Developing the next generation of UK television talent

Wednesday 3rd January 2018




Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Labour MP for West Bromwich East

In the years immediately following the BBC’s first ever television broadcast in 1936, audiences were limited to just tens of thousands because television sets were so expensive then. Now, just over 80 years on, Ofcom estimates that 91 per cent of the UK’s population watch television at least once a week, with the average Briton watching three hours and thirty-two minutes of broadcast a day.

Over those 80 years since the real birth of British television, it has become a huge part of our personal and national life. It has provided entertainment and education, opening our eyes to events in our own country and around the world, and allowed us to share in huge moments of national pride, from the Festival of Britain in 1951 to the 1966 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.

It has also been a means of pushing boundaries and amplifying voices that are often unheard. From the first lesbian kiss on television (whether after the watershed in 1974, or before the watershed in 1994), to Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage, to the BBC’s Black and British season, these television events have been important in taking on social prejudices and breaking boundaries.

At the same time as becoming a big part of our culture, television has become a big part of our economy, too, with the quality of our television output reflected in the industry’s revenue figures. Ofcom’s most recent Communications Report found that broadcast television revenues hit £13.8 billion in 2016, with further revenue of £1.7 billion being generated by online services.

That latter figure is set to grow and grow. Ofcom estimates that 67 per cent of adults use the online services of the Public Sector Broadcasters, iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4, for instance, and subscription library services such as Netflix and Amazon are close behind, with 45 per cent of UK adults subscribing.

Our television industry is one of the best in the world, which is reflected in the strength of our exports. The latest UK Television Exports Report found that sales to international markets rose 10 per cent to £1.3 billion, between 2015-2016. From classic series such as Sherlock to winning formats like the X Factor, British television has produced some of the most exciting and innovative shows of any country in the world, which is why others want to buy them.

But we have to think about that growth relative to what is going on in the whole market, particularly the increasingly dominant role of those online library services. Netflix’s revenues have tripled over the last five years and they now have over 100 million subscribers worldwide. The revenue that Netflix pulls in is hard to compete with, particularly for the public service broadcasters. As James Purnell said earlier this year, The Crown, a fantastic Netflix series, cost over £100 million to make – which could have funded BBC2 for a whole three months.

We need to make sure that our British television industry can continue to compete by making sure they have the revenue and support which they need to thrive. The BBC needs to be properly funded and free from Government interference. All the PSBs need their channel prominence protected, particularly on online platforms and programme guides.

Broadcasters also need to make more of an effort to properly represent the whole nation – both on and off screen. That matters not only because television acts as a mirror to the nation, but because a lack of working class, BAME and disabled stories on screen turn off those audiences, and cut off potential revenues from increased viewership.

In order to continually tap into a wide diverse audience, we need to make sure that we are developing the next generation of talent, on screen and behind the scenes. More must be done to ensure that those career paths are not the preserve of people with privileged backgrounds, who can, in some cases, afford to work for free and who can apply to the best drama schools. We must break down the barriers to entry into the industry and unleash the potential of the next generation. We can and will only compete as a nation in future if we draw on all of the talent available to us.

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