The director of nations and regions at Channel 4 has rejected an accusation he has been partially responsible for Scotland’s relatively low television production base, arguing instead that what Scottish TV producers need to do is develop 'returning' formats.
Stuart Cosgrove was speaking last week about Scottish TV broadcasting at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture committee.
And former head of news and current affairs at Grampian TV, Tory MSP, Ted Brocklebank, put it to him that he had successfully “kept the natives quiet”.
Said Brocklebank: “If I were a disgruntled independent [TV production company] in Scotland, what I might say is that Stuart Cosgrove has been great for Channel 4, he’s ‘kept the natives quiet’, he’s done a great job talking up Scotland, but, actually, some say, not really delivering very much for Scotland.”
In an exchange that lasted some five minutes, Brocklebank’s argument was that the talent behind various TV dramas in Scotland’s past, such as STV’s Take the High Road, was not sufficiently nurtured by commissioning editors across TV – including but not exclusively at Channel 4 – as a way of assisting those people build their reputations and skills.
Cosgrove replied by saying his accuser had a “very partial reading of history”, pointing to the success of Scottish films made with the help of Channel 4, such as Trainspotting and The Last King of Scotland, adding that few Scottish programmes – such as Take the High Road – had made the leap to network screening.
He suggested that many Scots had moved to London and elsewhere not because they ‘couldn’t make it in Scotland’, but for various career and personal reasons. “I work daily, weekly with most of the start-up [TV production companies] in Scotland and I am personally not aware of a company that’s saying, ‘We can’t make it here in Scotland and so we’re closing down and moving house, we’re moving to London.’ I’ve never heard of that. If a freelance individual is saying that he can get more work in London, that’s a slightly different thing.”
During questioning that lasted 80 minutes, Cosgrove was also asked to explain Channel 4 commissioning of independent TV production companies in Scotland totalling 2.6 per cent of its then network spend three years ago, 1.7 per cent two years ago and 1.4 per cent last year, with it estimated to be 2.1 per cent (or £6.1 million) this year.
He said that, during the recession, there’s been a growth in Channel 4 spending in Scotland, but that two ‘returning dramas’ made in Scotland – The Book Group and Wedding Belles – had come to an end.
Earlier, he said that Channel 4’s investment in Scottish film – which isn’t included in the above figures – has made it the biggest investor in Scottish filmmaking history – including, this year, two films being currently made; one by Peter Mullan, the other by Andrew Macdonald.
And he added that Channel 4 was also investing significantly in digital projects in Scotland.
And a forthcoming series of the documentary strand, True Stories, will be half made up of work by Scots, including filmmaker and film commentator, Mark Cousins.
But Cosgrove used that relative success to return to a theme he has often raised in the past: good though these pieces of work may be, they are one-offs.
Said Cosgrove: “We [in Scotland] are relatively weak in the area where television is at its most economically powerful, which is in the returning format brands of mainstream television, whether they are in reality-based formats, whether they are in daytime, whether they are in game show or, indeed, whether they are in returning drama.”
What that means is that, while £10 million might be spent in Glasgow over 18 months, some £40 million will be spent over the same period of time in Manchester: home to two returning drama series on Channel 4 – Hollyoaks and Shameless. The difference is not studio capacity or availability of talent, but the lack of returnable, scaled, volume television production.
Over the last three years, Cosgrove added, not a single programme proposal had come from Scotland to Channel 4’s youth entertainment channel, E4, for a returning drama. He pointed out that throughout the world, there isn’t a single format that was created in Scotland.
How such ‘industrial programming’ could be achieved in Scotland, there were two ‘classic’ choices, Cosgrove said: assist indigenous companies to grow or to attract outside ones.
“I’ve always been personally in favour of indigenous growth,” he said. He also believed Scotland had experienced little growth through mergers and acquisitions.
Channel 4 favourites, Location Location Location and Relocation Relation, are both made from Glasgow, as is Kirstie’s Homemade Home and Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas. And also in Glasgow, beginning a week tomorrow, a returning daytime show – Japanese cooking show, Iron Chef – goes into production.
He continued: “There’s no question the direction of travel is right. Is it fast enough and is it substantial enough? I’d probably say no. And I’d point to the scale of companies. Most of our indigenous companies, with two or three exceptions, are based on the single film model.”
There are currently five companies operating in and around Manchester producing returning drama, and the two that produce Hollyoaks and Shameless spun out of soap operas: Brookside and Coronation Street.
Cosgrove’s opening addresses reminded committee members that Channel 4 differs from the BBC in relying on advertising revenue for its budget and that, by virtue of being a ‘publisher/broadcaster’ its programmes are made by external companies not in-house.
That business – with upwards of 400 ‘indies’ per year – means the broadcaster can, says Cosgrove, benefit from their “phenomenal innovation”. But he adds: “Channel 4 is not in a position to, in any way, insist third-party companies to move location, to change the nature of their contracts, etc.”
He added that Channel 4 was intending to honour a promise, made earlier this year, of appointing a documentary commissioning editor based in Scotland. He said the delay was caused by a recruitment freeze, resulting from the recession, and that Channel 4 will be advertising for not one but two posts in the New Year (he declined to detail what exactly for).