With ITV in a period of rationalisation and a number of businesses up for sale, 2004 was tough for studios, but a new interest in light entertainment programmes heralds a boost to business, writes Kevin Hilton.
With ITV in a period of rationalisation and a number of businesses up for sale, 2004 was tough for studios, but a new interest in light entertainment programmes heralds a boost to business, writes Kevin Hilton.

Studios, once permanent immovable objects on the television landscape, have faced much upheaval of late. From outside broadcasts of shows that would have otherwise taken place in studios through reality TV to a perceived overcapacity in the market and delays in commissioning, it's a market that has coped with great movement in a little under two years.

The merger of Granada and Carlton led to rationalisation of resources, the highest profile casualty being the Nottingham studios. While, in the independent studio sector, Hillside Studios was put up for sale after its owners decided to concentrate on production. So it's hardly surprising that studio operators viewed 2004 as difficult.

Tony Chamberlain, head of 124 Facilities, which is based in Channel 4's Horseferry Road building, saw last year as "good but not spectacular", observing that many studios had a tough time. "The closure of ITV studios shows that there just isn't enough studio work to go around," he says. Chamberlain adds that 124 does not have enough C4 work to keep it busy and is currently working on its fifth BBC series in three years, The Deskfor BBC4.

The studios of 3sixtymedia and Yorkshire TV are now being branded as the Manchester and Leeds Studios respectively. Paul Bennett, head of those studios for Granada Resources, agrees that the previous 12 months saw an overcapacity of studio space that has now been reduced through a "period of consolidation". Recent and current programmes made in Manchester include part of the run of A Question of Sport, Destination Three, Too Many Cooksand the upcoming Stars in their Eyeslive final.

The BBC and BBC Resources are also involved in a major review of their studio operations, with the planned sale of BBC Resources. Richard Philipps, director of BBC Studios, says the past 12 months to the end of March were "very busy, continuously so", with the year from April promising more of the same. Programmes made at TV Centre include Hard Spell, Strictly Come Dancingand Little Britain. Philipps notes a dip during last summer, which Julian Kossick, managing director of Fountain Studios in Wembley, attributes to Euro 2004 and the Olympics.

Kossick saw the majority of 2004 as patchy. "It was the sort of year where it didn't rain much but when it did it poured," he says. "We're now seeing a different pattern for this year of being consistently busy. There won't be as much sport and the reality show boom probably peaked last year, so I like to think we're on the other side now."

Fountain continues to work largely in light entertainment (LE), with Pop Idol, The X Factorand The Kumars at Number 42. Kossick observes that as September to December is the key period for big, live LE shows, the difference between a good year and a bad year is what goes on during the other eight months. "All studios depend on repeat business as well as new shows," he says. "The most important thing is to have a strong client base."

Another bastion of LE is the London Studios (TLS). Penny Lent, director of sales and marketing, confirms that, while the studios were busy, 2004 was a "quiet year" that felt longer than usual. She ascribes this to a lack of commissioning from ITV and C4, which brings the year down in comparison with 2003. The year ahead, Lent says, is looking buoyant, with the mix including Des and Mel, The Friday Night Project, Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeawayand the resident GMTV and This Morning.

The fourth big player in entertainment is Teddington Studios, and managing director Roger Morris admits to a "dead period" for the past few months. In the last year Teddington saw the Auction World channel disappear, Kilroytaken off air and Des and Melmove in-house to TLS. When those in power have been making such decisions, they haven't been making decisions on commissioning, he says. "The shows that have been around have been largely factual or travel based," he adds. "But LE is returning and we've got shows lined up, some of which are new contracts and some long-standing clients."

The middle sector of any market sometimes experiences rough times but in the studios business it appears to be healthy. Jane Anderson, vice- president of studios at MTV Studios, says that the business can be "very quiet" during January but that was not the case this year. "We've had more quotes out in the first quarter of this year than I've known before," she says. "A higher proportion of them are not happening but people are enthusiastic." A big coup for MTV is the Daily Play Lottery show, which will go out at 9pm Monday to Saturday on Flextech's Challenge channel. In addition to the Camden studios, MTV is now offering its Leicester Square site for hire.

While some studios were affected by patchy commissioning and the glut of sport, Capital Studios in Wandsworth reported its best ever year. Company director Rhys John points to a number of reasons, including the facility's growing reputation as a specialist in live transmission. In particular there was Baddiel and Skinner's Fantasy Football, which went out live every other night during June and July.

Capital also has a number of long-running contracts, including Smilefor the BBC, Ready, Steady Cook, Saturday Kitchenand Great Food Livefor UKTV. Having a solid banker makes life easier, as Molinare Studios has at the moment with Nickelodeon. The post facility is also known for blue-screen work, which continues to be steady, although its core business is magazine programmes. Studio manager Richard Mills describes the past 12 months as "not brilliant but okay". "There is enough work to justify our future."

When Dave Stewart and Paul Allen opened their£53m creative haven The Hospital during 2003, there were serious doubts that it would see much business, either as the high definition (HD) facility it was designed to be or as a TV studio in general. A second space has recently been finished and while it is intended primarily as a music recording area, it has camera and sound plug-in boxes for TV interviews and links. The facility's main studio has been used for discussion programmes produced by CNN and NHK, using the HD capability, while Morgan and Platellhas just begun a second series and the BBC has signed up for a 40-day run of the daily contestant edition of Strictly Dance Fever.

In truth, its success is built on it not just being a TV studio. Ancillary elements such as the gallery and restaurant play a huge role.

Riverside Television Studios is now a fully specced TV facility and is hosting CD:UK, which was attracted in part by the studio's new facilities. "Riverside had to decide whether to develop and move on with CD:UK," managing director Jim Boyers comments. "Once such a decision has been taken moves can be made to grow the business. You don't sit back on one contract." The studios are now also working on Full on Foodand Mind Gamesfor the BBC.

If some TV producers see the journey to Hammersmith as like trekking through the Andes, what about the outer London studios? Inmedia in Buckinghamshire has three studios and commercial director Barrie Woolston sees the location as no more difficult than struggling in from Streatham to the centre of town. Aside from its BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) contract, Inmedia has been working with CBBC, BBC3, Disney and Nickelodeon. Woolston comments that the past 12 months have probably been the best period for Inmedia's studios in four to five years and he is positive about 2005.

Being beyond the M25 can have its advantages, with Pinewood Television hoping to classify for regional programming, for example. Marketing director Diana Crystal Honey says that the studios "did quite well" last year, being in the fortunate position of having a number of long running series using standing sets, including Weakest Link, According to Bexand All About Me, with additional work for Dead Ringers, Comic Reliefand Test the Nation Live.

Maidstone Studios is also well placed for regional work and has signed a 10-year contract with local broadcaster Meridian to host its main newsroom. Maidstone is also home to Saturday morning show TheMinistry of Mayhemand has opened a 1,200sq ft studio that it hopes

will be licensed for a 1,000-seat audience. Managing director Geoff Miles said the new space was vying for increasing "event TV".

While the number of studio centres has reduced, there is a small irony in that for those remaining, having more than one space is now a selling point. As second channels on digital platforms take more audience share, programmes such as Strictly Come Dancingand Pop Idolhave additional coverage to complement the main shows. Studios including Fountain and the BBC have employed either second studios or hospitality areas and even corridors to squeeze out more footage.

There has been a studios shake-up of late and there is the potential for more with the proposed sell-off of BBC Resources. But the fact that many studios are now overbooked and are passing the overspill on to the competition shows that the market is necessary, sometimes tough as well as fascinating.

Staffing numbers

Just about everyone who watches television has an idea as to how it all happens - in a big studio with lights, cameras and sound booms operated by surly people in headphones and lots of bright young things rushing around with clipboards.

That still isn't that far from the truth, although there is likely to be fewer of either category and even fewer of them will be full-time staff at the studio.

As would be expected, an organisation the size of the BBC employs around 300 internal staff to run its studios. The freelance pool on top of that is around 400 to 450 people, of which 200 to 250 are employed regularly.

The London Studios (TLS) has some vestiges of the old ITV, employing around 360 staff. Fountain Studios, arguably the largest independent UK facility of its kind, has a permanent staff of only 45, while Riverside has just three.

There is some difference as to how many staff there should be and in what areas. Julian Kossick at Fountain comments: "The days of having a staff sound guy or camera crews are gone. The producers like to bring in their favourite freelance. What they want from us is the back-up for the equipment and the general service."

MTV Studios keeps four full-time crews, totalling around 40 people. Within each team is a lead technician, such as a senior sound supervisor, who reports to the head of studios. Jane Anderson, VP of studios, explains that the teams include experienced and junior personnel; the aim is to bring on the younger elements and strengthened the overall complement.

Four-wallers are the antithesis of the old way of working. Pinewood Television does not go that far but has a small staff of eight and expects the production to bring in its favoured crew.

Studio stats: Most important genre?

Entertainment 62%

Children's 18%

News 10%

Factual 5%

Drama 3%

Sport 2%

Answers based on a sample of 25 studio bosses

How was business last year?

Better 70%

Worse 10%

Same 20%

Apples or oranges?

The reduction in the number of studios may on the face of it make choices easier for producers but it is still important to weigh up the relative merits of those that are left, the equipment they offer and, sometimes, most important of all, where they and how big they are.

The producers of a politics show are always going to have to consider how its subjects will be able to get from Westminster to the studio. And whether it is convenient for whatever media-trendy part of London the presenter happens to live in. Regardless of where Piers Morgan and Amanda Platell call home, Mentorn, producer of the combative discussion programme Morgan and Platell, was keen to find a central London location that was not far from the House of Commons.

There are studios closer to Westminster than The Hospital but it was the Covent Garden facility that was selected for the second series. Series producer David O'Keefe outlines the other considerations: "We were looking for a good financial deal, the ability to go live, a studio space that was big enough for the set, somewhere with reasonably up-to-date technology and a smart looking hospitality area. Security was also an issue."

Morgan and Platellis shot in The Hospital's basement studio. In the gallery the monitor screen display is configured to the director's taste. The show is recorded on HD and then down-converted to SD on DigiBeta for delivery. O'Keefe comments that the budgets on such a series are tight and so there has to be flexibility on both sides during the negotiation period. "We're looking for a competitive quote that goes with our specific requirements," he says.

Sometimes the size of a production dictates where it is staged but even then choices have to be made and requirements catered for. The new breed of reality talent shows are massive affairs. As Claire Horton, series producer on Pop Idoland executive producer on The X Factor, says, you've got to think big. She comments that the choice for venue came down to either Fountain Studios or a sound stage. "In the end Fountain was the obvious choice because it was the size we needed and we could take it over for the duration of the run."

The sound stage was rejected because the concept is just a "cavernous box", which would mean the production team having to start from scratch. In some ways, says Horton, that could make sense financially, but the shows, particularly The X Factor, require specific technical support. As the behind-the-scenes shows on ITV2 are an essential part of the overall success, two galleries are required for the different feeds. On a sound stage or in a smaller studio that would require either a second studio or an OB van. Fountain has two galleries for when its large studio is divided into two smaller spaces; so when the main studio is in use on The X Factor, the second gallery can be used for the ITV2 output.

Another consideration was having a standing set for eight weeks, thereby committing the studio to a single production. On general issues Horton says she looks for the level of back-up and support from the staff. "If the response to a request is negative," she says, "then I tend to be concerned. I'm looking for something positive."

What's in the bag?: kit

Q: When is a television studio not a television studio? A: When it's a four-waller. The operators of the leading TV studios see a distinction between a fully equipped, treated space and a huge room into which the client can bring whatever is needed for the production.

Having said that, a lot of studio operators are fairly relaxed in their attitude to permanent equipment, with the view that producers expect the latest gear and take it for granted that the studios will have it. The core would be the latest vision mixers, 16:9 switchable digital cameras and a sophisticated graphics engine such as the Aston Red. Other specialist needs, such as an EVS server, would be hired in, not left to gather dust in a corner.

If anything it is the infrastructure that is important today. Servers for tapeless working are now more likely to be on the list, as is having cable boxes around the building so that cameras and microphones can be plugged in for interviews and sequences away from the studio.

Multimedia is another plus, particularly SMS. General messages of encouragement for contestants or the more serious business of voting adds to the general excitement of an interactive, concert experience.

High definition is a consideration for all studios but, with the exception of The Hospital and Molinare, studios are seeing little or no demand for the format. Some are considering a piecemeal approach, putting in upgradable vision mixers, while others regard it as a major exercise that will require the shutting of part of a facility. Chris Cooper, technical manager at Fountain Studios, sees it as a different way of working and feels that 2008 will be the optimum year to change over. Some studios are looking to move to HD piecemeal by installing upgradeable equipment.