Broadcast Indie Survey – Nations and Regions

As part of Broadcast’s 2012 Independent Television Producers Survey Will Strauss discovers that not everything is rosy in the garden of the UK’s nations and regions Indies.

UK Television Nations And Regions

Television Nations And Regions

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or the massed ranks of out-of-London TV producers it was all change in 2011 in every respect but one.

While 2010 saw a small increase in overall revenue, programming hours staying static and staff numbers slightly up, 2011 was the year of the big changes. And the biggest was in the amount of television produced.

The total number of Nations and Regions programming hours in 2011 – based on the indies that responded to the survey – was up year-on-year by a whopping 16% to 2,441 hours. This was due, in equal measure, to a slightly more generous commissioning regime following the credit crunch, a concerted effort by broadcasters to hit either their mandatory or imposed quotas and, of course, some great programme ideas.

Of course, as is the way with research projects, not all companies that are polled this year provided answers last year and there are several nuances but just by taking a couple of examples you can see the extent of improvement: Lime 198 hrs vs 159 hrs, IWC Media 110 hrs vs 88 hrs, True North 105vs 75hrs and so on.

If that’s not compelling enough evidence we can look at an average figure. Taking the total hours in 2011 and dividing them by the number of firms surveyed reveals that each company made an average of 62.5 hours in 2011. In 2010 it was 54, in 2009 it was 55 and in 2008 it was 60. As young people might say, Boom!

Revenue increases

As a consequence, combined out-of-London revenues touched £300m for the first time in 2011, some £38m (14.5%) more than was garnered in 2010 – and that despite less nations and regions indies responding to the survey.

So, with money and hours on the rise, the only area in which there was no real change was in staff numbers even if, taken at face value, they look to have fallen significantly. In 2010 the nations and regions headcount was 1,940 compared to 1,217 last year.

However, this is just one example of numbers not telling the whole story as 2010’s figures included 460 people that worked on Aardman’s film projects and 160 people that are employed by Boomerang. Comparing Apples with Apples, staff numbers are pretty constant outside London.

“There was certainly no cull,” explains Nigel Pickard, the chief executive of Zodiak MEAA/UK Family and Kids which incorporates Maidstone’s Waybuloo producer The Foundation. “But [our figures] lag slightly because some of our shows take nine months to make. The real impact of the recession might not be seen [in the Indie Survey] until next year.”

As far as finances are concerned a lot of the growth can be found in the Top 10.

Seven companies saw some year-on-year growth in 2011 with the big winners being Birmingham’s Embarrassing Bodies indie Maverick who are up to joint third in the table from fifth last year thanks to a nigh on 20% leap in turnover.

Maverick was not the fastest growing out-of-London indie in 2011 though. That honour goes to Manchester’s ever-humble Red Production Company who saw programming hours triple from 5 to 15 and revenues leap 50%.

Changing landscape

Managing director Andrew Critchley says the company didn’t do anything differently last year but he does acknowledge that the landscape has changed in recent times.

“It’s quite simple,” he says. “There were more drama commissions last year whereas a year or two back there was a reduction, although you wouldn’t notice it looking at the TV schedules.”

So, there you have it. More commissions = more money. Who’d have thought it?

Sarcasm aside, things are looking good for Red in 2012 too with 33 hours of drama coming up between now and the summer including Bedlam (6×60) for Sky Living, Hit and Miss (6×60) for Sky Atlantic and The Fuse (4×60) for BBC.

Critchley is hugely encouraged by the fact that over half of these are returning series, something he agrees is still the ‘holy grail’ for drama producers.

“We obviously make them well enough that they get re-commissioned,” he says, again, somewhat coyly.

Although not amongst the fastest growing, the league leaders Lime Pictures also had a stonking year, increasing revenues by a quarter on the back of 39 hours more television. But where smaller companies relied mainly on domestic commissions, Lime’s revenue also includes international success with the Nickleodeon kids drama House of Anubis and increased revenues from other sources.

“We’ve seen good growth this year largely driven by our breadth of production with shows across a number of genres,” details managing director Sean Marley. “We’ve also increased revenues from non-traditional sources, primarily driven by licensing and merchandise deals”

Marley is quick to point out that any brand extensions are treated very carefully. “Whether it is Hollyoaks, or TOWIE or any of the brands we have done, the show is [still] the most important thing,” he adds.

For House of Anubis, he adds: “It is unusual for America to take Children’s drama direct from the UK. It’s been a huge plus for Lime and has kick started a lot of other US activity. This is a market that will be a big priority for us moving forward.”

Looking Up

Interestingly, despite the huge examples of growth in the top ten from the likes of Lime, the biggest leaps actually came outside it with companies positioned 11 to 39, on average, increasing turnover by just shy of 30%.

To illustrate that, the top five fastest growing out-of-London indies table would read thus: 1) Red 50%, 2) Testimony Films 46%, 3) Lambent Productions 43%, 4) Electric Sky 34% and 5) Rondo Media 26%.

Note, there’s just one top 10 company in revenue terms in that list.

Now, this is all very positive stuff but not everything is rosy in the garden of the UK’s nations and regions.

Despite increasing their programming hours, turnover is down, for example, at a couple of Zodiak companies but Pickard maintains this is partly a result  the ‘ebb and flow’ of the commissioning process on one hand and, perhaps more importantly for a company like The Foundation, on the other down to a “deterioration in the number of commissioning broadcasters for children’s shows” and an emphasis by US broadcasters on staying local.

The Foundation is also in a transitional period moving from a predominantly live action company to one that does live action and animated shows.

“We’re much more limited now as to who we can pitch to so, and you may see this across the board in children’s, we’re looking to mix and match genres,” he says.

With the BBC diverging more commissioning to the nations in 2011 and the arrival of BBC North in Salford it would appear, from the outside, to be a golden time for out-of-London indies. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

As an example, it is interesting to note that although two indies, Lime Pictures and TwoFour, appear in the Top 20 indies in the UK in terms of turnover, only one of the top 20 fastest growing companies came from outside of London and that was Red Production Company which sneaks in at number 20.

Another interesting difference between the indie sector as a whole and those making a living outside the capital is in their sense of optimism about the future.

While the split for the whole indie community was roughly 70/30 in favour of the optimists, for out-of-London indies it was a rather more cautionary 47/53 with the optimists only slightly outnumbering the pessimists. And this despite a significant majority saying 2011 was better than 2010.

Specific complaints

Aside from the usual grumbles about super-indie dominance and the reducing volume and dwindling value of commissions, there were some specific issues highlighted for the nations and regions.

One Bristol-based factual indie boss suggested a “lack of broadcaster approved creative talent in the regions and inability of the broadcasters to work with regional indies to address this” as a reason to worry.

At the same time the ‘protracted nature’ of the commissioning process was a strand of displeasure with one of the bigger out-of-London indies and, indeed, speed seemed to be something of an issue across the board, especially when it comes to cashflow and decision making.

A significant number of smaller indies in particular are not happy with continual late payment while others would like to get quicker responses to their pitches. “The BBC is frustratingly slow and reluctant still to commission nations and regions for network,” added one Welsh indie.

In truth it seems that an increase in commissioned hours is not quite enough to satisfy everyone.

Pragmatism reigns OK

At the boutique end of the nations and regions table Seventh Art saw budgets for their specialist factual shows decline by as much as 20% but they still managed to do 20% better year-on-year with revenues increasing from £1m to £1.2m.

Founder Phil Grabsky is not reaching for the champagne just yet though.

“We did do better in 2011 but that doesn’t reflect a healthier environment for cultural or social docs,” he says. “The situation is worse. We did better because we were rewarded for good shows and thus repeat commissions and sheer hard work – plus our ten-year Afghan project completed with many broadcasters paying balances as a result.”

He even drawn up some new rules of engagement for indies such as “if it’s not in the budget, don’t do it”, “fight for better shares from distributors and always check their accounting” and  “make films you’ll be proud of in fifty years time.”

The atmosphere is not all negative outside London though. The BBC got it’s fair share of criticism but was also praised. One indie said, confidentially, that BBC Sport moving to Salford has “given the department new impetus, and they are taking a fresh approach to collaboration and new models of working. “ Another stated that they liked Auntie’s “scale of ambition.

[An edited version of this article appeared in Broadcast’s Indie Survey in March 2012.]

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