sources of finance than previously.
One of the things writers tend not be knowledgable about is data and television. Reading the TV ratings is a salutary experience, and one that all agents tend to do every week. However, a legendary comedy producer – Ash Atalla – points out that “In a world of big data, why does the green light come down to luck, politics and personal opinion?”
He goes on to say that commissioners think of themselves as “creatives, we hate the thought of commissioning by numbers and point to hits that would never have survived the initial (data) scrutiny.”
So, if you want to pitch a show you really need to look at the data for comparable shows; you then need to evaluate the experience of the production company (have they delivered this kind of show before to a high standard). Then add your wish-list of achievable talent and director. In a risk-averse world submitting scripts by unknown writers to broadcasters is eye of the needle stuff. Not likely to work.
But if your script really does pack an emotional punch, if it will make me cry or laugh or prefer not to finish it as it is after midnight and there are creaking noises in the house, then there will be an independent producer who shows interest.
Another example of factual programming that packs an emotional punch is SAVED BY A STRANGER made by Blink Films for BBC2. They identified several stories in which someone was literally saved by a complete stranger. Simon Young, the commissioning editor at the BBC said that the series is “…filled with emotion, immersing the viewer in some of the most important events in living memory. These events are shocking but reuniting people who shared traumatic experiences is deeply redemptive.”
That is the key to great drama in film or television, in a nutshell: emotional, immersive, redemptive. Why do TV writers trying to break in find that so difficult. I remember reading a script by one of our clients, the great Brian Finch, sadly no longer with us. My wife suddenly said “Why are you crying?” I was a bit surprised. I was so immersed in a brilliant climax to a feelgood TV movie that tears were running down my cheeks that I wasn’t even aware of. The world had ceased to exist except for the ending of the story.
There is a big shout-out for female comedy writers. It has been a male dominated world and broadcasters are very keen to get comedy from women writers.
Another interesting change is in the increase of what are called writers’ rooms. In British TV soaps are often developed in such rooms over several days: they map out say 3 months of storylines. Those get divided into episodes and then handed out to a mix of the core writing team (who write the episode scripts on their own) and perhaps a couple to newer writers who are being brought onstream.
Some show-runner writers bring other writers onto a series that the showrunner acts as head writer. In the US it is different: the room is peopled, everyone gets a salary even if they do not write anything. When series commissions were for say 22 episodes it was almost impossible for one writer to write them all. With 6 or 8 or 10 eps fewer writers cope easily.
But I am a great believer that more heads make for deeper and more satisfying drama as a general rule. There are some brilliant and very experienced showrunners who can carry a show on their own. But they are exception rather than the rule. Danny Brockelhurst, a very experienced writer said “I recently developed a drama this way (with a room) and the experience was thrilling, thought-provoking and creatively rich.”
So, to conclude: nothing changes really as far as storytelling is concerned: make me laugh, make me forget the real world and make me cry.
This is a most excellent read for all screenwriters, filmmakers and storytellers. Love that last line, I always aspire to that in my own writing – emotional resonance is the key to a great story for me (be it reading/watching someone else’s, or my own) otherwise it’s just strings of words on a page (no matter how well written) or scenes on screen (no matter how well realised). But for me, the potential of our words on our pages being lifted and translated into audio/visual content in collaboration with others, allowing them to use their talents so we progress together, is what inspires me to continue. We work in a creative world that is content hungry but risk averse to emerging talent (that’s not personal, just business where reputations and money are at stake) but our authenticity and passion, and the relevance, relatability and emotional resonance of our stories, are our best weapons that help us find those collaborators and battle against that aversion (imho).