To be a successful supplier for the digital TV market, the multichannel producer faces the challenging task of marrying creative programming with low budgets and fast turnarounds. In an increasingly competitive multichannel environment, digital channels want stand-out shows and all for a fraction of the budgets lavished on terrestrial programming.
So how can an independent producer hope to maintain high standards and turn a profit in the multichannel world? Drawing from the experience of some top multichannel producers, Broadcasthas put together 10 tried-and-tested rules for digital TV programme-making.
Quality over quantity
Multichannel budgets may be low and production schedules tight, but that shouldn't automatically imply a drop in standards. 'Rule number one is don't make lots of bad content,' says Adrian Swift, director of television at ETV, which runs channels Eat Cinema, Thomas Cook TV, Thomas Cook Broadband, London TV Broadband and The Great Big British Quiz. 'Make little bits of good content. Most people don't watch these channels in long bursts so there is no point in putting six to seven hours on daily. Make a few programmes really well to put on people's agendas. It still has to look like TV.'
This applies to commercially funded and branded channels. 'You have to be aware of keeping the quality, keeping it entertaining and true to the brand,' says Sam Glynne, producer of the Audi channel at indie producer North One Television. 'You've to make it feel like programming. You have to take what's worked on proper TV and adapt it to branded TV.'
It may seem like an obvious point but it's one that producers ignore at their peril. 'The minute you start to see it as wallpaper or cheap programming, you're in trouble,' says Andrew Bethell, chief executive and creative director of Teachers' TV.
Keep it simple
With a split second to convince a channel hopper to stop and watch a programme, the ideal multichannel show has to be easy to understand at any point of entry. 'A defining principle for us is a programme or a format that you don't have to explain,' says Charlotte Ashton, director of entertainment and factual at UKTV. ' Wogan: Now and Thenis a good example.'
The show, as its title suggests, sees Wogan interview celebrities who previously appeared on his successful 1980s BBC chatshow.
Over at Flextech's Bravo channel it is equally important to commission programming that does exactly what it says on the tin.
' The Real Football Factoriesis a one-line sell,' says channel editor Dave Clarke of the current series about hooliganism, which was produced by indie Zig Zag. 'It makes perfect sense to the viewer and to us. That makes the difference between a programme that we can stock up on at Mip and the kind of show that we would fully fund.'
You may have a winning concept for a programme but the real challenge is to execute it with the time and money available. 'The two fundamentals are budget and ideas,' says Miles Jarvis, executive producer and head of multiplatform programming at indie Leopard Films. 'Are the budgets going to stretch that far and is the idea actually good enough?'
At super-indie RDF, which makes cookery format Kitchen Showdown- featuring two kitchen-shy families in a cook-off for UKTV - executive producer Simon Rockell believes the key is to apply the lessons from formatted television. 'When you are producing shows on a tight budget the main thing is to do something that is containable,' he says. 'Really have it formatted so you know every point. With Kitchen Showdownwe storyboarded what we wanted to get and it was filmed over two days so we could bring the families to the presenter, Rosemary. We had a very precise shooting script that meant that we would film back stories with the punters in one day with DSR 500 and a very good AP.
'Sit down and see if you can achieve this with this schedule because it's such a narrow margin.'
Don't overestimate the audience
While clear programme titles and scheduling help to bring the viewers, you need to go that extra mile to keep them hooked into a programme. Along with the initial signposting, viewers need to have their hands held through the programme. 'Assuming knowledge is always a dangerous thing,' says Bravo's Clarke. 'We have to be aware that our viewers are dipping in and out. It's our duty to make sure they stick around and that can be done by specific top of part recaps and mission statements. They are a device we can't live without. It's not like terrestrial TV where people are more likely to have made a specific viewing choice. It might seem heavy-handed but it's vital.'
This is particularly true for documentary programming: 'There's a fine line between taking elements of US factual television, which has regular teasers, and the traditional elements of UK factual broadcasting - just giving enough information without giving it all away,' says Clarke. 'Multichannel needs to bridge that gap without being just back-to-back teasers.'
In a world of constricted budgets, recycling content is not so much an option as a necessity. 'Take bits of content you shoot well and use it over a variety of programmes and platforms,' advises Swift of ETV. 'For the Thomas Cook channel, if we go to Majorca we will use that footage in a show about Majorca, for a show for families, in a show about cruises, on the internet and then in a package about hotel information for your mobile.'
At indie North One Television, where programming for the branded Audi channel is produced, content is made with repackaging in mind. 'We provide each programme in different durations,' says channel producer Glynne. 'A 30-minute programme will be delivered in 15 minute and five-minute cutdowns. If we do a test drive for a car, we can create a programme from all the different test drives. It's a very creative production method that means that they are stand-alone programmes or we can make programmes from the segments.'
For archive-based channels under the UKTV umbrella, reusing content is a prime consideration. 'We'd always want to talk about the applications and nine out of 10 times they would be multiple,' says UKTV's Ashton. 'For Sir David Attenborough's 80th birthday, the meat of that event was us reshowing his major series. We kicked off with celebs talking about their favourite Attenborough moments, then it went to a vote for the best clip and then we recut content to show the clips in the order that the audience voted for.'
Hire some grown-ups
To achieve a glossy finished product, most producers agree that ploughing a fair proportion of the budget into a good crew is money well spent. 'It's a false economy to try to cut corners,' says Rockell at RDF. 'To make shows like our new property series Fly to Buyyou have to have a really experienced team with dedicated skills. You need to get a really good team, a clear running order and keep talking to the clients about what you're doing, otherwise you have to fix it in the edit and your production fee goes up in smoke.'
This view contradicts the commonly expressed idea that youthful enthusiasm can compensate for experience. 'The notion that you send very young people out with DV cameras and you will get a good programme is wrong,' says Bethell at Teachers' TV. 'You have to have some grown-ups in charge. You can sometimes get much better bangs for bucks if you pay a cameraman for a short period of time. You need the discipline of how to build a sequence up and how to also create cutaways and narrative.'
Get creative with the cameras
For cabsat broadcasters the quality of the camera can make all the difference. 'We use DV cameras with high definition,' says Bethell. 'One of the problems is that digital channels on multiplexes get mashed together. There is a real danger that weaknesses can get exploited and that you can't afford the highest standards.'
To give their programming a polished look that works on these platforms, Teachers' TV and ETV shoot on digital cameras coupled with old-school filming methods. 'We found ourselves gravitating towards all the old skills in terms of production that we'd learnt on budgets of 10 times as much,' says Bethell, who echoes ETV's Swift. 'We will often shoot things off tripod to give it an old-fashioned, professional look,' he says. 'A lot of digital TV is shot on handheld. Cameras tend to move around a lot in the lens so to counter that you go back to traditional techniques. You will use a great cameraman, a tripod and frame it well.'
For the Poker Channel, where detail is everything, cameras are a key investment. 'We tend to spend most of our money on pedestal and overhead cameras,' says the channel's chief executive officer, Crispin Nieboer. 'For under-table cameras you don't need broadcast quality for that. We have a guy in the gallery who inputs that information into a graphic so that you can see all the players' cards at once.'
Don't be afraid of virtual sets
Early teething problems may have deterred many producers from using virtual sets in the late 1990s but those days are long gone. Virtual sets, commonly deployed for news and sports shows and weather reports, can be a viable option if you're working against the clock with a tight budget. 'The time you need to set up, the expertise and the studio space are greatly reduced,' says Mark Harrison, worldwide sales manager at chromakey company Reflecmedia. Increasingly, Harrison advises mounting a ring of LEDs to the camera lens when shooting against a chromakey background. 'LEDs are long-lasting and their colour temperature doesn't change as they are dimmed so it gives a more reliable colour background.'
If you do opt for a virtual set, then Barrie Woolston, commercial director at broadcast company Arqiva, has a word of warning. 'Don't try to create a real environment in a virtual environment,' he says. 'I always advise people not to use virtual furniture. It doesn't work when you graphically overlay a chair. Always be prepared to use a combination of physical sets with virtual backgrounds.'
For gaming channels, it is essential to captivate your punters. This can be achieved by building tension and drama into your programming. 'Give people time limits on doing things,' says Swift of ETV. 'Tell them: 'You've got one minute to call in.' We also have tension tracks to increase the urgency and when the host looks down the barrel of the camera, that creates tension.'
Formatting can also be applied to make gaming and sporting events more TV-friendly. 'The main challenge is trying to make poker not look like paint drying,' says Nieboer. To get around this, the channel has created speed poker. 'We put a big clock behind players' heads and they only have 30 seconds to act,' he says. 'By introducing two dealers you have more hands per hour. We brought TV-format rules to a poker game.'
Make your proposition clear
Armed with a remote control and more than 400 channels, cabsat viewers are spoilt for choice. How to make the average viewer stop and stay for the duration of a programme should be foremost in a producer, commissioner and a scheduler's mind.
Companies are now using new technologies that enable promotions to be more targetted. Red Bee Media currently collects data for Telewest's subscription VoD service, Teleport, and uses the data to decide which programmes are promoted. John Pink, Red Bee's commercial director, explains: 'Digital technology is allowing trails to be produced quickly so it's easy to react to consumers' behaviour and promote what we know they are looking for.'