Ten years ago, the TV industry was a simpler place. People watched a show on television, then perhaps bought it on DVD if they really loved it. The biggest thing producers had to worry about was making sure there was a commentary track and some outtakes for the DVD extras.
Fast forward a decade and everything has changed. Audiences are fragmented, with relatively small numbers tuning in when a show is broadcast, but many more later watching it on "catch-up" services like BBC’s iPlayer in the UK and Hulu Plus in the US. Yet more might illegally download it, or merely watch clips of episodes on YouTube. DVD-buyers still exist, but many people also now buy series on Apple’s iTunes platform, or through a streaming subscription to Netflix or Amazon On Demand, which are starting to bypass traditional broadcast TV by commissioning their own series.
"We are now challenged with making television that can live beyond its singular broadcast window," explains Dan Tucker, a freelance senior producer who’s worked with the BBC, Disney, Endemol and more.
"The commissioners who choose and then fund programmes are thinking about audiences in new ways."
What a producer does
The role played by a producer in putting together a television series is complex and multifaceted. It’s their job to make sure a programmes are delivered on time, on budget, and to as high a standard as possible. They’re often the first and last people involved, from the earliest research and scripts to the end of post-production and final delivery of the show. "The producer is the keystone in a programme’s lifecycle; bringing together and leading the team, responsible for delivery and also a key editorial force in making the show the best it can be," says Tucker.
That means getting the most out of all the platforms available to them, which can involve tweaking a show so it resonates better with an online audience. "The viewing figures on YouTube often totally dwarf those of linear television", says Tucker. TV shows no longer end at the TV – they can inspire internet memes that last far longer than the shows themselves, having a profound effect on popular culture.
Producers are also discovering that people tend to watch different genres of television in different ways. "Most of the comedy content I watch from TV I watch whilst commuting," says Tucker. "Then I’ll sit down with my wife and watch back-to-back episodes of a drama. Big documentary series are often watched on long rail or plane journeys."
That leads to a totally new set of priorities, Tucker explains. "We’re now all really keen to have our landmark documentary series on Netflix because it has the long tail and the audience reach. It’s much more valuable than a repeat late at night on a sister channel to one of the big broadcasters that might only pull in a few tens of thousands of viewers. Once."
Ahead of the curve
That’s not all. As well as having to adapt to a new audience, producers now have to contend with having to gather material from a far wider range of sources, many of which have owners that are difficult to track down. "We often want to use content from YouTube and other shared media platforms, but the accreditation or permissions for obtaining copyright clearance are a bit more obscure," says Tucker.
In fact, smart producers often look at what’s big on YouTube to guide their work. "In the case of videogames, for example, TV is years behind," says Tucker. "YouTube is an enormous repository for content that is eminently shareable. It’s both a rival and an amazing research tool for traditional telly."
That’s great for YouTube, but it can be frustrating for streaming services that rely on traditional television infrastructure for new shows. As a result, many are starting to commission their own series to keep the flow of content coming, based on their own data on what people want to watch.
Netflix has made the biggest splash so far by remaking cult political drama House of Cards with Kevin Spacey, and commissioning a long-demanded new series of the much-loved comedy Arrested Development. It’s also hoping that teens will be as keen on werewolves as they are vampires with Hemlock Grove, and is bringing several superheroes to the small screen with Marvel.
Amazon hasn’t been taking that sitting down, though, with five series planned for 2014. Two are adult comedies, one featuring John Goodman and Bill Murray and the other focusing on Silicon Valley. The rest are aimed at a kids audience – Annebots, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf. Meanwhile, it’s been snapping up exclusives on a stack of BBC hits like The Office, Jonathan Creek, Top Gear and Spooks.
Amazon has also commissioned a sextet of comedy pilots, and Microsoft will be putting a live-action Halo TV series, produced by Steven Spielberg on to its Xbox One console. Sony isn’t far behind either, forming a unit inside its movie studio Sony Pictures called PlayStation Productions.
So far it’s almost all fiction, however. "It would be great if companies like Netflix were to start looking at producing documentaries for more niche markets – something that TV broadcasters will not do, despite there being a big audience out there," says Tucker.
"I just made a documentary about videogames for a terrestrial UK channel that 1 million viewers watched on the night of transmission. But if it was on a platform like Netflix, an already-web-and-game-savvy audience would, I hope, watch in even greater numbers."
So how can traditional TV fight back? "I think that commissioners and the channels that they work for need to become a bit braver with how they commission shows," he adds. "I also think that the big broadcasters, certainly in the UK, need to place much more value on the viewing figures that come from on demand viewing."
Meanwhile, the digital ground doesn’t show any signs of settling. More changes are coming down the line, as Blu-ray and 3D fade into irrelevance and technology companies set their sights on 4K.
What happens next will depend largely on how consumers respond to exclusives and having to pay multiple subscription fees to see all the shows they want. If the arms race continues for more than a year or two, then it could erode trust in streaming services before they can get established in the mainstream. That would be bad for consumers, producers, streaming services and the TV industry as a whole.
Unfortunately, with an increasing amount of original content being produced, such a situation is looking more and more likely. If we’re ever going to build a one-stop giant Blockbusters in the sky, we’ll need to do rather better than that.
- Want to know where to find the best TV shows? If you are from the UK, then click this way…