Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Comissioning to give us an understanding of the inner workings of BBC programming and how best to work at getting those scripts to screen.
The BBC is quite unique in it’s broadcasting remit, largely because of the licencing fee, and it has a wider access than most companies because of it’s public entity status and creates a hugely varied range of quality material meaning that there are no guidelines as such as to what is made. It depends to some extent on what’s already on the production slate, or about to go on it and how your drama fits in with the overall breadth of programming. With the licencing fee going down the level of drama being produced has reduced and some drama has been cut with no drama now on BBC4 and only two for BBC3. However BBC1 and BBC2 drama slates have been unaffected by reductions and there is still lots of drama being commissioned.
TV is a democracy, says Ben, and to have a new series commissioned it is likely that you will have experience. The approach always comes through agent representation to one of the commissioning editors, but for unsolicited writers there is the BBC Writers’ Room which is a one of a kind place to professionalise writers who do not yet have representation, until such time as they do. It’s very unlikely that you’d have your own series commissioned via the Writers’ Room but that avenue is there and is the only avenue for unsolicited work to be seen.
The overall strategy at the BBC is about range and diversity, and there are not really specific pigeon holes that they’re looking to fill. Never write anything that you think will be commissioned because really it’s the script and not the idea that Ben looks at when making decisions. Anyone can have an idea, but how that idea is executed and the quality of the concept and writing is key. The commitment of the production team is also extremely important, will they be passionate enough about a project to work hard to push it forward and see it made. With over 450 hours of drama being commissioned every year and the current programming slate has some great regular and new drama coming up, including a second series of one of my personal favourites ‘Peaky Blinders.’ The shows Ben is most proud of are the ones he remembers having the best experience working on. A sign again that lifting off a new drama and making it a success is a group effort that relies on the enthusiasm of the people getting it made.
The good news is that no writer receives a golden ticket to the BBC to get their drama made. Everyone starts somewhere, Tony Jordan was a market trader. Writers are spread out around the country so you don’t need to be in London for instance, other than maybe for a meeting. The business may happen in London but the writers don’t need to be there. It’s very different than the American system, which works very well for them as the way they commission and sell drama is different. They make their real money after 100 episodes which is why they have longer episode runs and large writers’ rooms. For what we do in the UK our system works very well for us. There are new opportunities opening up too with technology like the iPlayer, and a new writers’ commission is opening that will be used to create content just for iPlayer viewing and more and more iPlayer is being treated like a channel.
Ben Stephens advises loving TV if you’re going to write for it. “You’ve got to love it and you’ve got to watch it.” he says, recommending that people watch everything and then just write, write, write. There are no short cuts. But when something good comes in, it’s like a feeding frenzy at the BBC and they will make great effort to see it developed and made. Producers come to the fore in that process, there to help writers make themselves better and it’s worth using that to advantage. Ben’s job is to look at work with objectivity and commission a slate that has as broad a range as possible but with quality writing and production at the fore. There are weaker areas where they don’t do so well but they can only do better if the writers and work are available. For instance there tend to be less women writers working in genre and less men in relationship dramas and in terms of content they could be stronger on diversity and disability. However Ben sticks up with venom for the quality of his 450+ BBC writers currently working on creation of the drama we see. If there is opportunity in the script to include diversity they embrace it but he believes it’s uncreative to request that of writers.
The timeline of drama is currently that after being commissioned it takes something like 4-6 months to begin production. However as they work in shooting blocks the writing often continues during and between those blocks on what hasn’t yet been shot. They are trying to give writers a little more time on this. As for content, the windows are open. He’s always wary of trends and looks for the fresh range of drama programs to fit into the range they’re creating, but suggests that rather than predict, just write and write well. Use the BBC Writers’ Room if you are unsolicited and don’t listen to advice only write what you know, we’d have very demographic drama if people only did that. Write out of something you feel, but be expansive.
Sounds like great advice to me!
Leilani Holmes at the London Screenwriters’ Festival
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