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Supporting SMEs: Is it time Channel 4 ask ‘what is an indie’?

I read this weekend in Broadcast that the DCMS is thinking about ways to safeguard smaller indies when it writes the new Communications Act… and one of the more radical suggestions is to do away with broad-brush indie quotas and introduce a minimum quota for broadcasters to commission from SME indies.

Whether you like regulation or not, there’s no denying the positive impact the creation of Channel 4, the establishment of indie commissioning quotas and the BBC window of creative competition has had on the health of the indie sector.  Take All3Media for example, it’s got a turnover approaching £500million and it still has independent status (although maybe not for long as it seeks a buyer).  All3 are a great British success story and I congratulate them, but there’s no denying how much power is now concentrated in a small number of giant media groups… and if SMEs are going to lead the economic recovery this could become a problem.

But surely it’s all about the quality of the ideas – everyone is equal no?  If only that were true but commissioners are human – they prefer to give work to people they like and have worked with in the past (or if you’re skeptical like me they particularly like giving work to media companies that might employ them in the future).  It makes total sense to work with people you trust, however is there a way we can get commissioners to work with a handful of companies they don’t know on top of the usual preferred supplier list?  Sometimes obliging them to do this is the only way to make it happen.

And then there’s the reality that size is strength and the big media groups have the resources to negotiate better terms of trade, they can overspend on a pilot or completely self-fund a development, and they have their own distribution arms to retain profits.  I don’t begrudge them their success, but when you’re a startup who has to pay £600 an hour for legal advice to try and get halfway to the terms the big boys can negotiate it becomes a problem – the rich just get richer (one specific recommendation on that point: broadcasters should be consistent with their terms of trade (don’t screw your small suppliers while you’re getting screwed by the big suppliers – all you’re doing is making the big suppliers bigger so they can screw you even harder)).

I think an SME indie quota would certainly help redress some of the imbalances in the indie sector – but let’s not forget an SME is any company with a turnover of up to £50million or under 250 employees – there needs to be real focus on the ‘S’ end of the scale… these are the people who can innovate quickly, who can think in new ways and formats, and will ultimately determine the future direction of TV.

Which takes me to Channel 4.  I personally have no issue with indie quotas being scrapped altogether then it comes to BBC and ITV, but one of the key reasons Channel 4 was set up was to help nurture and develop the independent sector – and what an amazing job they’ve done.  It’s great that the network are again being proactive in investing in ideas from small indies from within and outside of traditional TV, but isn’t it time for a more radical approach?  Isn’t it time Channel 4 redefine what an indie is – to return to their roots – to invest in the kinds of ideas that could only come from an enthusiastic, often-naive, idealistic boot-strapped startups?  I know I run the risk of sounding like a xenophobic protectionist but is it Channel 4′s job to line the pockets of NewsCorp, NBC Uni and TimeWarner – or nurture new British businesses? Isn’t it time to rip up the schedule and become a genuinely alternative voice in broadcasting?  Yes advertising revenues may dip slightly, and in turn there may be less money for the ‘Gok’s Fashion Fix’es and ‘Come Dine With Me’s of this world, but is that really a disaster?  Is success just ratings and ad-revenue, or could it be in kick-starting a new dawn in British independent production, in innovation and alternative types of format, and in reshaping broadcasting?

I know I have a vested interest – but as the whole world is on the cusp of economic reorganisation maybe it’s time for Channel 4 to change with it?

 

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