There was much to be concerned about at the recent Edinburgh TV Festival, but as Michael Burns reports there were also some bright sparks to cheer the industry.
The Edinburgh TV Festival, when the UK TV production community traditionally decamps en masse from ‘the Smoke’ to a conference centre in ‘Auld Reekie’, is an opportunity for big debates to be aired, as well as news revealed of upcoming shows and formats. With almost a week of sessions and panels, it’s impossible to cover everything in one article, but here’s an overview of announcements and a taste of some of the talks.
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: New slates
On the horizon are Prime Video UK Original documentary The Fake Sheikh; Virdee, a new six-part detective drama based on AA Dhand’s crime novels and starring Sacha Dhawan; Jenna Coleman will star as a rookie detective in The Jetty, a four-part BBC thriller from writer Cat Jones and producer Firebird Pictures. Drama The Tattooist of Auschwitz (starring Harvey Keitel) and a host of factual shows were announced by Sky; a new reality TV series The Fortune Hotel, produced by Tuesday’s Child for ITV and STV in 2024 will be hosted by Stephen Mangan; while Disney+ showed previews of three-part documentary, Coleen Rooney: The Real Wagatha Story.
Delegates also heard from Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright that she will return to the BBC with Hot Flush, a new drama for BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Comedy thriller Black Ops has been recommissioned for a second six-part series on BBC One and BBC iPlayer, while a BBC Factual documentary on assisted dying with the working title, Better Off Dead? is to be written and presented by disability rights activist Liz Carr for BBC One and iPlayer.
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: Crisis talks
The crisis facing TV production freelancers was front and centre throughout the festival, while related questions about the dearth of commissioning were fired at channel commissioners during a variety of sessions during the week. The Film and TV Charity, prominent at the festival, reported that the crisis had arisen due to multiple factors, including strikes by US actors and writers impacting productions globally, the cost-of-living crisis, and pressures on scripted and unscripted production budgets.
The charity revealed that it had seen an 800% surge in applications by industry workers in need of urgent stopgap grants, and in response, it was adding £500,000 to its existing budget. Corporate supporters such as BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Prime Video, ITV, and Warner Bros. Discovery also used the event to pledge further donations to help.
The wider environmental crisis was highlighted in sessions sponsored by albert, BAFTA’s organisation for sustainability. Gaby Hornsby, the BBC’s TV Lead for Sustainability, ably chaired the panel session, Impact! Talkability, Shareability and Making Your Content Valued, in which speakers discussed the impact made by Blue Planet (a leap in demands for plastic recycling) and The Queen’s Gambit (unintended impact on sales of chess sets), and how to produce content that gets talked about and increases audience engagement.
The panel included Allison Begalman, CEO of YEA! Impact, who would have been many delegates first encounter with an ‘Impact Producer’.
“[The idea of] impact is often tacked on at the end of a project,” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s not doing anything. If we’re brought on at the beginning, we can move with the creative team and start building out a theory of change: What’s the ultimate impact? What is the goal of this? Who are the movements on the ground who we want to be in touch with and can start building a relationship with? You can create a line item in the budget supporting those movements and make sure that they’re part of the process at every stage.”
Professor Justin Lewis, Director of Media Cymru, expressed frustration with producers who state that programmes about the climate crisis don’t fit their formats. “Let’s think about how we change the way we do things, so that we can communicate these things better, rather than just saying the format doesn’t fit.”
Hornsby noted that UK TV productions are governed by a broadcasting code: “We can’t campaign, but we can hopefully enhance the quality of the conversation,” she added.
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive - The Wildlife Trusts, observed that if homebuying/improvement shows normalised the act of home insulation, it would bring about real change on climate action in the UK. “It’s not the climate message, it’s not even the message that they will save money,” added Bennett. “It’s actually the moment that people learn that there’s a lot of people doing it, then they are much more likely to do it too.”
A related session saw the launch of the Equity Green Rider which seeks to spark a cultural shift in the entertainment industry. Created by Equity for a Green New Deal, the Green Rider can be added to screen artists’ contracts to state their own sustainability commitments and to negotiate bolder sustainability standards on set before accepting a job. It includes clauses such as opting for travel by train over planes, avoiding oversized trailers for star cast, and reusing sets and costumes.
Elsewhere, the TV Access Project (TAP) was celebrating a year on from its launch at the Edinburgh TV Festival 2022 with key initiatives and events, and laying out the work still to be done to reach its target of creating full inclusion for Deaf, Disabled and Neurodivergent talent by 2030. TAP said it has now delivered 20 sustainable tangible solutions towards its vision, including 5As Guidelines and widespread training on inclusivity in production, an Access to Work pilot scheme, TAP Activator commitments for Production Spaces, and more.
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: Tech talks
Opening day session, Everything You Wanted to Know About TikTok, saw the platform James Stafford, General Manager UK, and James Naughton, Global Entertainment Lead, urge producers to use TikTok to build fan engagement around a show or IP.
Using examples like The Last of Us, The Barbie Movie, and Love Island, Naughton described TikTok as an “amazing breeding ground to create new fans or convert new people into shows”.
“I think what’s key to that is over 70% of our users feel a sense of community,” he continues. “It empowers our audience to feel enabled and able to talk about what they love about your shows and your IP, however niche that might be.”
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Two TikTok creators Ayamé Ponder (@ayame.p) and Coco Sarel (@CocoSarel) described their experiences and success at building an audience, as well as common misconceptions about the amount of work creators put in. “There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes for us to make content that’s good enough to sit on our pages,” said Sorel. “What TikTok does is open you up to opportunities that you weren’t necessarily expecting, but because you’re keeping it authentic to you, [the opportunity] finds you.”
Both creators also expressed a desire to work in traditional TV, and as luck would have it, the BBC used the TV festival to announce its Creator Lab in collaboration with TikTok. The scheme aims to give 100 social and digital creators, who have an interest in pursuing a television career, the opportunity to take part in a development programme for creators to showcase their skills whilst working on a BBC brief.
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: AI in rude health
One of the drivers of the US writers’ strike is the perceived threat posed by AI. This fear was countered in some respects by the AI & TV session, presented by mathematician and presenter Hannah Fry, BBC Commissioning Editor Muslim Alim and Oxford academic and author Alex Connock. Taking the form of a three-way lecture, the session covered practical uses of AI in TV development, production and post, using AI to internationalise content as well as the troubling sophistication of deepfakes.
Fry pointed out there are differences between how we see the world and how we expect the machines to, adding “something very important to remember in this generation of generative AI is that anything that is generated by AI will at some point in the past have been generated by a human”.
“AI is already integrating into content production,” said Alim.
“If AIs growth in the sector continues as predicted, then you may see some new roles like creative director of AI, synthetic human producer, and prompt engineer; the latter is someone with the skill to write a line or a paragraph of text that instructs generative AI to carry out the task.”
“The AI is going to do all the mechanical activities in content creation, pretty much from now, certainly from next year. But you’ll do the real, clever origination,” predicted Connock.
He proposed that “a reality TV show with 50 cameras shooting two weeks of footage is a data science project” and that a trained AI would be able to chunk through 90% of the footage to prepare it for editing. “That last 10% is the conceptual bit where the editor decides how the show, or the story is actually going to be told.”
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: Scottish perspective
With Scottish Screen as the headline sponsor, trailers before every session helpfully reminded the audience they were no longer in London, but those attending the panel on Irvine Welsh’s Crime would have been in little doubt of their location. Welsh, the author and writer of the series, as well as actor/executive producer Dougray Scott, actor Joanna Vanderham, and producer Helen Ostler, spoke about bringing the second series of Crime to TV later this year, as well as the possibility of a third series.
Welsh revealed he was hoping to help shift British crime drama away from police procedurals. “We have a great tradition of police procedurals in the UK, but having lived for ten years in the US I’ve been more influenced by HBO series,” he said. “My ambition was to move [Crime] from a police procedural like The Bill into a show like True Detective. Even though there is still a procedural element to Series Two, it’s more about character. Every one of the characters experiences some kind of progression and some kind of conflict that they have to resolve.”
Edinburgh TV Festival 2023: Taking risks with MacTaggart
The MacTaggart, the keynote address at the festival, was given by Louis Theroux, whose main theme was that TV had to have the courage to take risks.
“We’re in a time of two parallel realities,” Theroux said. “The old world with our cherished values of editorial policy and balance, and a new digital frontier where anything goes. It’s a little like an Olympics event where half the athletes are allowed to dope… I believe in the long run, it’s the truthful, sensitive storytelling that will last. It is on us, as programme-makers, those of us who care about great television to be brave about telling stories that are compelling and that can fight for people’s attention.”
Much of today’s content, he said, is based on the idea of monetising provocation. “It relies on pushing people’s buttons to get our attention. Spreading sexism, racism, homophobia, sometimes dressing it up as irony, or comedy, while promoting a bigoted agenda.”
His opinion is that broadcasters’ “laudable aims of not offending have created an atmosphere of anxiety that sometimes leads to less confident, less morally complex filmmaking”.
He also drew upon the fears around AI: “In a few years it may be able to write a passable sitcom or action movie. But what it won’t be able to do is take risks. Because risk involves danger. And there’s no danger for machines. Risk involves real feeling. The possibility of humiliation, embarrassment, failure. Humans experience all those emotions and more.
“[But] the risk of not taking risks is something worse,” he said. “Not just failure, but a kind of loss of integrity. A mimicry, that is a denial of oneself. A forgetting of the melody of one’s own soul.”
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