Since being in the UK, I’ve had the opportunity to see how the TV commissioning game works. And it’s not a pretty sight. During this time I have come to understand (I think) why the standard of TV, in particular non-fiction programming, is so poor.
The way to get a new author’s novel past the front desk and into the hands of someone who might recognize it as a possible best-seller is the same as it is with TV shows. It is not an urban legend that Harry Potter author JK Rowling plied publisher after publisher to get seen, being handed rejection after rejection. It was because the system did not allow great ideas to filter up to top management because those on the front line were the lowly privates, not the officers. I imagine thousands of great works never published because of this inept system. Because new authors can now easily self-publish, it has changed the way publishers find new authors. They look for the best sellers, monitor trends, and then when the time is right, offer the biggest authors publishing contacts. They take the risk out of publishing new authors because their ‘new’ author is already selling. In some cases they make the authors world famous, and in others, kill their work by unfair contracts. But the authors who get no such offers, they can still publish their work and attract followers, and make a good living out of writing.
The TV commissioning system is very similar.
I have a new idea. It’s called The Vanishing Act. I think it’s the best TV idea I’ve ever had. With some research amongst my peers, it’s been met with universal excitement. Not expensive to produce, it has huge series potential, and will appeal to a wide, middle-class audience and has extraordinary visual appeal. It ticks all the important boxes, so a network should get excited too. Not likely. The trouble is, it doesn’t appeal to most twenty-something girls, And that is who has to approve the idea for it to be taken any further. Without getting past them, it’s a non-starter.
On the front line of most new program commissioning systems are twenty-something girls. What appeals to twenty-something girls? Not a trans-Africa expedition, or a trek across the Simpson Desert. And not The Vanishing Act. If by chance it does get a second look, then a team of slightly older, but not much more sensible young people get to give it the thumbs-up or down.
The result of this system are programs with gutter trash themes of domestic violence and illicit sex, incest, bank repossession teams, clearing out storage containers (which I should add, is scripted with actors), makeup, cool sweaty men driving cranes and shouting Yee-haa when they successfully move a log, teenage pregnancy and so on. Despite the claims made on the commissioning pages of networks like Sky and Ch4, the system fails to produce quality shows that fill the wide needs of a wide audience. Instead it fills the needs of the lowest common denominator of intelligence in the viewing public. Intelligent people have to hope for something they like on BBC-4, or go to bed and read a book.
The end is in sight for regular, terrestrial TV.
It’s again the Internet we have to thank. I’m cancelling my Sky subscription when the one-year contact ends, because everything I want to watch is free-to-air. I look out for BBC documentaries, which are of a very high standard. They rejected The Vanishing Act too, but for a reasonable reason. They liked the idea but felt it was too close to something they have in the pipeline. I must accept this at face value. But Channel-4’s response was typical of the system. They said it was too “Straight’ and that they wanted more ideas like “The Undateables”, a series dedicated to unfortunate people who are so ugly or deformed that nobody could ever possibly want to date them.
To get on the first ladder to a commission, the idea must firstly have a title that resembles a Hollywood movie, it must feature a TV or Hollywood Star and ideally needs to have some degenerative disease as a theme.
Stop paying monthly bills for TV you don’t watch and instead back independent film producers making things you want to watch. Back crowd-funding projects like those that appear on Kickstarter. Subscribe to websites with shows you like such as 4xoverland.com.
picture: scene from The Vanishing Act.