Is television washed up?

television

As our commercial broadcasters struggle for survival, and media jobs are disappearing daily, it’s increasingly difficult to write about the craft of creativity without sometimes touching on the business of it too. As screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) says, it’s no longer enough just to be a writer; you have to be a writer-entrepreneur. So where are the new opportunities? And are we really witnessing, as some people are saying, the death of television?

Well, no. Creatively, television is in dynamic health, spearheaded by the recent crop of US “novels for television” like The Wire and Generation Kill, which tell complex stories over many hours of viewing, proving that viewers still have appetite for demanding, satisfying drama as well as cheap reality TV. The quality of television writing, too, is better than ever, not just on US series like Mad Men, but from British talent like Abi Morgan, Peter Flannery (whose Our Friends in the North pioneered the television novel) and Tony Grisoni. The quality of acting talent spanning film, television and theatre is extraordinary. And the ever increasing power — and decreasing cost — of CGI means that television can now operate on almost the same scale as film.

But while the creative potential of television has never been greater, its business potential has never seemed so threatened. ITV, five and Channel 4 have all cut jobs this year, and several merger options remain on the table. The combination of the recession and the move to online advertising has slashed commercial TV revenue and is squeezing programme making budgets. This puts channels in dangerous negative spiral: less money coming from advertisers means less money to make programmes, which means worse programmes, which means smaller audiences — which means less money coming from advertisers. Small wonder that Sir Martin Sorrell, boss of the world’s largest advertising network, advised ITV to sacrifice anything other than programme budgets.

But new opportunities do exist. ITV, while wounded, isn’t dead. It has strong programme brands, an ambitious global business plan and a successful family of digital channels. It badly misread the opportunity of online, hiving off its internet distribution into a separate area of the business, with its own P&L and no incentive to help build the company for the long term, but that policy is now being reversed. And it has shown with hits like Lost in Austen and the successful Law and Order UK that it can still commission large scale drama that brings in diverse audiences. Channel 4, while also struggling financially, is still a powerful force. Its mantra — do it first, make trouble, inspire change — remains fresh and exciting, although too rarely delivered upon. It needs new, ambitious partnerships that will help to compete with (or work alongside) The Guardian to become an internationally provocative, progressive media brand.

Meanwhile, as the old guard struggle, new online television platforms are making the running. Here in the UK the Competition Commission’s rejection of Kangaroo — the proposed BBC/C4/ITV partnership — was unfortunately short-sighted, and will most likely benefit US competitors like Hulu. In the meantime, however, new entrants like Jaman and The Auteurs are pioneering online distribution models, and ways of connecting niche audiences with specialist content. We’re also likely to see other familiar brands move into entertainment: while the UK government is firmly anti product placement, there’s nothing to stop, for example, Nike, starting its own sports channel online, opening opportunities for new sports, new audiences and new creative approaches.

As for production companies, the pre-crunch period was one of mass conglomeration: small companies merged into bigger ones that were swallowed up by even bigger ones in turn. This gave immediate visible cost savings, but often at an invisible creative price: more decision makers, less freedom. The trouble with valuing production companies is that companies are the wrong thing to value, because the value isn’t in the company but in its ideas. The opportunity for creative people is not in building big companies, but in building big ideas: ideas that can be accessed by audiences on whatever screen they’re watching, wherever they are in the world.

At the heart of all of this is one simple point: television is no longer a technology. Just as a painting is no longer just oil on canvas, but an image that can be replicated anywhere in the world; just as a book is no longer ink on paper but a text that can be read in different ways, television is no longer a box in the corner, but a way to dramatise ideas. In the old days you’d make a show for a channel, and that channel could guarantee XX viewers. In the future each production is a business of its own: how strong is the idea, how many people might enjoy it, and how can we ensure it reaches them, in how many different ways? Plus, of course, how can we get paid along the way? It’s harder and more complex than it used to be, but there are writers, actors and directors to make it better than its ever been, and an audience who, for all their fragmentation, still at heart love great TV.

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