Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Challenge of Being Creative In Difficult Times

I read and revisited two interesting, yet unconnected speeches today. I'm the one making the creative connection.

1. The Creative Coup at the Beeb

The first speech comes from George Entwhistle, the new Director General of the BBC. The full text of his address to staff today was published on line. It is so refreshing to hear him speak in the creative language of production. As broadcast becomes only one way in which the public access programmes, you can see the challenges facing all parts of the BBC. But it's a great start. These were the bits that struck me most.

I’ll start with what I think the BBC is for. When you strip it down to basics, our purpose isn’t complicated or challenging. We have a time-honoured compact with the UK public. In return for the licence fee, our task is to bring output of outstanding creative originality to as many people as we can reach.
Reith’s famous mission statement commits us, I believe, to all the genres in which we seek to do those things today. To news and current affairs when we set out to inform; to the full panoply of factual output and our children’s services when we seek to educate; and to music, sport, entertainment, comedy and drama as we strive to entertain. At our best we often deliver all three parts of Reith’s vision in every one of our genres.
But I want to focus here less on our breadth and more on the essence of what I believe we’re about. Our task is to serve the public, who pay for us, and whose licence fees make us independent. Our independence from everyone except our audiences gives us one core responsibility – to deliver content of outstanding creative quality whenever and wherever we can.
So if we’re clear about what we should be trying to do, the question that follows is obvious. How are we doing?
The best of what we produce today is as good as, or better than, it’s ever been. I’ve talked about the truly exceptional standard of our Olympic coverage. Many other things this year have inspired me.........(lists several radio and TV productions from BBC domestic output)
But does all that mean we’re already there? Does it mean, as some of the pundits have written, there’s nothing for me to do? That’s not how it looks. I believe that meeting our side of the deal with audiences demands even more from us. They think our programmes and content are the most original and of the highest quality they’ve ever been. But there is still a gap between how they rate us now, and where they expect us to be.
And though, as I’ve said, our best is often brilliant – in some of our output, we do settle for less than we should. So I believe we owe our audiences a determined effort to raise the creative quality of what we do.
We’re not used to hearing this. I’ve been guilty at times of presenting the best as representative of the rest. But I think it’s time to admit to ourselves we can do better.I don't mean by that, we can't afford for anything ever to go wrong. We just won’t be trying hard enough if nothing goes wrong. But I want everybody in the BBC to ask themselves this: am I using the extraordinary gift of public trust and public money to be original enough about the things I produce? Am I doing enough to challenge, lead, surprise and delight the people who pay for us?
I know it often isn’t easy to do better. Many of the pressures of the broadcasting industry – cost constraint, tight deadlines, tired people – reduce our work to commodities. But the BBC has less reason than anyone else to produce programmes that “will do”.............
I want to show you how I believe we can make the BBC a more creative place to work.Over the next couple of years, a combination of events we’re creating ourselves and events we know we’ll be covering will give us the chance to take the Olympics formula and make it work again.
In 2013 – the 50th Anniversary of Dr Who; a TV and radio focus on music, including Glastonbury; BBC Two’s Year of Invention; Wimbledon with our new grandslammer Andy Murray; and a possible Natural History Unit Summer of Wildlife.
In 2014 – the output we’re already planning for the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War; the football World Cup in Brazil; the Winter Olympics in Sochi; and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Every one of these – to a greater or lesser extent – is an opportunity to apply the lessons we learned from the Olympics about how to work with one another – and not place the narrow interests of programme, channel or service ahead of those of the audience.
How to collaborate to make output events bigger, bring more people into the frame and once again make the statement: only the BBC can do things with the ambition, scale and quality that bring the whole nation together.
But setting your creative sights as high as possible is only one side of the deal. The side I have to deliver is making sure I turn the BBC into an organisation where creative success never has to be achieved in spite of our structure or management. Starting today, I intend to change the way we’re led to put the emphasis where it belongs – on creative people doing creative things; on our audiences and the exceptional quality of work they deserve.

How do we achieve this?

To be successful, we have to restore creativity to the heart of the BBC’s internal conversation. That means spending more time talking with our colleagues about what it is we produce and how we do it. It demands honesty, trust, openness and the willingness to share ideas if it’s to make a difference. I want to spend as much of my time as possible hearing people talk about how they tackle their creative challenges and what help they need to do so more effectively still. In my time at the BBC, I also worry that I’ve seen the quality of our own critical conversations decline. I’ve seen a culture emerge where only the experts are encouraged to say what they think. This isn’t healthy.
I want to turn to the financial challenges we face. Please don’t think I’m asking you to find this new focus on creative excellence oblivious of our financial circumstances. We still have a flat licence fee settlement; we still have important and expensive new commitments. Sadly for me, changing DG doesn’t make all the tricky stuff go away. 
But I want to take a moment to say how proud I am that we will soon be funding the BBC World Service from the licence fee. It is in many ways a perfect distillation of BBC values – an ambassador of fairness, accuracy and impartiality to the whole world. I believe no longer being directly state-funded will be to the benefit of its reputation for independence.
But more broadly speaking, it just isn’t possible to change the financial fundamentals. And even as we strive to absorb the 16% cut we planned in DQF, we must not turn our backs on the opportunity we have – secured by the certainty of our funding – to go on producing amazing things. We must not waste time lamenting lost budget. The key to reconciling these two issues is to ensure the money we do have is focused exclusively on output.
In the last few months we have renegotiated a series of major infrastructure contracts and in the process saved tens of millions of pounds. The key to money in future is not to waste a penny. But our finance specialists aren’t the only people who know where inefficiency is and where savings might be made.
It’s often people on the frontline who really know where money is being wasted. We have to listen to them. I’ve seen early results from the latest staff survey and – worryingly I think – it shows that only 26% of you feel you’ve been asked to help in identifying where savings could be found. That’s no good...
Secondly, we have to be clear about making sure responsibility for spending and saving money is pushed far enough down the organisation, with our people trusted to spend wisely. I believe we have to empower people to save – all our people. I believe we will encourage them to do that by allowing them to keep some of what they save and give it back to their audiences in the shape of better-funded output.

2. Creative Darwinian Speech at the Amsterdam Supermeet.

IBC is a technical circus. Nearly 50,000 people gather in Amsterdam every September. Each is somehow connected with content production and/or distribution. During the International Broadcasting Convention, there's a meeting of craft editors in the Kransnapolksy Hotel on the Sunday evening. This year it was September 9th. It used to be the Final Cut Users Group, until Apple messed with its video editing program last year so that most people are defecting to something different. 
Supermeet is backed by a whole bunch of interesting alternatives to FCP, mostly used to make anything from TV dramas to motion pictures. And most of the software costs the same as you would have paid for a simple audio editor for radio just five years ago. But with this year's Supermeet, there also came a warning from Michael Cioni from Light Iron, who works with some of the top (movie) post production houses in Hollywood. Some important messages to creatives in broadcast production. If time is short, scrub through the preamble and start two minutes in. Michael pre-empted the official announcement by Fuji that they are ending their film business. Not in a couple of years. In a matter of weeks. And what he says about on-set post production rings very true in my ears.

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