The Contract Killing of Quality Television 

23 Sep 2008 0 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

In a world of independent contractors, outsourcing and ‘goals and targets’ philosophies based on failed Cold War game theory, where is the incentive to make a good programme rather than simply a cheap one that meets all the targets and avoids litigation?

For a number of years now there has been an intangible ‘something different’ about British television. Something so intangible it is in danger of becoming a trait so subtle and sublime that no-one ends up noticing it. That’s probably the way it was designed to be.

Think back to any news headlines about hospitals, schools, the new Wembley Stadium and other high profile construction project, our transport network, and a similar thread keeps cropping up. Large multinational ‘services’ companies running more and more previously publicly-run organisations, creaming off lots of money and providing a pitifully-poor service.

When these accusations are levelled at the top brass of these companies, they will always come up with a similar answer: “look at the investment. Look at the sparkling new premises you now enjoy. That wouldn’t happen without private enterprise”. And indeed, it is true. Many areas of British business got a much needed kick up the fundamental orifice once performance targets and narrow budgets upped the pressure on many areas of business which previously had got stuck in a rut. In the light of these considerations, it is tempting to hand it to big business and say “yes, actually, you’ve got the right operating model. What dunces we all were back in the bad old days”.

However, it’s not as simple as that. For any business, public or private, it is the skill-set of the founding fathers of any long-established company, plus the inheritance of and dissemination of those skills to new entrants into those companies that keeps them in the once-fortunate position of having an in-house knowledge base that was the basis on which said company or companies won their reputation and managed to build a big, profitable business in the first place.

Until the ‘internal market’ culture and Key Performance Indicators came in, until PFI contracts became the modus operandi by which public assets would be upgraded, knowledge was king and power. Unions kept the transfer of knowledge and employment opportunities within a rigid framework. Often too rigid and in many cases with a lack of common sense thrown in to keep those controls – well, within control.

So when a new breed of business-person came in and took a look at these many examples of British business, all they could see was waste, duplication of effort and expenditure, and lacklustre business models and management techniques to boot.

Broadcasting, it can be argued, was a state duopoly until the early 90s. ITV may have been a federation of regional companies, but the regulation imposed on them by the ITA and IBA plus the acquired ‘family-like’ culture that had become bred-in partly as a result of this regulation and the constraints imposed by Union mentality had a more desirable side-effect. That of broadcasting being like a ‘gentlemen’s club’. An elite to which not just anyone could join and play the field. The commercial companies had to make money, but they did that on the basis of a product borne out of people who were not only used to working within constraints, but found inventive ways to make the best of them and to find the ways in which quality can be increased as a result.

A fundamental shift in the role of ITV, independent companies and indeed the BBC occurred in the 1990s, with John Birt’s “Producer Choice” initiative at the BBC, and with the establishment of ‘publisher broadcaster’ ITV contractors, Carlton and Meridian. The whole idea now was that there would be no need for a central ‘in house’ pool of talent because it could all be bought-in under contract. However, as can be seen from the running of schools, hospitals, and indeed TV studios, it is simply not good enough for all kinds of ‘services companies’ to simply set up new divisions, advertise for people to come in and join their ‘exciting new opportunity’ and for them to learn on-the-job literally from square one. Both in production and facilities management, in broadcasting and in other sectors, the decision to make as much as possible as ‘independent’ and ‘market-led’ as possible seemed vilified due to the observation that actually, those good old skill-sets appeared to still be intact.

However, where this analysis was naive is that the situation only existed because, in the formative years of the promotion of the ‘indie’ sector, nearly all of those independent production companies would be staffed by ex-ITV and ex-BBC employees, plus new entrants to the business who could be moulded and mentored by those old-hands. All involved would again be trying to find ways of making the new model work and, not unlike the early years of the privatised railways, it was down to ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ between ex-BR employees, that allowed these ex-ITV/BBC employees to utilise the benefit of facilities and materials that they would only have access to or would only be ABLE to request access to by quoting their name or by using personal relationships built-up in the nasty-old world of restraint and constraint.

For instance – take ‘support functions’ like make-up, costume, scenery and so forth. As can be heard in The Goodies’ commentaries on their DVD set, At Last…, Bill Oddie makes the very pertinent point that the only reason such a low-budget show could come up with so many different costumes and effects was that the relevant departments in the BBC had a duty to provide their services as required by production offices and as dictated by the shows’ scripts. Only without contractual divides and ‘producer choice’, could an ‘artist’ have any hope of finding the relevant offices in the concrete doughnut in which their programme was destined to be recorded, and have any direct influence on what these support services were going to bring to the company, without having to get back to the production office and come up with a cost justification, and for the necessary requisition forms to have to be submitted to the BBC as a ‘customer’ only to be rejected on the grounds that the production was not agreed to make changes to the ‘scope of works’ in such a way.

Let’s take another example. In many documentaries these days, you will see clips from old TV shows and adverts in particular, taken from VHS copies or low-quality DVD dubs. These days it is common and fashionable to put these down to the loss of master materials, although often the real reason is simply that it would be ‘too costly’ to ‘acquire’ the material dubbed from the master materials. When requesting clips, very often ‘research’ has to be paid for which is simply newer, greener employees doing a few quick searches on a computer and spending a few minutes looking through a few shelves. Very often the research is booked by time so, even though the material may have been located on a particular shelf somewhere, if the minion paid to ‘film research’ the item was only paid for 30 minutes and they didn’t find the right shelf within that 30 minutes, they would return with the answer “we can’t find it.” Bear in mind that over the past few years large archives’ worth of material have been moved from one premises to another, with previously painstakingly-kept documentation scattered around and lost in the cracks of the administrative process surrounding the acquisition and re-acquisition of the content owners.

All of the old mentors who would have taken an interest in, and more importantly, had the clout to order the attention-to-detail in, keeping records and indeed videotapes and films properly filed, will have increasingly entered retirement during the 1990s and the younger generation they oversaw have largely found themselves being forcibly re-programmed to accept a more cut-throat production culture.

Even a show as relatively recent as Washes Whiter, a documentary series on television advertising, made in 1990 but repeated on BBC Four just a few weeks ago, had examples of many advertisements taken directly from the original films. If the same documentary was being made now, I can guarantee that would not have been the case.

In 1990, many of the agencies or holding companies would have let the BBC have access to, and use, bucket loads of clips from their holdings for a very nominal fee, and with everyone involved at the holding company facilitating the finding of the material for the BBC to transfer, in-house, again for a nominal, purely internal paper transaction. The companies handing over the films wouldn’t have felt the need to try and squeeze every last drop of revenue-generation that they could by itemising it all and charging it as if they were supplying a certain number of tons of concrete or nutty slack.

The boom in the multichannel environment is often quoted as being the reason why programme budgets have to be far smaller these days than they once were and hence why programme makers should become used to spending less money. However, in the ‘bad old days’ the ‘cost’ of using in-house facilities was practically non-existent because these disappeared largely into overheads at the BBC or the ITV companies as a whole. Plus of course, ITV handled the advertising that funded Channel 4 until 1993 and this enabled many Channel 4 budgets to use, as collateral for potentially loss-leading, risky programming, ‘excess’ profit from ITV.

How much of this money was there or not, though, was totally separate from the retention of goodwill between broadcasting brethren in the various studios, archives and facilities companies that would enable them to exchange services without necessarily charging for it all – I’m sure, for instance, if a quick re-edit of a Channel 4 programme at the IBA’s request was required, the production company could have rushed the tape round to VTR in Soho and had the job done without having to get a cost justification from the boss of that production company or the commissioning editor.

So, in summary, what has happened then? I think it can be best summed-up in one word: paranoia. This is the only single, constant and consistent form of mass-acquired mania that has overtaken all other considerations in the workplace where many functions of a single operation are contracted out. A new breed of contract, freelance, Quantity Surveyors, Project Managers, Business and Operations Analysts and Team Leaders have indoctrinated all who have entered the world of work during the last 15 years that the only thing everyone has to focus on at any one time is “covering one’s a*se”.

This epidemic is a direct result of the Key Performance Indicator culture, allied to the constant threat (and in many cases very real) of a loss of contract due to a trivial mistake or misdemeanour. RDF Media’s treatment in the aftermath of the unfortunate editing of their documentary on The Queen, for example. In television, in transport, and in other public services, all in the contracting world are taught to find ways to pass the buck, point the finger, and reduce liability. These days, the measure of a company’s reputation is not in how ground-breaking and cutting-edge they are, but by how well they manage to avoid actual or threatened lawsuits. Although as we well know, very often the means by which employees try and do this often has the reverse effect because it takes their eye off the ball from doing the things that would naturally keep their noses clean anyway.

The fact that a production company could feel that they might lose a lucrative contract if a public-vote show didn’t return a winner with the ‘right demographic’ for the ‘customer’ broadcaster, would lead them to fake the result in order to please them, just shows how naivety and paranoia mix. The answer is, very badly and with very toxic fumes.

Contracting companies are also bred to believe that the only way to protect revenue streams is to charge for absolutely everything because, without this, their company will go under. Again this mentality, along with the way in which the Quantity Surveyor is King, is what rules in broadcasting and content provision businesses.

So, what’s the answer? For employees within these sectors to be allowed to take personal ownership – to take a real pride in their work, and to want their employers to get accolades based on the real quality of what they achieve, not from simple ‘one-upmanship’ games with competing companies. In truth, this is impossible to achieve in business with so many players. Perhaps it is time for someone with the necessary leadership, either in industry or government, to realise that effective and efficient working practices in an industry that could have so much to offer itself, can only flourish in a constrained, ‘managed’ marketplace, such as what we used to have with the federal ITV and C4′s network of independent companies.

It would be a brave move. It would remove the ability for many young, small and ‘thriving’ (financially-speaking) content companies. It would be strangling enterprise. However, the same thing was done to the railways, with many new companies that had sprung up to take the new ‘indie’ maintenance contracts being forced out of business as their operations were handed back to Network Rail. I’m sure those companies complained somewhat loudly in Select Committee meetings and Lord knows where else. It would all be crying wolf however, because in both sectors all of those new companies were simply newly-formed divisions of large multinational companies, to fill a need. Remove that need, and those large companies can easily afford to wind-down those divisions and the employees therein could easily find work in the leaner, larger, more ‘managed’ marketplace or elsewhere within their parent company’s group doing something else entirely.

It could work. Contracts not being the things that rule people’s jobs, but the desire to succeed, be the best and push the envelope.

Contracts that are not prescriptive enough to tell deliverers of content how they can and can’t produce something, but simply what to produce. With the freedom to do it well. Add to this a willing supply chain which charges for nearly all of its services but waives charges when somebody needs a quick fix to something. Add to this proper integrated facilities where as many functions as possible are carried out from a small number of large buildings, rather than decamping every single department to various business parks and offices.

Then, and only then, may it be safe for the old school to return and remind the world why British television used to be seen as the best in the world – because of its once brilliant adeptness at resisting the already-proven to be disastrous, totally free market model, as already used by other countries throughout the world. Believe me, they were jealous of that. It’s sad that they don’t have anything to be jealous of anymore, because we ended up just getting dragged down to their level.

Mark Boulton


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