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Why British TV drama is crap – and why this matters to tech firms

Platforms, platforms everywhere. And nothing to watch

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The bottom line

The new BBC Director General has a mandate to increase income from sales overseas. The BBC Trust has (correctly) identified that the BBC’s sales division, WorldWide, needs to do much better. Damn right it does. Although the top line is £1bn a year extra on top of the £3bn the BBC earns from the compulsory licence fee, this is misleading. It isn’t £1bn programme makers can spend. Profit margins are tiny at 15 per cent, which bears thinking about. WorldWide sells merchandising, finished shows and formats. The profit margin on merchandising is around 30 per cent, the finished shows are a sunken cost and formats are an intangible, which should have a profit margin of 100 per cent minus a long lunch and a few trebles (all round).

So the idea of WorldWide is a good one – and should reduce the licence fee. But in reality, the licence fee payer is really propping up a spectacularly incompetent sales operation.

What the success of The Wire and The Sopranos taught us is that you don’t need to generalise the details for it to be a hit. The Wire’s dialogue is difficult to follow – subtitles help – but the dense conversations are not insurmountable obstacle. Living in the United States, I quickly discovered how much people love the peculiarities that anchor something in a local context, and give it a specific flavour. Blackout is made-for-export, but has all the British quirks written out. It’s as if a committee went through it and removed anything – apart from the miserable weather, for the sun never shines – that says: “This is from Britain.” Apart from Ecclestone, it exports everything that’s bad about British TV drama – including moody cinematography as a compensation for crap writing. Out of Line of Duty or Blackout, which one will add more to the BBC’s bottom line? Let’s hope it’s the former.

A glossy new platform – but where's the tasty content?

There’s another reason the American dramas are so good and ours are so poor. Recently, I described how copyright material needs technology, and vice versa, and has produced a ‘virtuous circle’ to the mutual benefit of both technology companies and creative industries – something that’s now slipped off the rails. (Google gives nothing back).

Well, one nice part of this is the way new technology allows creative people do break new ground. In fact, it is improvements in technology that allow programme-makers to break new ground, and on US cable channels, they have done just that. The Sopranos' sound design, with its overlapping dialogue and sound effects, has been compared to that of Citizen Kane – the film you can famously watch with your eyes closed because Orson Welles knew all the tricks of radio. But this was possible because of the much-improved sound reproduction on TVs, which have become home theatres.

Similarly, The Wire is a good example of creators stretching the audience, knowing that they have DVD and TiVO to allow you to replay the important bits you might have missed. What results is the opposite of ‘dumbing down’. We’ve seen talk ad nauseum for over a decade about ‘TV platforms’ but with only lip service paid to the idea that content is king, and the TV technologies are unsellable without it. As if we need any more proof, Sky’s decision to unbundle its Sky Movies service and pipe it through YouView is now seen as the saviour of the BBC-spawned set top box venture. YouView was supposed to be a bit of technology that kept the UK's terrestrial public service broadcasters up to date in the internet age. It's now the gateway for Sky to expand into homes that don't want cable or a satellite dish. If the PSBs think this is jolly unfair, then they need to make better programmes: more Sherlocks and LoDs

Asked recently, professional TV critic AA Gill said that the reason British drama is rubbish is because the BBC or ITV doesn’t spend enough. American drama clocks in at $3m per episode while the BBC tries to make do on $1m. But this can’t be the whole picture. The culture of advertising, the treating of the audience as dummies who are impressed by camera angles, the patchy writing, the right-on-ness, and much else all make a new British drama well worth a miss. And in any case, $1m is a fair old whack: Christopher Nolan launched his career with a film that cost £3,000 and is completely gripping. The talent net has to widen, commissioning committees must be moved on.

So perhaps Line of Duty is the end of an era, and the start of a better one. What do you think? ®

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