Sky recently revealed they want “dynamic and challenging subject matter about the contemporary world.” Bravo declared that “programmes need to stand out; we want ‘did you see?’ moments that will get people talking.” Five “want to tackle mainstream subjects in interesting new ways and find talent that help pull an audience to our shows.” No shit…
The trouble with commissioning steers is that they have always been a rabble-rousing bundle of empty platitudes. Returnable, popular, accessible, ambitious – the meaningless buzzwords of a televisual demagogue. They tell us nothing. So why bother?
In fact, the purpose of steers is less about commissioners telling programme makers what they want (Basic message: something good, please) and more about convincing themselves that their channel isn’t as tawdry as everyone thinks. Thus, for all of Stuart Murphy’s rhetoric about ‘high quality’ ideas with an ‘emotional and passionate’ tone, he commissions Fat Families, “a series in which an ex-fat presenter moves in with fat families, and breaks the news to them that the reason they are fat is because they eat too much crap and don’t exercise.” Spot on, Stuart.
So in what way can these hopelessly vague steers ever be useful to beleaguered development teams? Naturally, only when they get truly specific. But there are only two times in life that a commissioner can be compelled to get specific.
One time is when they provide whimsical ‘wish lists’ based on the past commissions of other people. With the benefit of hindsight, they wished they’d been offered Grand Designs – they would have snapped it up. Why didn’t we come to them first with The Choir- they would have taken it straight to series. If only someone had brought them Inside Nature’s Giants – they would have paid over the odds for attention-grabbing factual theatre like that. Bullshit! These onanistic exercises serve no one.
The second instance specifics arise is when they reveal what they definitely do NOT want. No weddings, no celeb-authored travelogues, no more Sue Perkins (surely not?). Now this is useful. This is where the canny developer gets to work. Not in avoiding these areas, but precisely in doing the opposite.
Because the fundamental indecisiveness of commissioners – ever as inconstant as the wind – coupled with musical chairs in the upper corridors of power- invariably mean that by the time any proposals are ready the complete opposite will be true.
So next time you hear steers like these, start writing up Sue Perkins’ Weirdest Weddings of the World.
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