Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The State Of The TV Nation

So tomorrow I leave my home of six years to - I'm not sure what. Separation /Divorce is a messy business no matter how good the intentions. Anyway as a result I may or may not be off the blog for a while.

So with that in mind I thought I'd have a general rumination on the state of the Industry.

My prognosis isn't good. The proliferation of new channels in the last few years has in general backed up the old adage that 'more means worse'.

The introduction of short term contracts for most execs has led to a climate of fear where risk is avoided at all costs.

The BBC Writer's Academy is I think one of the worst ideas ever to be hatched. I don't say that just because it is costing me and all other freelancers dearly as spots on long running shows [ the only way a writer can make a living] dry up as the most favoured nation status afforded to Academy writers sucks them out of the system. I say it for creative reasons.

John Yorke has never written a produced script in his life. Yet his 'teachings ' His 'five act structure or 'Grid' or whatever the hell he calls it is being flogged as some kind of template for BBC shows. No wonder they all look the same.

It is also my understanding, I may be wrong, that Academy writers don't get a script fee for the episodes they write, but a salary which is way below the script fee. Way to circumvent the hard fought for minimums!

And finally, when I were a lad, writers got gigs by showing great original specs. Yorkie has touted the Academy as a place where writers can fail in safety. Whoop de doo. Then they get to meet the real world. Being trained to write for 4 specific BBC shows is not the same as being a writer. Meanwhile I know for certain that several real world writers of my acquaintance are seriously considering giving up TV writing. The Academy nonsense being the final straw.

Does that sound harsh? It was meant to be.

If there were some element in the Academy course that meant ''you will be encouraged to produce original work and ideas in addition to the usual bollocks'' then I might change my mind about it. Might.

Okay call me a curmudgeonly old git, but that's how I feel. And call me what you like. I'm never less than honest.

Training writers to write for Holby, Casualty, EastEnders and Doctors is like programming Robots to perform brain surgery. The Robot is only as good as the programmer. I'm far from convinced the programmers are up to snuff.

And yes if any Academy writers are reading this I may well come across as a malcontent luddite. Perhaps that comes with the territory of dealing with the shifting sands of those in executive positions over a number of years. But a word of advice. If Yorkie is sacked in the next few years the 'Academy' will be a dirty word. So to Academy writers. Be nice. Make contacts. Do a great job. But don't rely on Yorkie to watch your back. And for God's sake don't boast about being an Academy writer to any old salts who came through the trenches. It's the surest way to oblivion.

Writing is hard. What is harder is making contact with people who love your work and have the resolve and resources to do something about it. It's a symbiotic relationship. Apparatchik execs come and go. The passionate and creative execs are the ones who stay the course. Much like writers.

This one size fits all mentality is what is killing TV. Too much emphasis on what is safe and not enough on what is good. Subjective, I know, but the most memorable shows are always the most risky ones.


Lucy said...

Bad luck on life and stuff ED. I would say it all gets better but then I'll sound like a patronising sod even tho it's actually true.

I'm hearing much about the Academy and Grid etc at the mo though, not only through blogs like Faustus' but from other old soaks in your trenches coming through my own script reading furrows and across my wanna-get-some-TV-work-of-my-own radar.

So if I should avoid the Academy to get my big TV break, does this mean I have to have it off with all the old soaks?

And where's Robert Redford when I need him?

Anonymous said...

Good luck on the move Ed.


English Dave said...

Lucy I have an incline into viral marketing now. A mate of mine was talking about writing in general and the Faustus blog was mentioned.

I had no knowledge of it until after I wrote my post. Was the Academy mentioned in the conversation? I think it was but I can't remember in what terms.

But having since checked out Faustus that's a great Blog. Makes me sound like that electrician BBC Breakfast mistook for the Internet expert.

Thanks EJ. Hope things are going well.

Lucy said...

Faustus was talking about The Grid mostly in the post called "Swimming Lessons".

What's really interesting for me in this sitch is I have a lot of professional writing contacts now through blogging and script reading so can totally see their side as well as the notion that writing by numbers *can't* be a good thing in the long term, but also I know people who have gone through The Academy too and think, well if it's their way in, who am I to judge? There's also the fact that I actually like "Grid programmes" like Holby City and I know full well that if John Yorke said to me, "Wanna place?" I'd say HELL YEAH!

Does that mean you'll cross the road if you see me in the street for being a hoooooorer?

Or are we all hoooorers in our own way?

English Dave said...

Lucy TV and film writing is generally whoring. Until you make enough to run your own brothel. But you have to remain the one with the heart of gold.

That's what keeps the punters coming back. You can't fake sincerity. Not more than once anyway.

Lucy said...

You're telling me, I'm the original tart with the heart, Lol... Feels that way anyway writing for corporates, they're my Big Daddy! ; )

So to break it down:

If you're gonna whore yourself, effing mean it. Or turn into a plastic dolly and let them use you like a small round receptacle and die a thousand deaths for being a fake?


English Dave said...

Pretty much 'nailed' it Lucy. Lol

potdoll said...

good luck with the move Dave. x

Good Dog said...

Fella, good luck with the move. Hope there aren't too many more bumps.

wcdixon said...

Sorry bud on the life stuff...been there done that. Hang in.

Paul Campbell said...

Hi Dave

Sorry for all the shit in your life right now. The sun will come out tomorrow etc etc. Honest.

Now, about this Grid Academy stuff...

I'm one of this year's class. From the inside, it's great. Any newbie writer out there who opted not to apply for fear of being turned into an automaton would be a fool. So, go for it, Lucy.

I'm not qualified to say what impact it has on existing writers. I'm confident that nobody ever sets out to fire good writers or make life so difficult for them that they leave. And I'm confident that your description of the training we get in the Academy is wrong (particularly the so-called insistence on never deviating from the Grid - whatever that is).

If you say that people are being fired or that their writing is being emasculated, then I'm not qualified to contradict you.

What I would say is that every long-running show needs a regular inflow and outflow of writers. On any one show at any one time there will be some pretty average writers. And any producer worth his or her salt is going to want to "train them up" or replace them with better writers. Of course, whether John Yorke's going about this the right way or not, and whether he's identifiying the right writers, is up for grabs.

Personally, I think there's more good than bad in what he's doing and that overall standards across the shows are improving. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

And that's all I'll say on the subjective side of things. I tried discussing some of it with Faustus too (bless his cotton socks), but he didn't really want to talk about it.

Objectively, I can feed in a few facts.

- John Yorke doesn't have a Grid. After reading Faustus, he actually asked me what the Grid was meant to be.

- John has, I believe, written one produced script. A long time ago. He says it was shit.

- Academy writers do get paid for our scripts. We get £400 per week "attendence allowance" for the 13 weeks of classes etc, and then we get Guild minimum rates for our episodes of Doctors, Casualty, Holby City and EastEnders. After that, we get more work if we're good enough, and we get paid as much or as little as our agents can negotiate.

- when you were a lad, you got gigs by showing great original specs. So did we. That's how got into the Academy. The only difference is that we get a bit of formal training before we're thrown in the deep end.

- You said that "If there were some element in the Academy course that meant ''you will be encouraged to produce original work and ideas in addition to the usual bollocks'' then I might change my mind about it." There is. In fact the words 'you will be encouraged to produce original work and ideas in addition to the usual bollocks' sounds distinctly like something John Yorke might say.

Jaded and Cynical said...

Great post, Dave. And interesting feedback.

I view the Academy as basically a good thing - it provides a structured, financially secure route into the industry for a handful of recruits every year.

It's unique in that respect, and if the Beeb doesn't step up and nurture new talent, who will?

The shabby state of broadcasting in general (examplified by all those phone scandals this year) is a whole other issue. Can't pin that on the Academy.

However you're right to flag up what is obviously an unintended consequence of the scheme, which is that it's wrecking the careers of experienced writers.

Obviously, in an ideal world, there would be a balance struck between creating opportunity for new talent, while maintaining sustainable careers for those already in the business. But I don't know that those conflicting needs can be reconciled.

As I've observed before, you have to be nuts to try and make it as a screenwriter in this country.

Anyway, good luck with the domestic stuff. And thanks for the insight and honesty over the past twelve months.

Lucy said...

"Any newbie writer out there who opted not to apply for fear of being turned into an automaton would be a fool. So, go for it, Lucy."

I did apply, this year in fact. And didn't even get an interview. And I'll probably apply next year too.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of offending... well, more or less everyone on here...

Aren't the shows dealt with in the writer's academy already quite formulaic, system or no system? Eastenders, Holby etc thrive on repetition. People don't watch comfort TV to be blown away. It is, as one rather famous TV screenwriter has less than subtly implied, moving wallpaper.

I think the danger is if said system is applied to programmes that it won't help.

House music changes roughly every 4 bars, adds a kick drum, brings in some high hats etc. That's why I love it. But I also love Leonard Cohen, where there's no such obvious progression.

It's an important distinction.

Lucy said...

There is some comfort to be had in soap opera. The characters become people you know and talk about with other people who like the same shows as you.

However I believe soap operas, from time to time, do blow people away. Sometimes it's because they tackle an issue or event that has never been done before: who remembers the lesbian kiss in Brookside, the Lockerbie style plane crash in Emmerdale? The divorce papers served on Angie on Xmas day by Den in Eastenders, the death of Steve Owen or the "Killer Corrie" storyline?

Other times it's because the writing is great, because writers of a high calibre have been employed to do a special episode like Barbara Machin's Xmas Casualty episode with the multiple POVs last year or because a show has invested in one particular writer like Sarah Phelps on Eastenders who always seems to pull out a "stand out" episode in my view.

Lots of people get their information from soaps. People who don't or can't get it from anywhere else. Babies have survived meningitis after their mothers recognised symptoms from Corrie. Just a few weeks ago some students were saved when they recognised they had carbon monoxide poisoning from an episode of Hollyoaks.

I won't apologise for liking continuing drama and I certainly wouldn't insist that people "should" like it - if they don't, they don't. But to say it is entirely vaccuous is as flawed in my view as saying it's 100% fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Could I also point out that the existence of the Academy has not only had an impact on experienced writers but has also effectively closed down all the points of entry to the long-running shows for new writers who haven't managed to beat the odds to get a place on the Academy - there is no way to get anyone to read a spec on shows like Doctors now - I've tried with a personal recommendation to the series producer from a former BBC drama commissioner (perhaps that was the problem!). He wouldn't even look at a spec (which had won me a prize actually) and directed me straight to the Writers Room to compete with the other 10,000 great unwashed who think they can write! My suspicion is that all the new writer gigs are going to Academy people - the chances of getting to write a corking trial script on the basis of a great spec are zero at the BBC I would guess - can't prove it of course, but there's the rub - if you can't prove it, you're dismissed as a naysayer!


The Book of Don said...

Hang in there.

And I just wanted to let you know from the anonymity (and agenda-free honesty) of hyper-space how VALUED your writings are to other disembodied, struggling souls like me - half a world away.

They give me hope.

Which is a pretty good thing to leave with strangers as you ply your life's journey.

The Book of Don said...

English Dave -- when are you back ??

I can't seem to find anyone who uses the "c" word with as much panache (and accuracy) anywhere else.

hang in there.

The Book of Don said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sal said...

excellent post, thanks, and I hope life sorts itself out for you. All the best for 2008

wcdixon said...

Happy Holidays, ED...