Rolling the dice on talent

Jon Thoday is the joint founder and Managing Director of Avalon Entertainment Ltd. As a producer he has been responsible for many successful shows including the multi-BAFTA winning Harry Hill's TV Burp and the RTS and Rose d'Or winning Not Going Out. He is no stranger to negotiations, having sorted out Frank Skinner's £20 million move from the BBC to ITV.

Thoday controversially argues that the creative future of the UK is in jeopardy, because the mainstream TV channels are not allowing enough money and time for development.

This is an extract from UKTV's new book, '2024: The Future of Television'. The full book is available to download now free HERE.

Rights and talent are the two most important commodities in broadcasting. Forget everything else: the future of television is wherever those two essentials can be optimised, and channels ignore that at their peril. I fear that British broadcasting is shooting itself in the foot at the moment. The creative future of the UK is in jeopardy because the mainstream channels are not allowing enough money and time for development. They would rather license a foreign format than develop their own shows with UK producing talent.

When I started out as a manager, twenty years ago, television was largely run by showmen, commissioners and controllers who thrived on discovering and developing new talent. People like David Liddiment, Alan Yentob, or Michael Grade were prepared to give new names and new shows a chance, and their legacy is content and talent that still makes waves today. They and their predecessors were people with a good eye, a pot of money, and patience the sort of commissioners who could spot a star in the making, who persisted with Morecambe and Wise, or David Jason, talented performers whose early shows flopped. In the 1990s, David Liddiment was prepared to give a young, relatively unknown comedian like Frank Skinner a three-year deal, giving him exposure on three different shows it was only in the third year, with the third show generating 11 million viewers, that Frank really took off as a major star on a mainstream channel.

Today such people are few and far between. Perhaps Danny Cohen has a similar track record, the man responsible for Skins, Fonejacker, and The Inbetweeners at Channel 4, for bringing Russell Howard's Good News to BBC Three, and for Call The Midwife on BBC One.

My fear for the future is that we don't have enough showmen at the major channels in the UK, and consequently not enough money going into programmes to support the kind of creativity the UK is known for.

Shows that took over America, from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? to Pop Idol, were born in the amazing creative cluster that is the UK, part of an effervescent outpouring of ideas in which both channels and independent producers benefitted from selling the rights around the world. Now the marketplace is even more global, but we seem less well-placed to take advantage of it.

The pressure to cut programme costs has dangerously weakened all our major channels, making investment in development too low, and expectations for new shows too high. When a brand new show is a success, it's largely an accident but statistically you need a lot of new shows to guarantee that you will have enough accidents. ITV for example seems more interested in investing in foreign production companies than home-grown talent and new TV shows. Broadcasters too often pursue short-term gain with licensing of a foreign format, rather than long-term gain with what the British industry has done best in the last 20 years: origination of new shows.

Certainly the rise of the internet has brought about an explosion of creativity through people producing their own content online. But the point about a big mainstream channel is that it is supposed to have enough money to make the kind of shows an individual can't put together by him or herself. Unless new talent emerging online gets investment, it won't grow and generate more money for reinvestment in the creative industries.

As I write, I'm in Los Angeles, seeing a British comic called John Oliver whom I represent. He was a member of the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as David Mitchell and Richard Ayoade. Some years ago I went to Channel 4 with the suggestion that he might host a topical show for them.

I was hardly through the door before the commissioning editor said: 'Whatever you do, don't try and pitch me John Oliver.' She wasn't interested because he wasn't well enough known.

Not long after that, John landed a job on The Daily Show in the USA with Jon Stewart. He's been there ever since and is about to leave to host his own show on HBO. That isn't just an opportunity missed, it's a prime example of how UK broadcasters are not prepared to risk their money on guaranteeing new talent a chance to develop and mature. HBO, incidentally, is a classic case of the right way to do it. They spend more money per hour on their shows than any other, they are generous to their talent and producers, and they are the most profitable channel in the world.

In the States, it is the cable channels that thrive because they have realised that they are dependent entirely on their content, while UK broadcasters fiddle about launching new channels, thereby fragmenting instead of augmenting their spend.

The licensing of rights is another area of contention. When the BBC cuts back and reduces spend on programming, it has repercussions throughout the industry, allowing other channels an excuse to underpay. Where is the incentive for independents to develop new formats if they can't expect a decent return? They have no choice but to sell their business to a foreign buyer rather than build a creative production house. Most of the first generation independents have been sold to foreign owners, and the broadcasters seem to be trying to turn the clock back on the new and remaining companies by making the deals and money so tight that new companies are unable to grow into new powerhouses of innovation. Increasingly new UK independents sell out at the first opportunity rather than growing into new creative hubs.

Online has no gatekeeper; hence the reason so many talented people are bypassing the mainstream channels and putting their work on YouTube. Yet emergent talent can easily sink and disappear in the vast ocean that is the internet. Mainstream UK channels often fail to understand and capitalise on their great advantage, their ability to market newcomers at virtually no cost by placing their shows next to an old favourite with a big audience. For me, the real value of online outlets like YouTube, today and in the future, is not so much as a place to trawl for new talent, but as a way of making a local name global. YouTube has helped make Russell Howard a star in territories where he has hardly ever set foot. A US comic called Rob Delaney whom we manage had never been to the UK, but with one tweet, he sold three thousand tickets in the UK.

We need the mainstream broadcasters to be the biggest players in ten years' time so that new shows can be properly financed and launched.

New kids on the block like Netflix may be successful but I have some doubts. Netflix's problem is that its buy-now-pay-later business model depends on it growing faster than its debt, which is mounting rapidly.

It could be the victim of its own success. The studios are starting to wake up to the fact it could be a competitor, and unless Netflix manages to secure the majority of product it is hard to see how it can continue to grow.

If the day of the mainstream channels is over, then is the future artists taking control of their work, becoming more powerful by running their own production companies or their own channels? Not really. What makes talent powerful is being hot and in demand; running your own production company or YouTube channel, as Jamie Oliver does, can be a distraction. If you have your own channel, you have to worry about supplying the channel with enough content. If you have a production company, you will be carrying an overhead that may constrain your decision-making, and could force you to do a show for all the wrong reasons: not because it's the right vehicle, but because you have to keep earning to feed the overhead. And if it's for your own channel, how can you maximise the deal? An equivalent in live events is where a stand-up star decides to own a theatre; the trouble with running a theatre is that you have to fill it 365 days a year and clean the toilets, when you could have made more money negotiating a large slice of the box office and appearing in an arena like the O2 for ten nights and spent the rest of the year doing something else.

I have always believed that in the entertainment business it's vital to separate business from creativity. Whenever I've failed to follow that principle, I've regretted it. Early in my career I had two big flops that taught me you should never let yourself get into the situation where you have to produce something simply to pay the bills. Once you've made a bad decision and allowed your standards to slip, like junk food it can lead to a general deterioration in your taste. That's how so many talented people wind up in a purple streak. Instead, look for the good idea and then see if you can make it work in creative terms, and let the business follow, rather than vice versa.

The way to succeed is to think creatively; that's what will secure the future not only for talent, but for television itself.