Six Takeaways From The Edinburgh TV Festival: Strike Ripples, Commissioning Slowdowns & AI

TV

The 2023 edition of the Edinburgh TV Festival is drawing to a close after four days of intense industry talks, gossip and Louis Theroux lectures. The halls of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre were buzzing as UK execs, creatives and talent took the chance to get together and talk shop. Here, we outline

“Ripple effect” of the strikes

No TV industry confab would be complete at present without a bit of strike chatter. As the writers strike moves way beyond 100 days and the actors’ action rumbles on, the “ripple effects” continue to be felt around the world, according to Lindsay Salt, the BBC’s new Drama Director. There was a small American presence at Edinburgh plus numerous UK commmissioners from the U.S. streamers’ hubs but, somewhat surprisingly, the labor action was not raised during panel sessions with both Netflix and Disney execs. Universal’s Pearlena Igbokwe, however, did tackle the elephant in the room, stating that CEOs and top senior leaders are “invested and committed to figuring out a deal that is fair and equitable for everybody.” In the busy halls of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, attendees that Deadline spoke with off record had mixed feelings about the strikes, which are biting at the same time as an unrelated commissioning slowdown driven by the economic crisis (more on that later). While there was a general feeling of solidarity coupled with knowledge that a good deal for the U.S. is a good deal for the UK, there were frustrations over loss of work caused by a labor action happening thousands of miles away. Equity boss Paul Fleming threw his weight behind SAG-AFTRA’s plight during a webinar to hundreds of union workers on Monday but the feeling of loss of work was compounded by a petition launched this week calling for the UK government to create an “income replacement scheme” for those who have lost work, which has amassed 25,000 signatures. Yesterday afternoon, The Late, Late Show with James Corden executive producer Ben Winston said his company, Fulwell73, had lost a premium unscripted order in the U.S. due to budget concerns related to the strikes. The longer the twin disputes rumble on, the more the freelance community may feel its patience beginning to wear thin.

How fast is the slowdown?

It’s been a slow old summer in the world of UK TV commissioning. Ever since Deadline revealed Channel 4 had canceled a high-profile Four Weddings reboot due to budget constraints, freelancers and execs alike have been feeling the heavy weight of the commissioning slowdown, driven in the main by the ad slump. Channel 4 has been in the eye of the slowdown storm and programs boss Ian Katz was forced onto the defensive during his spotlight session by a volley of tricky questions about the network’s finances. He fought fire with fire when claiming Channel 4 has “perhaps been a bit more honest” than rivals about the slowdown, as he pushed back on the perception that C4’s financial picture is “more dramatic than elsewhere.” The previous day, Katz’s ITV counterpart Kevin Lygo said he would not be dropping ITV’s program budget during the slowdown. “I hear Channel 4 shut the gates or something but we are not doing that,” Lygo added, refusing to mince his words as ever. The BBC, for what it’s worth, may not be funded by ads but is certainly not immune from the slowdown’s clutches following two years of a frozen licence fee. Content boss Charlotte Moore backed the pubcaster’s long-established ‘fewer bigger better’ approach, which she said is a “good thing in today’s market.”

Freelancer woes

Swathes of the UK’s freelance community attended Edinburgh as per but the collective atmosphere was muted. The aforementioned commissioning slowdown has meant a seriously tough few months, with the Film & TV Charity revealing the shocking statistic Monday that applications for financial help rose 800% in July 2023 compared to the same time last year. Execs debated the situation and presented more research – such as this gobsmacking BAFTA survey finding that a third of its members are quitting the TV industry – but few genuine solutions were forthcoming. The situation represents a complete 360 from the previous year, when it felt as if the freelance workforce was virtually at full employment. During the opening Power of TV debate, chaired by Deadline’s Jake Kanter, incoming Film & TV Charity CEO Marcus Ryder urged a change in industry structures akin to the changes which caused a flood of investment in Scottish TV around 15 years ago – establishing what would become a thriving production sector. Storyville boss Emma Hindley floated a number of “wacky ideas” such as bosses paying 1% of their bonuses to the charity’s donation fund, or celebraties giving a day’s earnings, but the situation is far from resolved and will require a huge collective effort until commissioning returns to something akin to normal once again.

Presenters, behave

The behavior of presenters when the cameras are turned off has been placed firmly in the spotlight this year due to high-profile scandals invloving Phillip Schofield and Huw Edwards, along with Deadline’s investigation into TV chef James Martin. Avalon boss Jon Thoday returned the Schofield drama to the fore during the opening debate when he exclaimed “surprise” that ITV bosses didn’t know about the former This Morning host’s affair with a much younger runner. “If you run a business and someone is doing something wrong it’s unusual for [management] not to know about it,” mused Thoday, coming a few weeks after ITV CEO Carolyn McCall said “no evidence” was ever presented to her team about the affair. ITV’s Lygo updated on the independent Schofield review during his controller session, which he said is on track to publish next month, with the lawyer leading the review having “talked to everyone involved, taken our phones and looked at every text we’ve sent, including emails and WhatsApps.” Lygo urged people not to rush to “hasty judgement” before publication, citing “enormous pressure from press and social media” attached to the saga. The BBC’s joint reviews sparked by the Edwards scandal are also both due in the coming weeks and it is unlikely this topic will be exiting the headlines anytime soon.

All eyes on AI

On Wednesday, producers crammed into a fun (and alarming) session on how AI will impact TV making in the future. TV producer-turned-academic Alex Connock, maths professor and broadcaster Hannah Fry and BBC Commissioning Editor Muslim Alim took to the stage to reveal the dos and don’ts of using AI in the future. Connock, a Fellow at the Said Business School and co-founder of Bob Geldof’s Ten Alps TV, warned those working in development that while AI could help speed up their processes and fuel creativity, many copyright infringement cases are already stemming from the use of generative machines, which are usually created and programmed by scraping existing work from the internet and regurgitating it. In an email he sent Deadline after the session, Connock predicted it would become standard practice for actors to monetize their likeness in the future and, provided it’s regulated properly, won’t be the disaster situation that many believe is developing. With AI one of the bitterest elements of the actors strike, the idea the future isn’t so dark is a soothing one. However, Connock said actors were right to be worried about their voices being used without explicit permission, and in datasets. “If I were acting for the actors, voice synthesis would be a hill I would be prepared to die on, in negotiation point terms.” TV companies are certainly taking AI seriously: just this week Banijay launched the AI Creative Fund, which will allow producers and labels across the super-indies production footprint to showcase ideas with technology and innovation at their heart.

Can I take your orders?

Edinburgh is traditionally the week when the UK’s networks and streamers reveal their latest slate. With commissioning becoming less structured and formulaic, the number of announcements has fallen in recent years but there was plenty to digest in any case. Netflix got in first, unveiling doc series Einstein and the Bomb. Clearly influenced by Oppenheimer‘s success, the John Boyega-narrated series will look at the devastating after effects of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan in World War II. Disney+’s UK team have been focused on local stories such as their upcoming Coleen Rooney ‘Agatha Christie’ doc series, but the greenlight of World War Shoe: Adidas vs. Puma (w/t), a doc series from Pretty Boat Rocker’s Baby: Brooke Shields producer Matador Content, and David Beckham’s Studio 99, was more overtly a global streamer order. The series will explore the inner workings of the two major sports brands, which have a unique shared history and rivalry having been created by feuding brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler. ITV revealed its reboot of Big Brother will run for at least two seasons and Sky revealed House of Kardashian, a doc series about the famous reality TV family directed by Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story director Katie Hindley. Prime Video had little in the way of new commissions but its exec did address the future of Clarkson’s Farm after its star, Jeremy Clarkson, wrote an article about Meghan Markle that was so vicious and aggressive that it has become the most-complained about column in UK press history. Elsewhere, the BBC ordered another drama from Happy Valley scribe Sally Wainwright, titled Hot Flush. Channel 4 made several program announcements, including a further season of Everyone Else Burns, a Rosie Jones comedy series titled Disability Benefits and doc The Murder Retrial (w/t).

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