Indies: is less more?
By Kate Bulkley
16 March 2006
RDF chief David Frank says fewer indies in the UK market would be no bad thing, but are stock market flotations and super-indies really going to safeguard the creativity of the sector, asks Kate Bulkley.
The future of UK indies is under a pretty hot spotlight these days, what with new media rights discussions occupying a lot of time at both the main broadcasters and their suppliers. So RDF chief David Frank's recent cat-among-the-pigeons claim that fewer independent producers in the UK could do the same job "better and cheaper" (Broadcast, news, page 6, 10.3.06) has provoked a certain amount of reaction all round.
Taking a step back, the past few years have been a good time to be an indie: more channels are available to pitch to; new legislation has allowed indies to keep more secondary rights; and money has flooded in from the City and private equity. Over two-thirds of the top 150 indies saw their turnovers grow last year and the combined turnover of the top 150 is now £1.7bn - more than £200m up on 2004, according to today's Broadcast Indie Survey 2006.
No matter how you dress up the relationship between the UK television broadcasters and the 800 or so indies of all shapes and sizes, the bottom line is that creativity is sacrosanct. The British TV business is world-famous for it and no one wants to threaten it.
So when Frank says he can imagine just 200 indies providing the same level of creative programming, we need to examine why. He goes on to claim that fragmentation "on this scale" among the indies makes for "unnecessary inefficiency" and that commissioners are "overwhelmed" with pitches. But is RDF looking at the world through its own publicly listed lens? The company that produces hits Wife Swap and Faking It floated on AIM last May and has a current market cap of £75m. And consolidation is clearly in its interests: RDF plans to get bigger, both through more acquisitions and organic growth.
While Frank rules out a future TV production landscape dominated by one or two super-indies, saying market forces won't allow it, he is firmly of the belief that super-indies can be just as creative as smaller companies. After all - he says - there is no bigger pressure to be creative than having the City bigwigs on your back every quarter.
RDF is not alone in this view. Other super-indies including Shed, Endemol, Talkback Thames and others with other outside funding sources or public shareholders are also likely to argue that big doesn't necessarily mean boring. In fact, the acquisition strategy of companies like All3Media is meant to promote creativity by buying individual companies and allowing them to focus on making better programmes. Becoming part of a bigger entity should provide extra stability, resources and industry clout.
But not everyone agrees that big is best when it comes to making great programmes. As one non-listed indie puts it: "As a company gets bigger, it ends up focusing on shareholders and things like how many paper clips people have on their desks. There is a whole new level of management that has to do that. So a company that gets big always slightly loses its creative edge."
A similar argument has been voiced by media advisors Mediatique in a report published in September for the BBC about the independent sector. Mediatique director Mathew Horsman believes there must be a tendency among commercially run and externally funded companies to rely on the tried and trusted over the risky and new. "We did not mean to suggest (in the report) that creativity doesn't exist among the super-indies, but homogeneity will be driven by external funders and the need to hit targets," says Horsman.
In other words, the accepted City view is that when it comes to big indies with shareholders, producing more series of proven winners is preferable to developing risky new ideas. So when Shed floated last year, one of its big attractions in City eyes, was that both Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives were multi-season hits.
However Horsman does agree with Frank's prediction that the indie sector will experience further consolidation. But whether this means a whittling down to 200 indies or fewer over the next few years is unclear. Horsman won't predict the final numbers, but he does think that the number of super-indies could level off at six or eight by 2010.
So, what do the commissioners make of this debate? After all they are on the front line when it comes to judging creativity. Is the large number of indies resulting in an "unmanageable workload", as Frank claims?
"I don't think people come here in the morning feeling they're going to be overwhelmed by good ideas," says Channel 4 managing editor of commissions Janey Walker. C4 receives 20,000 programme ideas every year and doesn't seem to be complaining. But if consolidation among the indies means that more money goes on screen that gets her vote.
In 2005, Walker worked with exactly 315 of the UK's 800 or so indies. Is 200 indies a better number? "We wouldn't want to just lop off the bottom third," is her thought on consolidation. Having said that, Broadcast's Indie Survey shows the C4, the BBC and ITV largely use the same companies every year for the bulk of their key shows. Among C4's top 10 suppliers, five are the same as in 2004 and several are publicly listed such as Endemol and RDF. Walker doesn't see these listed indies as "drones" - far from it: they are the foundation of the channel.
But Walker can see both sides of the creative coin. "Predictable growth can sometimes be inspiring, but it can also sometimes make people more risk-averse," she says. C4 actually promotes the very smallest independents by ring-fencing certain slots to offer new talent somewhere to go and, it hopes, grow.
It all comes back to predictability versus creativity. The City's increased involvement with super-indies and its need for assurance of continued growth in profits is likely to favour predictability in the form of so-called returnable series over risky new ideas. Meanwhile, viewers and commissioners will continue to demand mould-breaking new formats and ideas.
Whether super or smaller indies are best placed to meet these demands - and how many of each there should be - remain to be seen. One thing is clear, although further consolidation within the indie sector may be inevitable, a mixed economy of small, medium and super-indies is likely to be the norm for some time to come.