The golden age of television is just getting started. There has never been a better time for it. But not according to the BBC. In a speech on Thursday, Tony Hall, the BBC director general, said the entire UK production industry was facing a significant threat thanks to the arrival of competition from streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
If anything, the exact opposite is true. What he sees as a threat, I see as an opportunity.
Yes, their arrival has shaken up the British television industry, but it has given customers more choice, and handed British writers, producers and production staff even more opportunities, free to make shows for a global audience. The pond may be bigger, but Britain is a very big fish – and it is still growing.
The BBC’s prediction of a £500 million deficit in original UK content spend is rather bizarre. With a guaranteed income for the next decade it clearly cannot be referring to itself.
And the BBC does not appear to have taken into account the increased spend from pay-TV companies like Sky, or other content providers including Apple, who recently announced plans to step up their original content spend in Europe.
The only conclusion one can draw from this prediction is that the BBC is preparing the ground to ask for even greater protection from competition, and new handouts.
We believe competition is good. It always has been. You can see that in the world-class storytelling that British creatives continue to produce. Viewers love gripping UK productions like Peaky Blinders, but shows like Game of Thrones from HBO, The Walking Dead from AMC, The Crown from Netflix and American Gods on Amazon have been added into that mix now too. The amount of great content we have at our fingertips is mind-blowing.
Here in the UK we are blessed with an audience that is curious, embraces risky projects and is highly engaged in television. We believe in their right and ability to choose. They are very good at it.
In his speech on Thursday, Hall said the TV industry was “sleepwalking towards a serious long-term weakening of our television production”. The idea that we are all sitting on our hands waiting for failure is simply absurd. I can’t speak for the BBC, but I haven’t noticed any of my colleagues in the production community sleepwalking.
That’s particularly true for those of us working in the commercial sector without a guaranteed income. As the BBC’s report states, future downward pressure on budgets and revenues is more likely to hit pay-TV companies, while public service broadcasters are “less susceptible to key market forces”.
In the most recent public service broadcasting report, Ofcom itself noted that spend on first-run UK content from all the PSBs was still below what it was a decade ago, so if anything that’s where the deficit has come from – not from pay-TV companies and subscription streaming players, who are actually upping their investment in Britain’s production sector.
If the BBC really does want to be Britain’s creative partner, as stated in its annual plan, then it should rise to the challenge of competition, reset its priorities and back the UK production sector by working with new partners as the rest of the industry does.
At Sky we have traditional co-pro partners like HBO, which we value greatly, but we have also looked for new ways to make even more worldclass content. In Germany we have just finished producing Babylon Berlin with state broadcaster ARD.
There is no reason why Sky couldn’t co-produce shows with PSBs here in the UK. We already work with Amazon, and Britannia, the show we’re producing together, will offer everything that’s great about British television – British actors, script, story, and that unique British grit you just can’t copy.
Local content with global appeal is what we do here in Britain. Ours is an ecosystem with room for everyone.
Platforms like Sky support the UK PSBs by delivering significant audience share and ad revenues, aggregating their content alongside global players and championing it in prominent positions, making it easier for customers to discover.
As consumer viewing habits change, we have significantly invested in our platforms, allowing PSBs to benefit from continuing to reach audiences both at home and on the go.
I disagree with Hall’s argument that well-funded global competitors would have a “damaging impact on UK distinctiveness, risk-taking and innovation”. Our TV production industry is booming, and far from international productions taking over the UK, it is UK productions that are taking over the world.
As the biggest English speaking market outside the US, we have the opportunity, and the talent base, to play an important part in the global creative community.
At this critical time, we have never been more excited about the scale, quality and authenticity of UK TV. The combination of consumer appetite and competition is pushing the quality of television to a whole new level, and I’m proud that the British production sector is leading the charge.
The BBC might feel threatened. But not the rest of us. And we’re just getting started.
Originally published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 7th November 2017.