Broadcast, the TV trade magazine, published in its December issue a survey capturing anonymous views of UK TV commissioners. The survey gives a helpful insight to indie producers and others in the industry alike into why some TV shows get made and what the greatest obstacles are to getting that all-important greenlight.

Here are a few headlines from the survey and Broadcast’s report:

Ten commissioner bug-bears: what stops a programme getting made?

  1. Ideas are good but not good enough: “The most common reason for delay is that the idea is perceived to be ‘quite good’ rather than ‘brilliant’” and so, Broadcast report, it takes a while for the commissioner to get behind forking out for it. One respondent said: “’Is there definitely nothing better’ is a reasonable question, and can take time to mull over.” Broadcast comments that some indies might be offended by that statement, but perhaps what comes out of this report is that honesty between indies and commissioners is what makes the carefully balanced relationship work best.

  2. No bluffing! Indies which generate the strongest relationships with commissioners are those which are able to admit when they don’t have all the answers, which can be particularly apparent during pitches when the commissioners are drilling down on producers’ proposals.

  3. Admin, admin, admin: the biggest challenge facing commissioners appears not to be linked to the ideas themselves but, frustratingly, the practicalities of the process that “snarls it up.” Broadcast references “the never-ending battle to stay on top of their inbox, mastering the art of saying no, and getting support and decisions from upstairs” and suggests that perhaps commissioners could do well from reassessing their working methods.

  4. Sheer volume: linked to the above, half of respondents said they are overwhelmed by the volume of pitches they receive. Broadcast’s analysis is that the significant workload is also a by-product of most commissioners taking a “democratic approach” to their job by refusing to only accept pitches from established producers.

  5. Difficulty maintaining relationships: commissioners say that fostering strong relationships with indies can be a real challenge given the number of ideas received, which limits the opportunity to generate feedback and interaction.

  6. Fear of pushing boundaries: finding the balance between pushing the boundaries on programming and playing it safe is a constant battle for commissioners, who, according to Broadcast, often take a “pragmatic approach.” Commissioners often talk up their high risk appetites, but is this actually true? The survey suggests not: just 13% of respondents said their shows are genuinely risky.

  7. Unpolished pitches: several respondents are frustrated by the pitches they receive – the most frustrating being those pitches that “comprise several loose top lines and no clear creative direction, leaving commissioners with little scope to provide useful feedback… these are usually met with a polite but firm ‘no thanks.’”

  8. Internal structures: the commissioners’ internal structures are too slow, and failure to get clear answers from their senior colleagues can force ideas to get stuck in 'development limbo.'

  9. Indies lack knowledge of the channel: most commissioners would like indies to be better informed about the channels they are pitching to. Many say they receive ideas which are inappropriate or not tailored to the channel. According to the report, only 48% feel that indies understand what their channel represents and present their ideas accordingly.

  10. Favouritism for the 'big players': are the biggest indies in the market getting preferential treatment? Commissioners seem to think so, with some citing frustration with senior execs at the big players going straight to the commissioners’ bosses, who are “compelled to commission [the idea] because it’s part of some bigger conversation at more senior levels.

It’s not all bad - here are some positive takeaways from the survey...

Indies are great at taking on feedback – no respondents said that they had an issue with this when working with producers.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing as to why ideas don’t get picked up, for example, it can often be bad luck for producers if a glut of similar ideas comes in at one time and it’s not unusual for that idea to go on to be a hit elsewhere.

49% say a significant minority of ideas they are brought are genuine greenlight options – so commissioners don’t have to search hard for workable options. 37% say the standard of ideas has improved over the past two to three years.

Broadcast cites “plenty of praise” for indies’ professionalism. Commissioners also appreciate that producers do bring great ideas but their ideas won’t always have been fully studied by seniors on the producers’ side and that’s because producers, understandably, do not want to commit too much resource to development at a very early stage.

Covid has “levelled the playing field”; 73% said the range of indies has expanded with remote working leading to greater diversity and more regional producers getting a foot in the door. Commissioners were also very positive about producers meeting diversity requirements.

64% of commissioners claim to be open to new talent. A caveat here: whilst this sounds encouraging, commissioners are also honest in saying that sometimes accepting new talent will require giving that talent a mentor or ensuring there’s an experienced team in all other roles on the production so, in effect, new talent can only really take up roles in one or two places per production.

Judging success

Perhaps encouragingly, only 16% of respondents think that ratings and awards are the key indicator of success. 32% say that “putting money on screen” is most important, followed by “good communication throughout the creative process” (28%) and “sticking to the original creative vision” (19%).

A word on streamers

Broadcast reports that traditional commissioners say streamers have “elbowed their way to the front of the queue” by offering more money (which is referred to as “the devil’s coin”). Respondents seem to feel that producers see greater status in securing a commission from a streamer. Only a few still think that the Terms of Trade which permit indies to hold onto their rights for international exploitation (which streamers do not allow) is a genuine advantage. Conversely, commissioners admit that they struggle to financially compete with streamers, who take the “cream of the crop.”

Commissioners also cite an acceptance that there is a slowness of shifting from traditional, linear broadcasting to focusing on on-demand – many of the Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) have publicly mentioned becoming “digital first” but few seem to have properly implemented this.   

You can read the full Broadcast report here (£ - subscription needed).

If you have any queries on this article, or if you are a producer working on a TV commission and you need help with negotiating deal terms or contracts with a commissioner, or advice on structuring a deal, please do get in touch with Clare McGarry.