Opinion: How to thrive at the changing coal face of development

Karen Willis

Karen Willis, director of development at recently launched sports-focused factual firm Collective Media Group, shares her thoughts on how to navigate and make the most of the increasingly challenging development process.

In the early 2000s, as a staff BBC researcher, I knocked on the head of development’s office door and announced that I wanted to join the team. “Well, come in”, she said, “No one ever actually wants to join development”.

Development has come a long way since production staff regarded it as ‘purgatory’ as they truffled about for their next gig. Now it’s fully recognised as the true coal face, the engine of a production company. But still, it’s tougher than it’s ever been before.

Harder work, fewer resources

It’s not just production managers who are gold dust right now; we’re short of good developers – when casting my net recently, one of my peers said: “We’re all in the same boat. Good luck, it’s tough out there!”

YouTube first disrupted our supply of hungry interns in the mid-00s by offering alternative routes to making content. This ripple effect is now evident. Like many, I worked for free to get into TV. You would cut your teeth, make shows, and slowly climb the ranks. Without this training ground, how will you understand the production process? How else will you have brilliant, creative ideas with a point of difference?

When you’re developing an idea, you need one of three things: a killer format twist, exclusive access, or amazing talent. The latter is in short supply with many celebrities booked up until 2024, as they now go full steam on the projects the networks put on hold during covid.

Access to commissioners has been much more accessible, with video calls readily replacing face to face meetings over the last couple of years. Still, I predict the pendulum will swing the other way as they play catch up to patch up the schedules.

I have a stack of brilliant ideas here, and the reality is that there’s limited time (and resources) to dedicate to each. If I don’t get to that talent/journalist/access, the competition will. So, we must be clever and realise that time is our most precious resource; protect and use it wisely.

Time for a less traditional approach 

Covid forced the TV industry into efficiency as we worked from home. We were off to a strong start at Collective, a tight collaboration of complementary skills with everyone rolling up their sleeves.

Focus comes from knowing precisely who you are as a company. What you stand for, what stories you have genuine passion for and authority to tell? Does the innovation light you up like a sparkler? It’s a marathon not a sprint to get greenlit, so you’d better believe in your project. We do some pretty robust thinking before an idea heads out.

There are hard studies on the unequivocal benefits of face-to-face meetings, but I hope we keep a blend of Zooms and face to face meets going forward. Why? Because it saves time, and what we can do remotely is mind-blowing. We’re delivering a big six-part series, and I never even met the team.

We’re going forward with our week split between home and the office. Utilising the unbeatable benefits of being in the same room together and devoting the other days to concentrate fully without distraction.

The importance of listening to buyers

The best way to save time is to properly listen to your buyers. If you don’t, you’re wasting your own time – and your company’s money – but you don’t need me to tell you that.

Right now, commissioners are stretched overseeing multiple series once delayed by Covid. Meanwhile, thousands of new ideas continue to pump into their inbox each week, so make sure your ideas are short and to the point.

The development landscape is still changing, yet we’ve proved we are highly adaptable, and by taking all the best of everything we have learned from the last couple of years, we’ll be ready for it. 

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