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British TV’s Innovative Original Programming Under Threat

Traditionally the International Emmys are a showcase for the rich pickings of British TV.

In 2014, conspiracy thriller “Utopia” won best drama series while documentary “Educating Yorkshire,” a look at modern schooling, scooped the non-scripted entertainment prize. Both shows were commissioned and broadcast by U.K. network, Channel 4, whose mission includes programming for a culturally diverse society.

This year the nominees contain no fewer than seven British shows, excluding kid shows. They include noms in the arts, drama and documentary categories, and potential awards for thesps Sheridan Smith (in ITV’s “Cilla”) and Rafe Spall (Channel 4 series “Black Mirror” holiday episode “White Christmas”).

These shows exhibit the kind of creativity for which British TV is internationally renowned. But with both the BBC and Channel 4 facing uncertain futures, can U.K. TV sustain its reputation for nurturing programs like the ones loved by juries at the Intl. Emmys?

In September, speaking to the Royal Television Society, BBC topper Tony Hall issued a warning. He said that unless the decline in investment in original U.K. shows by the main U.K. networks was reversed — down by around 15% from 2008-13 — Britain’s reputation for high-quality TV was at risk.

“BBC spending has fallen, overall investment in British content has gone down,” Hall said.

The BBC is facing fresh cuts of up to around 20% sparked by a new government squeeze on corporation coffers. Unless more staff is pink-slipped, cuts to content budgets look certain.

At the same time, state-owned Channel 4 faces the possibility of being privatized. U.S. media companies such as Discovery, Liberty and NBCUniversal are all believed to be potential bidders for the network.

U.K. producers fear that if Channel 4 becomes a conventional commercial company, rather than a pubcaster required to make shows that innovate, British creativity would take a back seat to the bottom line.

“The notion of privatizing Channel 4 is absurd,” says Andy Harries, CEO of Left Bank Pictures, one of an increasing number of British independents owned by U.S. companies; Sony bought a controlling stake in Left Bank in 2012.

“If Channel 4 was owned by a major international media company from outside the U.K., cuts to program budgets would be inevitable,” Harries says. “That’s very bad news for what’s an entrepreneurial but essentially boutique industry. We would risk losing that unique British creativity that, paradoxically, international markets love in quirky shows like ‘Gogglebox.’”

Harries adds, “I think the creativity and financial viability of the British TV industry is being threatened. People might think it’s a very robust industry, but it is actually far more fragile and far more of a cottage industry than many people realize. For example, there is much less money spent by U.K. broadcasters on drama than there was a few years ago.”

Des Freedman, a media academic at London’s Goldsmiths U., notes: “Investment in drama by Britain’s pubcasters is down by about a third in the last five years.”

He is working with seasoned U.K. film producer David Puttnam on an inquiry into the role of public service television in the U.K.

“Public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our broadcast landscape in the U.K. but we are seeing a worrying fall in investment in key areas such as arts, news and drama as well as the tendency for younger audiences to migrate to new digital platforms,” Puttnam says.

Harries, meanwhile, regards the U.K. government’s attitude to the sector’s health as bordering on the schizophrenic. He points out that in 2013 the British minister in charge of public finance, George Osborne, introduced tax credits for high-end TV made in Blighty. The policy galvanized production in the U.K. leading to an influx of U.S. crews working on shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Sony/Left Bank’s “Outlander” and Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons.”

“This was a bold and important move, which really boosted U.K. scripted TV,” Harries says. “And yet at the same time Osborne seems determined to keep beating up the BBC over its license fee. The campaign to undermine the BBC makes it very difficult for it to attract smart people to work there and for the BBC to be at the center of this creative industry.”

Freedman adds: “The role of the BBC as the driver of the U.K. creative sector is vital. We cut our biggest broadcaster at our peril.”

Another veteran U.K. producer worried about the future of Britain’s TV sector is Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England.

“I’m concerned that the overall investment in original programming by the British PSBs (i.e. the pubcasters) is declining,” Bazalgette says. “This is not only an investment in our culture, it’s also what drives our program exports.”

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