Big entertainment hits boosted the studio sector this year, thanks to a mix of new and returning series - but investment in HD has yet to pay off.

The mushrooming of light entertainment commissions throughout 2007 continued to boost the studio sector, even if the sands are shifting under a number of big names.

LE regulars like Strictly Come Dancing, The National Lottery Draws, The X Factor and Friday Night with Jonathan Ross were joined by Chris Tarrant-fronted The Great Pretender, Katie and Peter Unleashed, Britain‘s Got Talent and Any Dream Will Do among others.

There’s been continued and widespread investment in high definition, even if for many it’s like dressing up with nowhere to go. The bubble wrap may as well remain unpopped from racks of new cameras, monitoring equipment, 5.1 mixing desks or the routing systems which glue it all together since there’s still little demand for the format.

“The cost implications of shooting HD are significant and broadcasters aren’t prepared to dip into their pockets for HD output,” says Paul Baker, head of sales at Pinewood Shepperton Group, which at least had HD sitcoms The Green Green Grass, Teenage Kicks and No Going Out on its books. “HD is still for export only. There’s no growth in HD.”

Maidstone Studios’ new Studio 5 is also “HD-ready” but general manager Kent Oxley admits “it’s a big gamble to equip for HD when we’ve only quoted on one HD project all year”. Even the BBC, which has two full HD studios and a third lined up, considers HD “a slow burner”, according to head of studios Richard Philips.

Entertainment and children’s programming account for the bulk of studio broadcast work and don’t benefit significantly from HD. Nonetheless, all studios are buying HD stock as part of their normal replacement cycle while some are investing further in anticipation of HD orders.

Wembley’s Fountain Studios, for example, purchased 10 Sony HDC 1500s “as part of an ongoing commitment to shift to HD”, says marketing director Sarah Joyce. “We don’t want to react to client demand but to pre-empt the market which is inevitably moving that way.”

Avesco-owned Fountain is helped in this respect by having as its sister company the leading equipment hire firm Presteigne.

Joyce reports a good mix of returning clients (Talent TV’s Test the Nation) and new ones including Zeppotron (Would I Lie to You?) and Splash Media (Brucie’s Generation Game: Now and Then for UKTV), but its marquee shows are undoubtedly X Factor and The Xtra Factor series four despite rumours that co-producer Simon Cowell wanted to move the series to bigger premises.

The long-term future of Elstree Film Studios, home of Big Brother, Dancing on Ice and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, remains unclear after a topsy-turvy year which began with it apparently securing a buyer, Pacifica Ventures. When Pacifica pulled out of the deal in July after failing to agree with leaseholder Hertsmere Borough Council over the cost of removing an asbestos mound on site, the council declared that it would run the studio until 2010. Plans to expand the studios, which posted a £3.5m turnover last year, and diversify its output have been put on hold.

Holby City and EastEnders’ home at the BBC’s Elstree site on Clarendon Road is said to be under auction, with EastEnders relocating, possibly to Pinewood.

Capital Studios, home of ITV’s Saturday Cooks, also faces an uncertain future after being given 12 months to relocate to new premises by landlord Minerva, keen to redevelop the prime Wandsworth site.

“We’re looking at options to relocate part but not all of the business,” says studio director Rhys John. “It’s not easy finding somewhere this close to town which provides great access to talent.”

After spending £2m to build the 12,000sq ft studio 5 plus a further £1m to outfit a new gallery and green rooms, Maidstone hoped to see some return in 2007. Fortunately it did.

The £1.75m two-year contract for Five’s The Trisha Goddard Show (Town House TV) has underwritten a large part of the cost of running the studio as it began to draw in LE shows Supermarket Sweep (Talkback for ITV1); Eurovision (BBC1); RDF’s Basil Brush (BBC1) and Dirty Rotten Cheaters (Distraction for BBC1). It is also about to house a major Gallowgate project for ITV1.

“Two years ago we couldn’t dream of hosting big LE shows,” says Oxley. “We’re no further outside London than Pinewood and we’ve got a set-up here that means we can compete for leading productions.”

TV is increasingly important for the Pinewood Shepperton Group, which values the stability of a consistent broadcast income to offset the vagaries of feature film work. TV brought in £4.7m of turnover in the six months to September but the group’s film finances have been hit by delays in major feature productions. “With film we compete on a global stage and since the majority of our customers buy in dollars it affects their purchase decision,” says Baker.

The group has landed preferred supplier status with the BBC (for which it houses Weakest Link) with CBeebies switching from TV Centre to Teddington, reportedly halving its £1m production costs in the process.

There are two long-term agreements with leading indies pending, says Baker, One may be with RDF, which is shooting The Great Pretender for ITV1 at the complex.Having installed transmission lines into Pinewood, Baker hopes to attract more live shows and it has developed an audience database of 5,000 local residents for recording at either Pinewood or Teddington.

Although Cranford and Colour of Magic came through the door, Pinewood has been hit by the increasing numbers of drama and drama-docs being shot in Eastern Europe where cheaper construction costs can shave a third off the budget.

“Eastern Europe is competitive but the skills here are world class, something you are not guaranteed over there,” argues Baker. Its £200m proposals for expansion onto adjacent greenbelt land is intended to allow Pinewood Shepperton to compete favourably with eastern European locations.

Recruiting more broadcast work is also apriority for 3 Mills Studios. The lion’s share of its business comes from features (Eastern Promises) but a healthy 30% to 40% of revenues come from TV despite losing long-running series Bad Girls and Dream Team early in the year (neither were recommissioned). “We lost a steady income with those productions so the first half of the year for broadcast wasn’t easy,” says studio executive Derek Watts. Scooping the three-month contract for the third series of Hell’s Kitchen and Five sitcom Angelo’s (Bwark Productions) helped turn things around. “We’re not geared up for large live audience productions,” says Watts. “But we hope to attract more closed studio productions like Hell’s Kitchen.”

Owned by the London Development Agency, from which it receives no funding, 3 Mills operates on a dry-hire basis and is dependent on its profit margin for reinvestment. “We aim to add lighting rigs and to quote for more broadcast work,” he says. The studio is better known for drama (Darlow Smithson drama-doc The Diary of Anne Frank is currently housed there) but Watts says he isn’t aware of any productions opting to shoot abroad rather than London. “We’ve had one or two films decamp to Prague but it’s largely a matter of poor exchange rates and not something we can do much about,” he says.

The biggest change in the domestic market will take place in the early part of 2008 as the BBC divests itself of Resources. The new owner will be comforted by the fact that the studios division has beaten last year’s revenues, despite the fact that its children’s studio output has nosedived, following CBeebies’ move to Teddington.

“We’ve hit our targets partly by generating 34% more work from the indie sector year on year,” says studios chief Phillips citing 8 out of 10 Cats for Endemol/C4 and The British Soap Awards (ITV) as examples. It also provided facilities for the live HD world feed for Live Earth. It continues to invest in HD upgrades to TV Centre despite threats that the building will be redeveloped. BBC Resources is being sold without any real estate attached - Resources currently leases the studios from the BBC. “The sale will include a lease for the future use of the studios,” Baker reassures. “Any investment now will not go to waste.”

The corporation is prevented from planning a presence in Salford by a non-compete clause in the contract which combined BBC Resources and Granada’s facilities into 360 Media. (360 has its own studio based at Quay Street, Manchester.) This left the door open for an indie to capitalise on the BBC’s move north and local facility provider Sumners got there first. It is busy converting the Pie Factory, adjacent to the Mediacity:UK site in Salford, into a studio complex for landlord Peel Holdings. Already this year ITV drama Cold Blood and BBC jail series The Visit have used the studio space.

ITV-owned the London Studios has had “a fantastic year”, says director of studio service Kathy Schulz welcoming long-running bankers like Saturday Night Takeaway, The Graham Norton Show, Al Murray’s Happy Hour, The Friday Night Project and Parkinson. One-off events included Kylie Minogue, Saturday Night Divas and An Audience with Celine Dion. It is busy planning its first HD studio and HD post facilities to support presentational links for ITV Sport (Champions League; Formula 1; Rugby World Cup and next year’s Euro 2008 championships) and in preparation for ITV’s HD Freesat launch.

TLS is synonymous with LE partly because of its convenient central London location, Schulz says, but also because its 650-seater Studio 1 “produces a unique wall of sound producers seem to love”.

Selected Studio shows 2007
Hell’s Kitchen series 3
Production company: ITV Productions
Studio: 3 Mills
ITV Productions hired two adjoining studios for three months last autumn with a 76-seat restaurant built in one, the house for contestant chefs in the other. Visions erected a fly-away unit including cameras and vision mixers for the recording. The show marked a departure for 3 Mills, hitherto not known for LE productions.

X Factor Series 4
Production company:
Talkback Thames/SycoTV
Studio: Fountain Studios
The ITV1 ratings juggernaut returned to Fountain for live weekly Saturday night shows in front of 750 people despite rumours that co-producer Simon Cowell wanted to move the series to Elstree. Pre-recorded interviews with contestants and vocal coaching are also performed there. The series 4 finale took place on 15 December.

Any Dream Will Do
Production company: BBC
Studio: BBC Studios
The follow up to How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? went head to head with ITV’s Grease is the Word in an attempt to find a fresh Joseph for a new West End production. Next year’s talent search is reportedly for a Cinderella.

Katie & Peter Unleashed
Production company: ITV Productions
Studio: The London Studios
Wince-inducing it may be but ITV2’s Friday nights wouldn’t be the same without the celebrity pair. Recorded in front of a 70-strong audience on Wednesday afternoons at Studio 3, home of Loose Women, which as a result doesn’t broadcast on Wednesdays.

Strictly Come Dancing series 5
Production company: BBC
Studio: BBC Studios
Celebs are paired with professional dancers and voted off the show by the audience. The wildly popular, family-friendly format in its fifth series shows no sign of running out of steam. Shot in HD at the BBC’s largest studio, the 10,000sq ft TC1. The current 12-week run ends on 22 December.

Britain’s Got Talent
Production company:
Talkback Thames/ SycoTV
Studio: Fountain Studios
Ant and Dec present, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan judge the nation’s amateur variety acts. Four live shows, including the semi-finals and final, were shot at Fountain. The show aired between 9 and 17 June and the public voted opera singer Paul Potts the winner.