Risk-taking entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of our industry, says K7 Media’s Non-Exec Director Clare Thompson.
One of Steve Jobs’ most quoted lines is his comment from a retreat he attended with the early Mac development team in 1982, where he told them it was ‘more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy’. It’s become a bumper sticker mantra for an entire generation who have come to believe that start-up entrepreneurship is THE career model for any right-thinking creative, over and above the perhaps safer choice of a company job with the ‘navy’.
In the TV industry we’ve been going through an unprecedented period of consolidation of some of the biggest media players in the world. It’s perhaps inevitable that good people have decided to take the money and run, suffered from being duplicated elsewhere, or just decided life in an even bigger corporate machine is not for them.
We’re seeing this first-hand at K7 every week as we update our directory of UK indies The Slate
But is the modern fever for risk-taking entrepreneurship infecting a whole TV generation too, for whom a ‘job job’ at the BBC or Endemol Shine is just not going to cut it anymore? We’ve always been an industry of freelancers, used to uncertainty and ever-changing roles; and in the UK also known as rebellious risk-takers – a financially lucrative creative approach, whether in fashion, music or TV. But are we heading for a situation where everyone wants to be a pirate, and no-one wants to join the Navy anymore? Is this situation really sustainable and what will the impact on actual telly be?
Media M&A specialists like About Corporate Finance have stoked the fire with the investment deals they’ve been able to make for start-ups with even the potential to create saleable content. Investment funds from Channel 4, BBC Worldwide and ITV Studios – all desperate to prioritise content ownership over diminishing broadcast revenues – have created a gold rush situation for any half-decent Exec with a couple of ‘created by’ credits under their belt. Anecdotally we’re seeing this first-hand at K7 every week as we update our directory of UK indies The Slate – 12 new start-ups in less than six months.
So when your new super-indie’s ‘cost rationalisation’ team rolls into town, it’s probably no wonder many of those creative risk-takers decide to take the plunge and get back to dreaming up shows, rather than sit out months of new org charts.
My old ITV boss Duncan Gray started Twenty Six 03 (without major investment) after leaving Princess last year and he says the rollercoaster is terrifying but invigorating. “When you work at a mid-sized indie in a big group, you spend a lot of time pitching shows that you might not believe in, but need to ‘roll out’ internationally to meet shareholder targets. My new company operates solely from the capital of the shows it makes, so I now have to make choices based on the ideas I truly believe in.”
In his view there’s a whole tier like him who have become tired of building fat distribution pipelines to roll out IP, only to find there’s not much interesting IP to put in them. “We became salesmen, not true creatives, and that’s not very satisfying.”
“You spend a lot of time pitching shows that you might not believe in, but need to ‘roll out’ internationally to meet shareholder targets”
For the commissioners the ramifications of this new order are also not insignificant – a lot more meetings in the diary with ever-increasing numbers of start-ups, and if something goes wrong there’s no lifeline of cash from the mothership. “You have to be very brave to commission a new idea from a new indie,” says Duncan, “Of course they’re going to worry about whether you can deliver.”
But of course it’s always more fun to champion David over Goliath. To go back to the Steve Jobs analogy, for Microsoft think Endemol Shine; steady, accepted but now in need of that iPod moment to restore the creative reputation both companies once had. Meanwhile in our saturated TV ecosystem, those that do end up as Apple will be the few, versus the many that don’t survive at all. But if the Channel 4-funded indie explosion of the late 80s and early 90s is the last good model to go by, it’s perhaps more than likely that it’s from one of these new pirate ships that the best idea will come.
This article first appeared on Broadcast Now.