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The Trouble With Ideas Sessions at Festivals

TV Festival 2006 390

(C) Rob McDougall / MGEITF 2010

At the recent Media Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival there was a session (as there was in 2009) on the best way to develop creative ideas. This year, (as last), there wasn’t one person on the panel who specialised in developing TV ideas. Instead we had a panel consisting of an installation artist, the director of a product design company, the MD of a media communications agency and the creative director of an advertising agency. The panel was tasked with a brief from Duncan Gray,  Sky’s Head of Entertainment, for a new cross-platform, portable breakfast programme, in an attempt to test whether the “more formal and rigorous ways” they employ in ideas creation are better than the, presumably casual and careless ways employed by TV development producers. The blurb for the session asked whether it was fair to compare the different methods and questioned whether “TV development teams are given the time, training or resources they need”: a valid and important question. Unfortunately, it was a question that went unanswered. The session served, by its very failure to include of anyone from TV development, to prove that TV development is undervalued and not given the time or resources it needs (even on a panel, where the only investment would have been an extra chair on the stage).

But let’s not be negative; let’s see what we can learn from these other creative disciplines:

Beth Derbyshire, the artist, also works with brands and spends three to six months developing an idea for a brand. Her process involves:

  • Looking at the brand ‘heritage’
  • Talking to experts
  • Talking to consumers
  • Getting out there
  • Sleeping on it
  • Interviews with stake holders

This isn’t so different from the process used in TV development teams, except that we would be expected to understand the brand heritage of each of the TV networks as a matter of course; that’s the first base of development. Talking to experts, would equate to doing research into a subject, finding potential interviewees or characters and taking advice on potential legal and compliance issues. We tend not to use focus groups at the development stage (although they are more popular in the USA at the pilot stage); anecdotally, they seem to be useful for knocking bad ideas on the head, but useless at predicting which shows will be runaway hits. Getting out of the office and giving an idea space to evolve (or decay) is good advice; sleeping on it is easier to implement than getting out of the office, particularly in a culture that values ‘presenteeism’, ie. if you aren’t glued to your computer you can’t possibly be working. And interviews with stakeholders equates to the development meeting with the channel commissioner.

However, despite the similarities in the artistic and TV development processes, Beth’s idea was not a good one and completely missed the point: her ‘blue sky’ idea was to broadcast a breakfast show from hot air balloons floating in the skies across the land so people could look up and see the breakfast show in the sky. The logistical and cost implications of this are mind-boggling; never mind the impracticalities of millions of commuters staring into the sky instead of looking where they are going. It failed to incorporate any of the various platforms consumers have at their disposal – phone, radio, TV, iPod, iPad, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. In her defence, she did say she never watched TV (which is no excuse for not including other platform elements), but that means she should never have been entrusted with programme creation.

Mark Boyd, creative director at BBH advertising agency  and Ed Hebblethwaite, director, Seymour Powell, had an altogether different approach. Neither of them presented their ideas for a new show as, “if you go giving your ideas away for free nobody values them”. Instead they said that when pitching for business, they only pitched their creative process and not their ideas. Only when money was on the table would they start thinking about ideas.  Their creative process starts with six weeks of getting to know the brand. Again, TV development people do (or should) know all the TV brands inside and out and therefore don’t need to invest their time in a concentrated study, rather they need to be given access to industry intelligence such as the trade magazines and overnight figures so they can spot and track trends and evolutions. These guys thought that their USP was in building a working relationship with a brand and that was more important than an idea; in TV land relationships are paramount to winning business too, yet TV producers can be as friendly and with commissioners as they like, but if they aren’t also coming up with and offering ideas then they’re not going to keep winning meetings. It’s in those meetings that ideas are often ‘talked into existence’ (I forget who first said this, but I’m pretty sure it was someone quoted here).

Mark Eaves told how his agency have an in-house focus group room and a room in which they have every type of technology that’s available for staff to play and experiment with. That kind of access could revolutionize the the way that TV development producers think about multiplatform content (which is a bugbear of many commissioners). Too many TV producers are still sceptical or in denial about the use and value of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube let alone the more complex gaming platforms. Throughout the course of MGETIF it was embarrassing to hear panel chairs cough and and say, “I believe you can Tweet questions to the panel, and I will ask them the best – I have to wait for the questions to be printed out on a piece of paper first though… so much for technology, haha”.

Mark Boyd’s creative process, once the client has contracted for £000’s, is one in which the creatives are valued. “Development is the most valuable part of the process, and needs the brightest, most well remunerated people in the business”.  First, the creative (who is bestowed with a title such as ‘creative ideas engineer’ or some such):

  1. Interrogates the problem
  2. Thinks in a media neutral way
  3. Develops creative ideas
  4. Does consumer research
  5. Employs a great production team.

Again, this isn’t so far away from how a TV development producer operates, although it might read a little more like:

  1. F**k, our key moneymaking series has just been pulled after 10 years – we need an new long-running, repeatable, episodic, internationally salable format, and quick
  2. Forgets multiplatform for now, there’s no money in it; concentrate on the TV proposition – something can be bolted on later
  3. Develops creative ideas
  4. Shops it around to several commissioners until one of them bites
  5. Employs a great production team

Now, undoubtedly it would be a great thing if TV development teams had the luxury of time to create a carefully crafted idea at leisure, but usually they are under the cosh from executive producers who don’t believe that development takes time or, indeed much thought. While an ad agency creative gets six weeks to think about a problem (can that really be true?)  a TV development producer is often expected to turn out between six and sixty worked up proposals in the same time period. In short, we are playing completely different games on different playing fields and the two can’t be compared. Unless that is, next year MGEITF wants to put on a panel where advertising types  go head-to-head with TV developers, and ordinary TV producer/directors under the constraints under which TV people have to work and see who comes out best. Only then will we be any closer to knowing whether, “TV development teams are given the time, training or resources they need”, or whether, they are in fact the brightest and  “most valuable part of the process”, who should also be the most well remunerated people in the business”. Unfortunately, the advertising types probably wouldn’t bother getting out of bed and so the question will forever go unanswered.

Here’s a clip of a Media Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival session in 2009, How to Have a Good Idea, which features artist Grayson Perry, who advocates lying in bed, showering and ‘self-dating’ as ways of generating ideas (don’t try this in the office).


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