From snarky remarks around reboots, to a scripted industry in “corrective” mode and Netflix’s attempts to assert itself as the place to be for UK producers, the Edinburgh TV Festival again threw up plenty to talk about.
The Edinburgh TV Festival tends to mark the end of the summer for those operating in the UK content industry, but this year’s event also seems to have come at something of a watershed moment for both the domestic and global content industry.
Discussions are inevitably UK focused and this year was no exception, but there was no getting away from the macro issues facing businesses. Here are six takeaways from the week.
Netflix plants a flag
The global streamer has had its fair share of challenges in 2022, so perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise that its UK-based staff were in Edinburgh en masse to persuade producers that it remains the best place for projects. UK chief Anne Mensah talked up the SVOD’s commissioning plans with unscripted a particular focus, although several producers pointed out that to date its output away from scripted is somewhat limited.
Nevertheless, the streamer joined Amazon Prime Video in claiming it would not be cutting spending, despite the cost of living crisis and its recent battles with subscriber declines, while also unveiling a new Studio Lambert and Raw TV format. Director of unscripted Ben Kelly said he wanted to “take bigger risks and swings.” What exactly that means remains somewhat unclear – the streamer was adamant that it did not want “niche, edgy” shows and was instead looking for “broad, fun” programming.
If there was one recurring theme of conversation, it revolved around the rights and wrongs of reboots. Former Channel 4 chief David Abraham kicked off the conversation on Wednesday and the network’s content boss, Ian Katz, took to the stage a day later to highlight what he described as the “depressing” trend.
One presumes he had the BBC’s reimagining of Gladiator in mind and the pubcaster’s content chief Charlotte Moore duly defended her organisation’s track record, with unscripted chief Kate Phillips also pointing out that the latest incarnation of the MGM format was being treated as carefully as a new show would be.
The UK pubcaster is also reportedly in talks to reboot Banijay format Survivor, while ITV has just picked up Big Brother – but it’s not just a UK phenomena or a genre-related issue. Paramount+ scripted chief David Nevins was in town to talk up his streamer’s offerings, which include series reboots of films such as Sexy Beast and American Gigolo, and a spin-off from Grease.
It’s hardly a surprise that there has been such a flurry of existing IP being remodelled for audiences across scripted and unscripted. Rebooting a movie as a series and retooling a format are not the same, but they have a similar effect of providing instant cut-through with audiences. Formats also come with improvements baked in and addressed in their bibles, an understandably attractive attribute for buyers operating during a period of risk adversity which will mean that despite the protestations, this modus operandi won’t be going away any time soon.
If reboots formed a major strand of discussion on stage, the chat dominating discussions in pubs and bars revolved around job losses, spending cuts and fears over an advertising slump in 2023. Much of this is already in effect – Nevins admitted that budgets are in a “corrective mode”, describing the current inflation and soaring production costs as a “bad moment” for the business.
“We are in a correction, we can’t just promise spectacle and that’s not what TV needs,” he added. “We’re in bad moment now with supply chain costs, everything you’re doing costs more. There’s also a lot of production and that means talent [costs] keep going up.”
The veteran also pointed to shows such as his upcoming Ewan McGregor-starring series Gentleman Of Moscow as one way to focus spending, with a lower price point because of its setting in a hotel. Expect similar scripted shifts as streamers squeeze budgets and focus on character rather than spectacle.
Staying the course
While Netflix was blowing its trumpet on stage, Disney+ used Edinburgh to reveal its latest UK original, this time a 12-parter set in the perilous world of illegal boxing in 1880s Victorian London.
A Thousand Blows (working title, 12 x 60-minutes) is from Peaky Blinders‘ creator Steven Knight and has Stephen Graham (Line Of Duty, Peaky Blinders) starring and also exec producing. At this admittedly early stage, it appears a quintessentially UK show, and reflective of the streamer’s steady commissioning strategy apparent not just in the UK, but also France, Spain and elsewhere.
Tying further into global trends, Emily Maitlis – the UK journalist who conducted the interview that saw Prince Andrew discuss his links to Jeffrey Epstein – used her MacTaggart lecture to urge journalists and broadcasters to adapt to a new wave of politicians practising populism to secure power.
Reflecting on her time as a Newsnight journalist at the BBC, she admitted to “her shame” at trying to defend the UK broadcaster against accusations of bias rather than holding power to account. Maitlis pointed to an interview in 2016 with Donald Trump “acolyte” Sebastian Gorka on Newsnight, in which she spent “half our allotted interview time trying to defend our objectivity and the rest bending over backwards to reconcile his strangled version of the truth, just to prove his criticism of me wrong.”
The journalist, who left the BBC to join radio group Global earlier this year, said viewers were “becoming anaesthetised to the rising temperature in which facts are getting lost, constitutional norms trashed, claims frequently unchallenged.”
Rights & rumours
And finally, worth noting that Sky expects to continue to work with HBO despite owner Warner Bros. Discovery’s planned roll-out of its new streamer in Europe. The Comcast-owned company has held a rich output deal with HBO for more than a decade, providing it with hit programming including the recent Game Of Thrones spin-off House Of The Dragon.
Its latest deal, which includes a coproduction pact and was last extended in 2019, is due to run out in 2025 and had to date meant that WBD’s HBO Max streamer – which is now not being rolled out anywhere – could not be launched in Sky countries, including the UK. It had been expected that WBD would take back HBO programming to launch its combined HBO Max and Discovery+ streamer in Europe in the coming years, but that assumption is very much up for debate now.
Execs tell TBI they believe there is an increasing likelihood of the US giant extending its rich output deal in some form, with WBD keen on the guaranteed payday that would provide. Sky director of programming Jamie Morris addressed the issue at Edinburgh on Friday, admitting that he expected his company would continue working with the US giant despite the imminent streaming expansion.
Morris said the relationship ‘is going from strength to strength” and added that “one way or another”, it would continue. “In what shape, we will wait and see,” he added, highlighting the flux dominating the UK, and global, industry.