The 2020 Edinburgh TV Festival’s virtual nature didn’t stop the annual event from making an impact with its stay-at-home viewers, not least because a jam-packed schedule threw up plenty of talking points over the week.
FX chief John Landgraf used his keynote to discuss the situation at his Stateside operation, while on the programming front, the stars and producers behind Normal People were among talent on show.
Elsewhere, streamers including Amazon and Netflix unveiled expanded moves into formats, the BBC’s outgoing director-general used his last appearance at the event to talk up the broadcaster’s deep reach – despite the travails facing pubcasters, and there was also some welcome support for freelancers.
Acknowledging a “lost generation”
Delivering the keynote MacTaggart address at this year’s festival was British-Nigerian broadcaster and historian David Olusoga, who used the opportunity to hit out at the UK TV industry for creating what he described as a “lost generation” of black talent and revealed the true impact of the sector’s marginalisation of people of colour.
The former producer, and host of shows including A House Through Time and Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, said that although he had been given “amazing opportunities” he had also been “patronised and marginalised” by the industry.
Olusoga said while he has been in high demand at times, he has also been “so crushed by my experiences, so isolated and disempowered by the culture that exists within our industry” that he has had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression.
“I’ve come close to leaving this industry on several occasions. And I know many black and brown people who have similar stories to tell,” he revealed.
While calls to improve representation at all levels were regularly voiced during the week-long event, Olusoga pointed out that such discussions had been had before. “One of the sessions at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival asks when will television have its first black channel controller,” he said. “Twelve years ago the festival ran a similar panel asking the same question. Will the festival of 2030 have yet another panel asking that question for a third time?”
However, Olusoga said that the Black Lives Matters movement had “forced our society to have conversations that for decades we have put off or avoided,” and that there was “reason to hope that this really is a moment of change for our industry.”
Plans with a purpose
Underlining those hopes, several UK broadcasters used the occasion to highlight their own action. Channel 4 offered details of a Black Takeover day which will launch in 2021 and mark a year since the international protests and debates sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US.
The move is part of C4’s “ongoing commitment as an anti-racist organisation to improve black representation on and off screen and drive long-term change,” according to director of programmes Ian Katz. He revealed two new commissioning opportunities that will feature as part of the day, with a new black-led comedy series and an unscripted show set in the black community being sought.
Other shows planned include a one-off special of The Big Breakfast fronted by Mo Gilligan, followed by some of C4’s biggest flagship shows hosted by Black talent, including Celebrity Gogglebox, Countdown and Channel 4 News, with an all-Black presenting and reporting team. Hollyoaks will be an hour-long special entirely written, directed and performed by its black talent.
ITV, meanwhile, pulled the curtain back on its plans to mark Black History Month, with specially commissioned new shows that will air throughout October. ITV said the slate would “celebrate the contribution of black people to television, comedy, history and our wider culture”, with new shows including four-part comedy panel show Sorry I Didn’t Know. From TriForce Productions, it will explore players’ and audiences knowledge of untold stories and unsung heroes.
Other side of the pond
US-based FX Networks was also among those to detail how its operations were becoming more inclusive, with John Landgraf, chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions, revealing that 63% of directors on its output in 2021 will be female or from diverse backgrounds, during a keynote session at the festival.
This will be the first time that the majority of its directors were not white males.
While in conversation with BBC director of creative diversity June Sarpong, Landgraf also revealed that FX is “right on the verge” of hiring an SVP of diversity and culture, who will “[sit] at the table for every single decision we make.”
Landgraf said that the push for gender balance and diversity was also reflected in FX’s slate, in programming such as Atlanta, Mrs America and Snowfall.
He added: “We genuinely want our productions to look like the population of the United States. We haven’t solved the problem but we’ve begun the process to solve the problem. It’s time for this industry to change.”
Streaming into formats
Broadcasters and streamers also made the most of the week to unveil commissions and programming requirements. Among the more notable trends were Amazon and Netflix’s continuing shift into unscripted, with dating format orders and a call for more gameshow ideas.
The Circle producer Studio Lambert is working with Amazon on an intriguing untitled dating-cum-reality format, which will follow a diverse group of individuals who look for love by attending a mock US high school in a 1980s-2000s setting.
Amazon’s director of European original Georgia Brown also said she wanted more access docuseries, following the success of its All Or Nothing format, while Netflix is on the hunt for gameshow and singing formats to help the streamer expand its originals output, according to Nathaniel Grouille.
The US-based director of unscripted originals has enjoyed success with shows such as Love Is Blind, from Red Arrow Studios-owned Kinetic Content, but Netflix’s competition efforts to date have not fared so well with programming including style competition series Next In Fashion among those axed.
“Do we have a big gameshow? Not yet. Do we have a singing show? Not yet,” Grouille said, adding that there was “momentum” for more ambitious programming. Director of unscripted originals & acquisitions Sean Hancock added that he wanted to find “four-quadrant family entertainment shows”, which “you could explain to a caveman and they’d get it.”
Home service & home truths
BBC chief Tony Hall – soon to be replaced at the head of the UK pubcaster by BBC Studios boss Tim Davie – took to his virtual podium to deliver an impassioned defence of the broadcaster’s operations.
Hall said that the BBC’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the reaction of UK viewers demonstrated the ongoing importance of public service broadcasting. He cited the fact that in March, 94% of UK people used the BBC, including 87% of 16-34-year-olds. In some weeks, he said, TV viewing was up nearly 50% year on year.
“During this time, around 24% of all UK video, audio and online time spent by the average adult in a week was with the BBC. Netflix was around 4%,” said Hall. He also said that the BBC remains central to the UK creative economy, with “every £1 we spend” generating “£2 for the UK economy”.
“But there’s one statistic that I think really brings home what our PSB system means for the strength of our creative industries. In 2018, PSBs delivered over 32,000 hours of UK-made original content. The big streamers? 221 hours,” he said.
A lifeline for freelancers
Aside from diversity, the other big issue on the plate this year was the impact of Covid-19 on the TV industry. Freelance talent has been especially hard hit, despite efforts from various governments and groups to offer financial and well-being support.
One positive development for UK talent to come out of the festival was the creation of the TV Coalition For Change, comprised of broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Sky, as well as the union Bectu and industry bodies like John McVay’s Pact and Directors UK.
The coalition pledged to hold quarterly discussions to find solutions to the problems faced by those out of work due to the pandemic, with the first meeting to take place at the end of September or early October and continuing every quarter until December 2021.
The agreement was unveiled at the festival, with the coalition signing a statement of intent that: “We believe every freelancer working in our industry deserves decent working conditions and that we should all advocate a culture that promotes respect, professionalism and investment in people.
“The best creative content will come from an industry that puts people first, celebrates difference and enables us all to thrive. Ours is an industry made up of a huge range of different companies, broadcasters and talented people, and we all have a role to play in shaping the way we work.”