Saving the Crown Jewels
Speech given to the Royal Television Society
Monday 19 November 2007
Check against delivery
What I want to talk about tonight is the big changes now underway in BBC Vision Productions – the new name for in-house production at the BBC. I've called our work "Project Jewel" by the way, because I think in-house programmes are the BBC's crown jewels…
We've begun a big transformational change and I want to explain what we've done and why we've done it.
As you know, ever since the days of John Birt the BBC has been admired around the world for its deep understanding of successful change-management – of how to get everyone on board for change at those key moments when there's a sudden technological shift that alters everything. The clip you're about to see shows what I mean:
(Mitchell & Webb clip)
Thanks to Kenton Allen and Gareth Edwards for letting me show that sketch from the new series of Mitchell and Webb to be shown early next year.
Ever since I started this job a year ago, I've been working out what changes we had to make to turn in-house production into a really flourishing place – by which I mean flourishing creatively everywhere. That's what all these changes are about. Partly about balancing the books, yes – but much more importantly about finding ways to unlock the full creative potential of the BBC's own programme makers. We do lots of fantastic things already. Just this weekend – Friday, Children in Need, Saturday, Strictly Come Dancing, Sunday the delicious Cranford – but, like the residents of Cranford, sometimes we're unwilling to do things differently. And in some areas I found real issues.
To help me work out what needed doing I started – about six months ago – by asking people inside the BBC what was holding us back. The picture they drew was, frankly, a bit discouraging – the sort of stuff you only ever find out after you've signed the contract.
Here are some quotes – real quotes from real people describing their own experience of commissioning and making programmes at the BBC.
There are the structures:
"We've been set-up to compete and get told off when we're not collaborating."
There's the age-old antagonism between commissioners and programme makers. From the programme makers' view it looks like this:
"Commissioners never come to us. We feel like the ugly sister to the indies."
And, from the commissioner's perspective:
"In-house never pick up the phone or email me out of the blue with an idea. The restrictions are self-imposed."
And then there are the rules and regulations…
"I've spent so much time trying to restrict window opening to 10 centimetres. All because a melon fell out of a window in Television Centre."
Now, the picture I've just drawn there is a bit of a caricature and contains lots of generalisations.
But from the number of heads I've just seen nodding around the room, there's an uncomfortable amount of truth in there too - describing a culture that can feel defensive, apologetic, inward-looking, and less entrepreneurial and responsive than it should in some places.
So what we've set out to do is change all that and make Vision Productions what I want it to be – agile, outward-looking, confident - the obvious place for the most talented people to do their best creative work.
On structures, for example: We've built a flatter, simpler structure, so it's absolutely clear where creative responsibility lies – a structure built around key creative leaders, where money follows talent and ideas.
We've simplified things in a big way – for example instead of five separate London factual groups we now have a single group with a single creative leader. It was terrific today to announce that Karen O'Connor is the new head of London Factual – a great choice to fly the flag for factual in the capital.
We've broken down barriers to build something much more flexible and fluid – while still protecting core specialisms. A structure where a team crossing different specialisms can be put together at short notice to exploit an idea or an opportunity – and then disband once the project is complete, not ossify into another departmental nameplate on an office door.
We are putting multi-platform at the heart of everything we do, so that for the right ideas we can have a one-stop shop offering linear and non-linear development all in the same package.
Multi-platform's a pretty arid word; technically it just means using the same idea to generate content for TV, radio, online, mobile phones or whatever. But really it's about cross-pollination, enabling that original idea to live on in multitudes of different ways long past its first genesis.
Think of Doctor Who: the main series on BBC One, with a spin-off on BBC Three, and on the website, video and audio downloads, make-your-own Doctor Who comic books, screensavers, e-books, David Tennant's video diary, and trailers on YouTube. Enough cross-pollination going on there to have Monty Don dancing in his compost.
We're also moving to strengthen our out of London production, in particular by significantly increasing the amount of returning business there – making it easier to attract and retain the best talent.
And we're boosting our entrepreneurial skills. We've started working with our people so they understand more about the process of making good ideas bigger ideas – and we're showing them how to get better at pitching those ideas to commissioners too. Peter Fincham's bold invention, The One Show, is already using some of those ideas. And what a success that show has been.
We've also gone a long way to sorting out the relationship with commissioning.
This is never going to be perfect: production will always want quick and early decisions, while commissioning will always want to keep options open for as long as possible to respond to changing audience demands. But we can do better than we've done in the past.
One big change is that Vision Productions – just like the independent sector – will have its own commissioner. Someone responsible solely for commissioning in-house factual production, alongside a colleague doing the same job for the indies. It'll be their job to deliver the in-house guarantee, and to lead our bidding for factual commissions in the WOCC.
Commissioning has also begun offering us multi-year deals. It's bonkers that EastEnders, Horizon or Question of Sport have been on one-year contracts. The new deals mean we can plan much more effectively and deliver much better value.
And yes, we will have to lose a lot of jobs, particularly in factual. I'm really sorry about that. Restructuring on this scale is painful and it is disruptive for everyone concerned and we're doing our level best to move quickly and to treat the individuals affected fairly and openly.
But the arrival of the WOCC, plus the licence fee settlement and other factors, means that our guaranteed income isn't big enough to cover the costs of all our current staff. That's not sustainable.
It's entirely understandable that the story of Vision Productions just now is being reported as a story about cuts. But there's a much bigger story here – a story about building on the huge advantages we have in order to unlock the creative potential of our programme makers.
And we do have some big in-built advantages.
Those quotes I gave you just now – they're not the whole story, and they don't apply everywhere, in every programme area. People recognise a different picture too.
These are some of the things many programme-makers said they positively valued about working for BBC in-house production:
The expertise and the depth of knowledge
Working with some of the best industry talent
The power of the BBC brand with talent and third party investors
The proximity to commissioners and controllers
The great support and the great training
The quality, the scale, the range
But I'd add to that list the strength in depth right across the UK – offering great opportunities to programme makers wherever they're based, not just in London.
I want to build on those strengths.
For example, that great range of knowledge and expertise gives us all sorts of opportunities to put people together in unexpected ways to see if they strike new and different creative sparks.
We've already tried it very successfully with Springwatch – bringing producers in from other genres to see what they could learn – and those sessions have come up with some great ideas that we now have in development. I want to try the same thing with Strictly Come Dancing, our other current phenomenon. Make success contagious – right across the business.
We've also used some of the money we get back from Worldwide to assemble a team of young comedy writers and put them with some really talented CGI computer graphics people. We've asked them to work together to explore the world of the gaming generation.
Now, when BBC execs do presentations like these there's always a David Attenborough moment. It signifies that, even though everything is changing at the BBC, some thing will stay reassuringly the same. Well, we've reached that point now – but with a twist.
The idea I just mentioned about comedy and CGI came from a taster we made called The Wrong Door, put together by Jack Cheshire in Armando Iannucci's area and which has already led on to a big commission from BBC Three and from Children's.
It's a story about a chap who goes through the wrong door at Television Centre and falls into a strange parallel universe. It was created using a regular Television Centre laptop – and a voice-over shamelessly looted from the Attenborough archive.
(Wrong Door clip)
As well as losing weight, I guess my advice for a great future would be to keep searching for new talent and backing training and development.
The BBC has a great track record here. Horizon, for example, among its many other claims to fame has been an amazing breeding ground for new talent and new ideas. I've lost count of the story ideas that had their first exposure on Horizon and were then picked up and developed into blockbusters later – BBC One's Supervolcano factual drama, for example, was based on a Horizon from a few years earlier.
The talent spawned by Horizon, on and off-screen, is extraordinary too. Directors like Mick Jackson graduated to Hollywood. Producers like Tim Haines made the journey from Horizon to Walking With Dinosaurs. Presenters like Robert Winston cut their teeth with Horizon – and look out for another in the same mould, Professor Iain Stewart whose series, Earth – Power Of The Planet – will be on BBC Two tonight.
We've also had terrific success with the Writers' Academy run by John Yorke, training many writers for Continuing Drama Series on BBC Television. Some of the new crop – this year's rising stars – are here tonight. They do an initial three-month course made up of lectures and workshops with the best in the business – and each writer is commissioned to write an episode of Doctors. If their script if accepted for broadcast, they then go on to do a year's intensive writing for EastEnders, Casualty and Holby, mentored by the lead writer on the show.
One graduate, Ian Kershaw, now a core writer on Holby, described the scheme like this: "Writing for television can feel like running across a muddy field at night pursued by man-eating pigs... the Academy gives you a torch."
I think I understand that...
It's a really imaginative and successful scheme. At present it only covers England – but I'd like to find a way to spread coverage to the rest of the UK, and also across other programme areas.
I guess it's inevitable that some of the graduates from the Writer's Academy will go on to work outside the BBC. But that's OK. In the new world we're moving into, I think the notion that you join the BBC as a programme maker and stay there for the rest of your life is beginning to look a bit old-fashioned.
I've moved in and out of the BBC during my own career and I think that's the model that's likely to become the norm.
People will always go where the best creative opportunities are. That might be the place where there's the widest possible range of exciting and challenging output to work on; or simply the place where the best talent happens to be in a genre you're interested in. Vision Productions, of course, offers both.
The great thing about the BBC is that, once you arrive, it's big enough that, if you do want to stay, you can explore every corner of your talent. I think of Alex Holmes, who came into the BBC via current affairs investigations, went on to become an exec in docs, winning a BAFTA for his Dunkirk factual drama, and has now written and directed one of next year's stand-out drama serials, House Of Saddam.
It tells the inside story of the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. It's a really powerful piece – and, as the clip (work in progress) you're about to see demonstrates, not for the faint-hearted – think Tony Soprano, but without the charm:
(House 0f Saddam clip)
House Of Saddam, look out for it on BBC Two next year.
Now, before the doors are locked and I start to read out a list of people whose RTS subs are outstanding, let me close by summing up what I want to do with Vision Productions.
We're simplifying what each production group does, focussing on the best talent and the smartest ideas. We've put multi-platform at the heart of what we do. We're making the whole of Vision Productions much more flexible so that talent can move around much more easily, while still protecting key specialisms. We have a new shape for out of London investment. We have a new head of London Factual. And, very important, we have a much more productive relationship with commissioning including a significant move towards multi-year series commitments, on top of our enormous minimum guarantee.
But, above all, we're moving to free up our creative juices as programme makers. My job title isn't chief executive of Vision Productions, it's chief creative officer, and finding ways to make us more creative is what keeps me at Vision Productions. That – and another quote from our research among BBC in-house production talent I mentioned earlier. A quote I treasure even more than the melon. It goes like this:
"Indies know that we have all the ingredients for success. They're terrified that one day we might just get our shit together."
I think that day has just dawned.
Thanks for listening.