TBI Weekly: Six takeaways from Edinburgh TV Festival 2021

The 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival again made headlines this week, with US-based streamers using the online event to highlight their European intentions, while the ongoing debate over the future of Channel 4 provided plenty of fodder for conversations of a more domestic nature.

Among the most noteworthy commissions to be revealed was Nautilus for Disney+, a 10-part live-action drama based on the classic Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Moonriver TV and Seven Stories.

The show’s commissioning came as the Mouse House – via EMEA execs including former BBC Studios chief Liam Keelan – offered more insights into what it is looking for outside of the US. And following the news earlier this year that Disney will source, develop and produce 50 European original productions by 2024, it seems opportunities are burgeoning.

It wasn’t just Disney that was busy unveiling new commissioning plans, however. Here, TBI casts its eye over the week’s news to pick out six key takeaways from this year’s event.

Susan Rovner

Peacock’s unlikely partner plans

NBCUniversal (NBCU)’s streamer Peacock used Edinburgh to unfurl more of its programming strategy this side of the pond, with Susan Rovner, chairman of entertainment content for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, revealing a push into crime is in the works with an unlikely partner.

Irreverent is a 10-episode drama series created by Paddy Macrae (Wanted) that tells the story of a criminal from Chicago who bungles a heist and is forced to hide out in far north Queensland posing as the new church vicar.

It’s being produced by Australia’s Matchbox Pictures, which is part of NBCU International Studios. So far, so predictably vertically integrated. But the twist in the tale is that the co-production is between Peacock and the Australian office of that well known streamer, Netflix.

Ben Frow

Paramount+ preps in the UK

From one US studio giant to another, ViacomCBS used its appearance at Edinburgh to put out a call to UK indies for forthcoming streamer Paramount+.

Delivered via ViacomCBS Networks UK CCO Ben Frow, the company said it is now prepping commissioning plans for local content for the SVOD service, which is set to launch via Sky in the UK next year.

The shopping list includes original drama and documentaries, which of course have to be “high end”, while series with local resonance and global appeal are top of the agenda. A dedicated budget to invest in local content is available, Frow said, adding that “all ideas are welcome.” So push those boundaries.

Daniel Pearl, commissioning editor for unscripted, added that he wanted ideas covering anthologies, feature documentaries, boxsets and more. “Ours is an ongoing commitment to commissioning premium shows for SVOD and we are listening to the best ideas out there”, he said.

Worth also noting that Channel 5 kicked off the week by confirming it would no longer apply a fixed, per-hour pricing tariff model to its peak-time programming, as part of an overhaul to its commissioning process. The ViacomCBS-owned commercial broadcaster said it was “reevaluating” its hourly programme tariffs for peak-time commissions “to release individual productions from the constraints of a per-hour budget model.”

“It is no secret that Channel 5 has always operated on lower tariffs and we want to ensure that fixed hourly budgets don’t put undue pressure on the production process,” Frow said. “By reevaluating the constraints of per-hour tariffs, we can look at commissioning deliverables more holistically going forward.”

Jack Thorne

Dialling into disability representation

This year’s MacTaggart Lecture again provided the industry with a dose of much-needed realism regarding just how far the TV ecosystem has to go when it comes to improving diversity.

English dramatist and playwright Jack Thorne highlighted the lack of discussion around disability representation in front of and behind the camera, concluding that the industry “has failed disabled people. Utterly and totally.”

Thorne said: “Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out. In conversations about representation, in action plans, and new era planning, disability is confined to the corner, it remains an afterthought.

“Actors – actors I admire – have taken roles they shouldn’t have; I’ve been complicit in some of those decisions. Producers have ignored disabled writers. Commissioners haven’t taken the opportunity to tell disabled stories. There are very few disabled people in front of the camera, and even fewer behind it.”

Looking to address the issue, the His Dark Materials and This Is England writer announced the creation of a new pressure group named Underlying Health Condition which will work on a plan to bring about industrial change.

It’s A Sin

Fork in Four’s road?

It wouldn’t be the Edinburgh TV Festival without plenty of discussion about the future of the UK’s public broadcasters.

Last year, it was the BBC’s former chief Tony Hall delivering an impassioned defence of his organisation but 12 months on, much of the attention was on Channel 4.

The broadcaster’s chief content officer, Ian Katz, used his session to implore the government to abandon plans to privatise the operator, after it formally launched a consultation on the issue last month.

“Much that is so special and treasured would very likely be lost,” Katz said, who added that putting profits at the centre of operations would be a fatal move for the It’s A Sin, Chewing Gum and Deadwater Fell broadcaster.

“Some people say you can just write licence requirements that would protect everything about the channel that we value, but that misses the fundamental change you get when you move from a channel that is purpose driven to one that is profit-driven – what is special about the channel would be destroyed.”

Unsurprisingly, UK media minister John Whittingdale had a different view. “We want to preserve Channel 4 going forward and we do think this model is going to be very difficult to sustain because of the power and amount of choice available from the streamers,” he said.

Addressing concerns that selling the channel would change its creative output, he added: “We are going to make it clear if there is a change in ownership the remit is there and that will stay and if they aren’t willing to do that, we imagine they won’t express an interest in the channel.”

Playwright James Graham (Brexit: An Uncivil War), however, countered that privatising the broadcaster would diminish its “idiosyncratic” output. “I despair a bit on the idea we have to raise the white flag on public service broadcasting because of the arrival of these majority-American online streamers and that seems to be the dominant landscape for sharing news and entertainment in the future,” said Graham.

The discussion continues.

Mare Of Easttown

Amazon’s Mare regret

While the power of US-based streamers is growing, Amazon Studios’ boss Jennifer Salke revealed they don’t have it all their own way. During her first appearance at the Festival, Salke shared her regret on missing out on Mare Of Easttown, the Kate Winslet-led crime drama, which ended up with HBO.

“We tried hard to get Mare of Easttown but we lost it in the negotiation,” revealed Salke. “I did look back on what our process was going through that because I really, really loved the show and I’m such a fan of Kate’s and I would be proud to have it on the service.”

Salke also revealed that Amazon is looking to accelerate its movie output and joined the chorus of execs calling for creative risk-taking. “If you believe in something that you’re doing that feels like a ‘zig’ when everyone’s ‘zagging’, that’s where I lean in.

“I also don’t mind having a bit of a stomach ache about a show,” she said. “If you’re not sure it’s probably because it hasn’t been done before. We should all be taking creative risks.”

Naked And Afraid

Discovery reflects on its reality

The seemingly never-ending M&A turmoil continues to throw uncertainty after uncertainty into the TV business, but for Discovery+ group SVP of content & commercial strategy Lisa Holme, the message was clear.

Until the company receives regulatory approval for its merger with WarnerMedia, it’s “business as usual,” she promised suppliers.

“Keep working with us as you have been,” said the exec. “Once all of that happens, I think there will be lots of new exciting prospects about how we think about leveraging talent or IP across an even broader ecosystem but that’s a long way [away],” revealed Holme. “For now, it’s keep calm and carry on.”

Holme also shared insights into the type of content that Discovery+ is looking for, including reality shows such as its own Naked And Afraid, and Netflix series Bling Empire.

The factual streamer is also on the lookout for shorter series and serialised content, with a focus on true crime, dating, paranormal and social experiment programming. Holme added that Discovery+ is not particularly interested in political, news-based, music or dance shows – or for scripted shows.

“As broad as the aperture is for bringing us your best ideas of all shapes and sizes, we are pretty unlikely to be the home for a scripted project. There will be these one-offs where we experiment,” said Holme.

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