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Media 1986: 30 years of independent TV production

30 Aug 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media 1986: 30 years of independent TV production

Torin Douglas charts the rise of the independents - from 1986's cottage industry to the unstoppable super indies of today

Independent producers are rarely far from the news these days.

ITV has just been rebuffed in its bid to take over Peppa Pig producer Entertainment One. A stream of top BBC executives have joined the independent sector.

The Corporation's own outsourcing move, to BBC Studios, is being watched closely by Government and industry alike. And the two new Sunday night dramas, Victoria and Poldark (pictured), are both made by Mammoth Screen, which ITV bought last year as part of its independent takeover spree.

Britain has become a powerhouse of global TV production, with UK companies among the world's leaders in programme exports and entertainment formats.

But most are now foreign-owned, after a series of takeovers that bundled up the most successful independent producers into so-called 'super indies' and then saw them bought by some of the world's media giants - NBC Universal, Warner Bros, Sony, Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox and Discovery.

Thirty years ago, it all looked very different, as I explain in a chapter of the recent book What Price Channel 4? **, tracing the rise of the independents from cottage industry to super indies.

In the 1980s, the BBC and ITV made almost all their programmes in-house and they were not keen to change that. Channel 4 had been established in 1982 as a publisher-broadcaster, with an obligation to obtain "a substantial proportion" of its programmes from independent producers, but these outfits were mostly one-programme wonders. Independent production was described by one sceptical observer as "not so much a business, more a way of life".

In August 1986, all that started to change, with the launch of a highly influential campaign on the back of the Peacock Report the previous month. The report recommended that within ten years the BBC and ITV should commission no less than 40 per cent of their programmes from independent producers.

The BBC director-general Alasdair Milne described this as "a fantasy" and "wholly unrealistic".

In a speech at a Royal Television Society Symposium that month, he said "Forty per cent of our output would be around four thousand hours. I don't see how any group of independents could take on Wimbledon, the following week the Open Golf Championship, and the week after that the Royal Wedding and then ten days of the Commonwealth Games."

The Independent Programme Producers Association (IPPA) saw things differently. As Paul Bonner observed in Volume 5 of Independent Television in Britain, no one reading the report could doubt the degree of rapport that IPPA - led by its chairman Michael Darlow and director Paul Styles - had reached with the Peacock Committee.

Bonner wrote: "In August 1986, the month after Peacock reported, the independents set up a lobby group, the 25% Campaign, to follow through their success. The Campaign's committee contained some of the brightest and best connected names from the independent production world. Along with Darlow were Phillip Whitehead (formerly a BBC producer, Labour MP and member of the Annan Committee), David Graham, who had a good relationship with Downing Street, Michael Jackson (later to become Channel 4's chief executive) and others.

"They tempered Peacock's 40 per cent over ten years to the more realistic - and realisable - target of 25 per cent of independent production in each broadcaster's schedule at the end of a five-year period. Their campaign was very effective. It offered a Government dedicated to an enterprise culture a stick with which to beat the broadcasters, one which the broadcasters would find it difficult to show to be too severe."

By November, when the Peacock Report was debated in Parliament, there had been real movement. In his speech, transcribed in Hansard, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd made it clear that Margaret Thatcher's Government was persuaded that the independents deserved, as he put it, "a place in the sun".

He told MPs: "The Peacock committee argued forcefully that an increase in independent production would help the general move towards a more competitive broadcasting market, and have a good effect on the level of costs and efficiency in broadcasting generally. Many sensible people, inside and outside the broadcasting world, consider that it is desirable to encourage the independent sector for reasons of diversity, freshness and efficiency. We agree with that view and believe that the independents, too, deserve a place in the sun."

He went on: "We believe that independent productions should form a substantial proportion of ITV and BBC television programmes. We would like to see a major shift - a shift more substantial than that so far contemplated by broadcasters."

The following month Hurd summoned the chairmen of the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority, and their directors-general, to start discussions.

The Peacock Report, which on publication had been largely dismissed because it rejected Mrs Thatcher's plans for advertising on the BBC (see my last two columns), turned out to be far more influential over time. In 1999, David Elstein, then the chief executive of Channel 5, was to write in the Guardian:

"The Peacock Report changed the shape of British television by installing the consumer rather than the broadcaster at the heart of the system. Peacock foresaw a world of unlimited channel capacity, complete freedom of speech and true consumer sovereignty...

"The combination of Peacock's analysis and Margaret Thatcher's will-power produced a sea-change in the political structuring of British broadcasting."

Crucially, he pointed out that "the Peacock Committee went far beyond its terms of reference - the financing of the BBC - with calls for ITV licences to be auctioned, guaranteed access for independent producers, and Channel 4's airtime to be sold separately from ITV's."

The Peacock Report is one reason, alongside the events at Wapping, why 1986 was such a turning point for the UK media business.

That August, the ITV companies and the Government were also just waking up to the implications of an ITV licence auction. I'll return to that in a future column.

** What Price Channel 4? Edited by John Mair, Fiona Chesterton, David Lloyd, Ian Reeves and Richard Tait. Published by Abramis. Price £19.95.

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