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The UK television drama production landscape

Richard Paterson examines how the British television drama production landscape has evolved since the 1980s, and considers how increasing foreign-ownership may affect the sector’s sustainability.

The UK’s Creative Industry Council, a government advisory body, lamented last year there is a dearth of UK-owned companies. ‘Often, companies that achieve early success are acquired by a large international player, rather than building sustainable businesses in the UK,’ the council claimed.

Why this is the case in TV drama production? Why has UK television – once a wholly UK-owned and UK-focused industry – increasingly moved to branch plant status as with the car and film industries? This may or may not be a good thing, but a major concern has to be whether the programmes produced will continue to provide the mirrors and windows to the diversity in our society.

Using modelling it is possible to gain some understanding of what specific factors contribute to successful growth, and conversely in their absence lead to failure. In the UK 180 companies are listed as drama producers for TV, but few have scale. Many work under the umbrella of a larger company when they do get commissioned.

After 1982, with the end of the ITV/BBC duopoly and the start of Channel 4, many new production companies were set up. A subsequent lobbying campaign led first to quotas of independent productions for both BBC and ITV, and then after 2004 to new Terms of Trade advantageous to the independents. Then many firms became attractive to investors leading quickly to consolidation and acquisition, often by foreign-owned firms. More recently, the introduction of tax incentives for high end drama upped the stakes even further.

Common factors behind success

To model company evolution in the sector I apply the concept of ‘adaptive walks’ first identified by Stuart Kauffman. The objective is to begin to identify patterns of development to identify common factors. It is well established that reputation development and maintenance (for both firms and individuals), as well as networking (i.e. who is connected to whom, and the quality of these connections as much as the quantity), play crucial roles for companies in forging their businesses.

From a small number of case studies carried out so far, a number of constants seem to emerge in relation to failure and success. By examining an earlier failure it is possible to identify what happens when firms don’t ensure creative renewal. Zenith founded in 1984 as a subsidiary of Central, one of the ITV network companies, had a chequered ownership history. It was acquired by Carlton (at the time an indie) with Paramount in 1987. When Carlton gained the London ITV franchise in 1993 Zenith was divested to Portman Entertainment, which in turn merged in 1998 with TEAM (TV Enterprise and Management). An management buyout of the still successful Zenith in 2003 was accompanied by suggestions it would acquire other indies, but in 2006 with no returning series commissions it ceased trading. In short, it had insufficient financial backing and was failing creatively.

By also looking at currently successful companies some interesting hypotheses emerge: the trajectory taken by the companies described below over time indicates the importance of replacing key creative figures in a firm; the importance of relationships with commissioning editors; and the need to focus on the writerly core to achieve success:

In comparison to Zenith, Company Pictures and Carnival have stability from ownership by global companies and have ensured creative renewal of key figures. For Red, the jury is out on the consequences of its acquisition by StudioCanal. Hartswood seems to have adopted a lifestyle business approach, but has secured a significant niche with the success of Sherlock.

The alternative strategies adopted by co-evolving companies respond to and contribute to what Ronald Coase  in the 1930s termed ‘the moving equilibrium’ of the market sector. Where there is a market there are winners and losers. What the BBC pre-1982 offered was an organisation where maverick talent could be given the space to flourish. Now the maverick talent – the star writer – has to have an agent, while s/he also often seeks rent through the addition of executive producer role.

It is a dynamic market and changes are ongoing with BBC Studios trying to imitate US studios while ITV has acquired companies (including most recently Mammoth Screen and Two Four) to secure intellectual property rights

Parallels with the film industry

There is an interesting parallel in the development of British film: interventions by Government (e.g. quotas after 1927) in attempts to cope with the overwhelming global market power of the American majors. In the 60s US studios were firmly entrenched producing films in Britain, but when they faced troubles at home in the late 60s and early 70s ‘ran away back home’.

In recent years the UK industry has become ever more US-focused, perhaps of necessity – sharing a common language, with access to studio finance and their global distribution capabilities. The result has been inward investment – Leavesden studios (thanks to Harry Potter and Warners), the emergence of post-production powerhouses (Double Negative etc), the employment of British technicians on ever higher rates of pay. So we do have a British film industry, but what is British about it? Productions use British studios and British technicians, but do they produce British stories? The government sees this as confirmation of its approach, but is it sustainable?

For UK TV drama we have reached a point where foreign owned companies now gain ever more commissions. One major question is whether this changes the nature of what is now produced? On a cautionary note, we do know is that in the 1980s the production of Boys from the Blackstuff was held up for 2 years when BBC Enterprises delayed investment with doubts about its export potential because it used scouse vernacular. Will such concerns now be ever more frequent? An open question is whether there are policy interventions which might make a difference.

Richard Paterson is Head of Research and Scholarship at the British Film Institute (BFI) and Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow. He is also an Associate Partner on the MeCETES project. This article is a summary of a presentation given at the European Film and TV Culture: Trends and Challenges conference at the Danish Film Institute, Copenhagen, September 9, 2015.

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