In the second part of this interview with television producer Tom Edwards, the focus shifts from earlier production experiences to Tom’s role as a Commissioning Executive Producer for BBC1&2 Factual Features and Formats. Here, Tom explains how this role required a professional shift of perspective from his previous television production work, whilst also outlining what he considers key to successful popular factual and factual entertainment formats, from a commissioning point of view. Finally, Tom goes on to discuss his contributions to promoting diversity in the BBC’s commissioning choices, offering reflections on both progress made and work left to be done.
How did you move from programme-making into the commissioning role at the BBC?
I was contacted by two commissioners at the BBC. One was an ex-producer and had gone into commissioning and was aware that a role had come up on the commissioning team. They’d seen what I’d done with Mary and loved it, and so suggested I apply. It wasn’t fully on my radar that these commissioning roles even existed. It’s interesting in TV how self-replicating these roles often are. People already doing these things often seek out others like them. I was fairly ambivalent about the notion of going into commissioning but I went for interview.
It’s a very different job to producing. When you’re programme making you’re thinking about what happens between minute 2 and minute 59 but as a commissioner you’re very focused on minute 1, at least when first commissioning the idea, because that’s what your audience are thinking about.
It feels obvious, but the title is crucial. But it takes a few times where you’ve seen a good show of yours die because of a bloody awful title for it to really sink in as much as it might. If you have a great title, you’ll bring people to the show. Think about when Wife Swap launched – what a genius, attention grabbing, risqué, but still fairly accurate title that was. Whereas I had a few shows with titles no one was ever that pleased with – and it showed. An audience failed to come. You can have the world’s finest TV show but if people don’t come to it – because the title is too confusing or unclear, or because it’s scheduled against something strong or in an unattractive slot – then all that hard work is in vain.
Sometimes a title will come at the outset. And there’s that commissioner adage about ‘you’d commission a title without an idea behind it but not an idea without a title’. But sometimes you’ll stick with a mediocre working title, find yourself just before the point of going to press, desperately trying to brainstorm with a channel team and the production company, arrive at something no one really likes, put the show out and… yup, it was a crap title!
With less viewing now coming via linear schedules, other factors also come into play but titles – or something in the marketing – are still crucial. You’re focused on – what is it in the prima facie offer to audiences that will persuade them to come to this show? It’s crucial to get that simple, no-brainer, immediate appeal correct. And not just to persuade them to come to this ‘instead of another show’ or channel – the competition for audience time and attention is so intense these days, it’s harder than ever to punch through. Which partly I think accounts for so many very direct, obvious, on-the-nose, Ronseal titles. There’s no time to pique curiosity and hope for the best.
As a programme-maker, you obviously do think about title and topline but you’re very much engrossed in the content you can make with the idea, the practicalities, the detail. Whereas a commissioner has to think about the overall schedule, the channel, and the brand of that channel, and how that aligns with minute 1, the title, the top line, the immediate sell to your audience. It requires a significant shift in thinking. You’re considering the long-term strategies of the channel across two or three years, along with plans for talent attached to your channel. It’s far less piece meal than programme making, particularly in my experience as I’d only ever done one run of a series before moving on to a fresh challenge.
There’s one flipside to that you need to watch out for as a commissioner – you can sometimes focus so much on title, topline etc that you can start to take the rest of the content of the show for granted, lose sight of why it could be great, why the indie is so excited. So you can risk losing the bit of passion or fire for an idea as a whole, because there’s something not quite working with the topline. And you might pass up on something that could be great.
How much of a conscious factor are public service principles in the BBC commissioning process?
It’s unspoken often but it underpins every decision and everything that ultimately gets made. For instance, I wanted to commission a show for the BBC2 called Married at First Sight and it was knocked back because it was thought that the BBC shouldn’t be seen to be facilitating such high-risk marriages. It wasn’t seen to be very BBC. I disagreed because I thought if you framed it correctly then it could offer some real insights into why experts believe so strongly in certain sorts of romantic compatibility. What does it tell us about love, fundamentally? What are the algorithms around which dating websites are built and what’s the logic behind that? How reliable are they? To what extent are religious beliefs and convictions still important in finding the right person for you? And so on. I felt there was a lot of material to generate in an intelligent fashion about the laws of attraction and compatibility. But I wasn’t able to override the belief that the BBC shouldn’t be doing something like this. I’d always respected the institution of the BBC and what it stood for but by the end was equally aware of the realities of institutional politics and paternalistic limitations in terms of what you could get made as a commissioner. It can feel like it’s ultimately this paternalistic thing of believing you’re giving the public what’s appropriate or right rather than being brave enough to challenge your audience and provoke them into critical reflection and to come up with answers for themselves.
When I started at the BBC, there was a trend for presenters who were ex newsreaders, super middle class, former head boys and girls, they were all of a certain sort. There were very few ‘normal’ people leading shows. That’s since changed. There’s a reason for that, rooted in the BBC’s connection to London – the closer you get to London, the more disconnected you become from the realities of life elsewhere. The subsequent move out of London for certain arms of the BBC was absolutely the right decision, although many were dragged kicking and screaming out of London.
From a commissioning perspective, what is a format and what makes for a successful format?
A format is a structure and a set of components that are replicable in any number of episodes. A blueprint. In terms of success, some formats require a central talent for success, where charisma and connection with audience are massively important. With Mary Berry, for instance, you could have her opening an envelope and you’d still get two million viewers. So, with formats in which the central personality leads, you can afford to have a less innovative or compelling structure. You need to expend less energy in that context on the precise structure and action. With other formats, it’s more about clarity of structure and direction of travel for the action. For Tom Kerridge, for example, he was less well-known at the outset, and so we went for pub food as a clear hook for him that would be relatable and interesting for viewers. He’s a distinctive looking guy and we also placed him in a distinctive food context. Emotional connection of some sort, whether it’s to the presenter or to the content, is important to all formats. I can only think of the news as an exception, and even then there’s an emotional dimension on many occasions. When I arrived at the BBC, I was surprised by the average age of the BBC viewer – late 50s – and so that shatters this often-spoken assumption that presenters need to be young and physically attractive to bring audiences. If you look at people like Mary Berry and David Attenborough, they bring audiences in part because of their well-established reputations and their long-standing credentials, but also because they’re relatable emotionally to a core audience. There’s obviously a conscious need to reach out to different viewers but you also need to maintain your core viewership. If you lose them by trying to attract a younger crowd, if you make them feel alienated, you’re in trouble. So instead you aim to grow out of your heartland viewers to bring on board others, as The Great British Bake Off [BBC2/BBC1/C4, 2010- ] did very well.
How did you move into your role representing issues of diversity at the BBC?
I’d been conscious that the BBC were using a limited pool of on-screen talent in terms of diversity, so I championed broadening that in the commissioning I did. For example, I was a big supporter of getting Chris Bavin on Eat Well for Less [BBC1, 2015- ] because, as a working-class Londoner, he was a voice that we don’t get all that often on BBC shows of that kind. My own background, which isn’t ‘classic BBC’, influenced my drive in that particular area. As a result of that sort of championing, I was asked to represent the BBC at the Creative Diversity Network.
One thing I’ve come to realise is that positive affirmative action is really important. Rather than hoping you’ll get a diverse range of casting choices for presenters on a show, for example, I’m in favour of deciding to actively broaden the scope of representation. Obviously there are legal dimensions around positive discrimination so you have to tread carefully and knowingly but just hoping something will happen or improve isn’t enough – you have to make it happen. It’s about a willingness to make those sorts of active decisions and stick to them. Something I realised at the outset was that I’m not the first person to recognise problems of diversity – people with equally good intentions 10, 20, 30 years ago also recognised and tried to change things and didn’t get very far. So the question is how we speed-up glacial progress? Proactive approaches are needed. And thankfully it does now feel like we’re going through a period of meaningful change at last.
Dr Christopher Hogg is Senior Lecturer in Television Theory at the University of Westminster. He has published work on television drama, television acting, international television adaptation, and music in period film, in edited collections and journals such as Critical Studies in Television, the Journal of British Cinema and Television, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Media International Australia and Senses of Cinema. His book, Acting in British Television, written with Dr Tom Cantrell, was published last year by Palgrave Macmillan, along with an edited collection (also co-edited with Cantrell), Exploring Television Acting, earlier this year. He is now developing a new interdisciplinary research project (with Dr Charlotte Lucy Smith) exploring the individual and situational factors which affect the psychological well-being of actors working in the UK television industry. He is also currently working on a monograph, titled Adapting Television Drama: Theory and Industry, for Palgrave Macmillan.
Tom Edwards has spent six years as a Commissioning Editor and 16 years as a programme maker. He commissioned for primetime BBC1 and 2, the biggest factual slots on TV, and was responsible for shows such as Hugh’s Fat Fight and formats like Eat Well for Less and The House That 100K Built. As a programme-maker he made series ranging from Mary Queen of Shops and Wife Swap through to Big Brother and The Baby Borrowers.