This time last year, Ben Frow didn’t know how to use a laptop, had never worked from home for a single day of his career, and was terrified that his local supermarket was going to run out of food. “I was more worried about the shelves being empty than the Channel 5 shelf being empty,” says the mischievous and sometimes off-message ViacomCBS UK chief content officer. Flash forward 12 months, Frow is conversing over Microsoft Teams on his laptop, he’s speaking to me from a tastefully appointed front room, his fridge is (presumably) well-stocked, and he has steered Channel 5 through the biggest peacetime crisis in the history of British television.
Frow was one of five of the UK’s most powerful television executives who joined me to reflect on a truly wild year for our industry. Together, we traced the events of the past 12 months, from the shock of lockdown in March 2020 and the chastening financial pressures that ensued, through to the creative rigmaroles of remounting production and working in a world in which coronavirus isn’t fading anytime soon.
The recollections of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky’s content bosses serve as a reminder of a period of startling paradoxes. It was a year in which change has been breathless, and yet time has seemingly stood still. Production was paralyzed, but there has scarcely been so much innovation in the way programs are made. The ad market collapsed, and yet TV viewing was defiantly robust. We witnessed a tectonic switch to streaming, but the power of shared experience mattered more than ever. Meanwhile, from their control towers, these British content chiefs had a unique vantage over the nation’s collective psyche, and yet their own personal world view was largely confined to four walls.
Kate Phillips knows these paradoxes better than most after being handed the reins to BBC One, the UK’s biggest TV channel, on an interim basis last September, just as the second wave of coronavirus was washing over the country. “It’s very bizarre in a way that I’ve had this fantastic opportunity to run BBC One, but I’ve literally done the whole thing from a loft in south-east London,” she tells me over Zoom. Like most, Phillips left the office in March last year with the expectation that she would be returning in a couple of weeks’ time. A year on, she is still in her loft. “No one could have foreseen what was coming. And that’s probably quite good, because it would have panicked people even more,” she adds. Zai Bennett, the managing director of content at Sky UK, echoes this sentiment: “No one had any idea of the magnitude of what was against us.”
TV locks down
If the reality of Covid-19 was not totally obvious by early March 2020, then it quickly became apparent as the lights started to go out on shoots up and down the country. On a cataclysmic day on March 16, BBC drama behemoths Peaky Blinders and Line Of Duty publically toppled. The next day, showpiece soccer tournament Euro 2020 was canned and events like the BAFTA Film Awards were put on ice. A week later, the Olympics fell. Over frantically organized video calls, the first priority for broadcasters, streamers, and producers became keeping their people safe from a creeping disease that was rapidly packing out hospital beds.
Channel 4 chief content officer Ian Katz remembers these moments vividly. The company, which commissions all of its content from independent producers, experimented with working from home on Friday 13 of March and never returned to the office. In the days leading up to this portentous date, Katz and his director of content strategy and planning, Kiran Nataraja, toiled over an ever-changing spreadsheet: “We got [the spreasheet] going a month or two earlier, tracking all upcoming productions, and we had them graded into high risk, medium risk, and low risk. At first, we were just putting foreign productions into high risk and there were one or two other bits of red on the chart. Day by day, all the productions moved from low risk to high risk. We had a tally of the number of hours affected and [at a certain point] Kiran said to me: ‘I can’t count them anymore.’”
The answer, Katz would later learn, was 800 hours of content. That’s an entire month’s worth of programming disrupted by the virus. Bennett says Sky paused 29 shows in these early days of the pandemic, including dramas such as Britannia. Around 20% of the BBC’s broadcast hours were disrupted, not least 400 hours of sport after Wimbledon and Euro 2020 were wiped out. ITV was also dealt a blow in losing the Euros, while around 70% of its drama production was halted, not least tentpole soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Over at Channel 5, Frow puts it like this: “I would say 5% of the schedule, maybe 7% of the schedule, was canceled. I would say 20% of the schedule, or maybe 30% of the schedule was disrupted. And you go, ‘We can’t do that, so what are we going to do instead?’ It’s really simple. At the end of the day, you can’t have people turn on the television and there be no pictures.”
It’s worth remembering that TV locked down an entire week before UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially issued stay-at-home measures for the country. And while major shoots halted, television production continued, as the major broadcasters battled to keep news, live daily shows, and entertainment on-air. ITV’s entire morning schedule consists of live shows, starting with Good Morning Britain at 6AM. These were Kevin Lygo’s first priority, and ITV’s managing director of media and entertainment says there was “enormous activity” around keeping the shows on-air. “In that first week or two, you thought, ‘What happens if daytime can’t be made and what happens if the news can’t be made.’ That was the real worry, but quite quickly we found a way of doing it,” Lygo recalls. ITV despatched camera equipment to the homes of GMB presenter Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, but in the end, it was never used as producers managed to keep the studio open, with presenters keeping socially distanced and doing their own hair and makeup. This Morning also continued in the studio, while Loose Women went live from the homes of its hosts.
In this era, a new and well-documented genre of television emerged: The Zoom show. Ultimately, it was about sacrificing the polish of TV to keep screens humming with fresh content and, in turn, ensure the nation was informed about and distracted from the grim reality of Covid-19. On one Friday night in April, mere weeks into a generation-defining crisis, Graham Norton sat alone in a green-screened room to host his BBC One primetime chat show, while topical comedy quiz Have I Got News For You created an entire virtual reality studio. Over on Channel 4, the broadcaster maximized the ultimate lockdown entertainment show, Gogglebox, which barely skipped a beat as camera rigs safely captured people feasting on TV.
In many ways, we were all sat on the sofa with the Gogglebox cast. We forgave the juddery pictures and audio delays because we were hungry for information and shared experience. “There was that feeling across the UK that we’re all in it together. The viewers understood the efforts we were going to, to keep these shows on air. As a result, they understood that it’s going to be a bit more Zoomy, it’s not going to be the fine gloss and polish that you’re used to. And they came along with that,” remembers Phillips. Katz continues: “As it emerged we were going to be locked down for a while, we had to hold the viewers’ hand and help them get through in whatever ways we could.”
Not everyone was a fan of video call TV. Channel 5 is less reliant on live shows and entertainment, meaning Frow eschewed Zoom programming as much as possible. “I don’t want shows in the schedule that look like they’ve been filmed during Covid. I don’t want to see people in boxes, it was awful,” he argues. Instead, Frow focused on keeping remotely-produced Saturday night royal documentaries in the schedule and leaned heavily into zeitgeisty shows that celebrated the outdoors and country retreats. Shows including A Country Life For Half The Price (filmed in lockdown by presenter Kate Humble’s cameraman husband) and Ben Fogle: Make A New Life In The Country are testament to this strategy, says Frow. “We really tapped into this yearning for peace, tranquillity, and life ownership. People wanted to take control of their lives so they’re not battered and bruised by Brexit or by Covid,” he explains, adding that every single one of Channel 5’s 15 new series launches will return in 2021.
Frow, however, could not hide his frustration last year, when invited to comment on the conflict of having a huge dip in advertising spend at the same time as a big jump in viewing. TV audiences were up 23% in the week of Easter 2020, which in normal times would translate into increased sales. “It’s a f*****g pain in the arse,” Frow told an Edinburgh TV Festival audience on May 1. It was a problem that plagued all the commercial broadcasters, with Channel 4 and ITV’s ad revenue halving in April and May. “There was a real concern about money,” recalls Lygo. “Suddenly there wasn’t any bloody real revenue coming in.” Both broadcasters were forced into cuts. ITV slashed £100M ($140M) from its content budget on March 23. Two weeks later, Channel 4 took £150M out of its programming spend, in a period Katz describes as “pretty bracing” but in reality was bordering on existential for the broadcaster.
Over at Sky, advertising was also an issue, but the broadcaster is less exposed to this skittish income source because of its 24M paying customers. Content MD Bennett also works on different commissioning timescales to his peers, meaning channel-defining dramas like Chernobyl are delivered months in advance of them being broadcast on television. “We didn’t feel the pinch as quickly as some others would have done,” he says of last year. Instead, Sky is feeling the pressure of the production shutdown right now, with the Comcast-owned company drip-feeding viewers its original series and leaning into acquisitions, such as Sky Italia’s Devils and HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant. “The first two quarters of this year is where we’ve had potentially the biggest hit,” Bennett explains in a phone interview. “You’ll notice that we started the year with A Discovery Of Witches and Bulletproof. Our next UK original is Intergalactic, which isn’t until the end of April… From July onwards, we’re back to the fairly rich diet of what we would have expected.” This staggering of originals was in evidence across most broadcasters. Lygo readily admits that ITV held back big series, like David Tennant’s Des, until fall 2020 at the earliest in the hope that the ad market would bounce back, which it eventually did.
The long reopening
Scripted is a genre that has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. All drama and comedy shoots of note were kneecapped during that apocalyptic week in March and did not get back on their feet until four months later in July, with the exception of soaps Coronation Street, Emmerdale, and EastEnders, which returned to their enclosed sets in June. ITV managed to keep both Corrie and Emmerdale on television by rationing out episodes during lockdown. Watched by millions every day, Lygo sums up just how foundational the soaps are to ITV’s schedule: “The great danger with soaps is, because they’re so habitual in people’s viewing patterns, that if they weren’t on for a period of time, would people not come back?” If this was the question, ITV did not want to find out the answer. The BBC was not so lucky and on June 16, EastEnders fell off television for the first time in its 35-year history — a brutal reminder of the havoc wreaked by the virus.
The government gave the green light for high-end shoots to return to work on May 12, days after Johnson announced the easing of the first lockdown. But, just as TV was early in locking down, it was late in opening up again, as broadcasters, producers, and industry bodies hammered out coronavirus protocols in a spirit of collaboration scarcely seen before. The broadcasters published their safety guidelines on May 18, while the British Film Commission followed two weeks later with a 59-page document that could be used on blockbuster series and movies. Combined with bespoke protocols drawn up by each of the broadcasters, these documents became safety bibles for program makers and are now second nature on most shoots. Getting a cotton swab rammed up your proboscis became another Monday morning.
The BBC’s lavish period drama The Pursuit Of Love was among the first high-end productions out of the gates in mid-July, but it was not until July 28, when the government launched a £500M fund to underwrite production insurance, that the floodgates really opened. Some 230 film and TV shoots have taken advantage of the world-leading scheme, including ITV’s Midsomer Murders and Sky’s Cobra. Before this, producers — although armed to the teeth with safety protocols — were are the mercy of their paymasters as to whether they could gamble on cracking out the clapperboards. Unsurprisingly, those with deeper pockets could oblige. At the time, several sources in the production sector remarked on the willingness of Sky and the streamers, most notably Netflix, to provide financial parachutes. “It was about saying, ‘Ok, you’re not insured, here’s an amount of money [to cover potential losses], or we will underwrite a certain amount of risk with you or for you.’ Every show was slightly different,” says Sky’s Bennett.
There’s also the so-called “Covid tax” on production costs, which ranges anywhere between 10% and 25% depending on who you talk to. This is the fiscal reality of safety protocols and longer shoot times. In UK trade publication Broadcast’s annual Indie Survey last month, producers complained that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 have been unwilling or unable to shoulder these additional costs, and when they do offer a fatter commissioning tariff, they want more backend rights. “Broadcasters have done nothing to help and effectively pulled up the drawbridge,” remarked one grumpy production chief.
Broadcasters, unsurprisingly, point to their own pandemic-induced financial problems (ITV and Sky’s combined profits plummeted by more than a billion dollars last year), and all stress how they have worked closely with independent producers throughout the crisis. Phillips captures the thoughts of her peers when she says: “We’ve been really conscious at the BBC of supporting all these indies with their extra costs as much as we can, and adapting the editorial or reducing volumes [of hours] on a case by case basis.” Frow personally called Channel 5’s top 64 suppliers in the early days of the pandemic. “I was very mindful of little people without big resources,” he says. “Making sure everybody was ok was definitely 50% of the challenge, because if everybody’s ok, we can move forward.”
Communication was particularly critical in the winter months, when coronavirus surged across the UK and the country entered new lockdowns in October and January. Producer ingenuity was vital, but so was broadcaster flexibility in an environment where, according to one anecdote we heard, even on-set Covid supervisors were not protected from the virus. Drama series like Sky’s Brassic had to hit the breaks for a couple of weeks amid positive tests, while ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent Christmas special was shut down on the eve of production in October, only for it to be remounted on another date. ITV later had to cancel the 2021 season because it proved impossible to film, though Lygo is keeping his fingers crossed that the Simon Cowell talent show can return to production in the fall for next year. Over at the BBC, Strictly Come Dancing took months of planning and had to adapt as its first same-sex pairing, Nicola Adams and Katya Jones, were forced out of the competition in November when Jones became one of 4.3M UK residents to catch the disease. “We tested everyone once a week, but the test didn’t come back for two days,” remembers Phillips, who heads up entertainment when not running BBC One. “It was like another reality show in itself waiting for the Strictly test results.”
Strictly was one of the countless entertainment shows to shoot without a studio audience, something that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. Audiences were first shut out of shows in March 2020, but trickled back in last fall, albeit in masks, family bubbles, and considerably lower numbers. The door was slammed shut again when new lockdowns arrived and many shows have switched to virtual audiences. This is perhaps most prominent on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, which features a giant wall of Zoom faces, allowing British TV’s adored presenting duo to continue their high jinx of surprising audience members. “Where you would have taken audiences for granted, now you can’t and that worries performers and producers. But generally speaking, it’s ok. It’s probably 20% below par, but the show must go on,” says Lygo.
Bennett thinks Sky’s biggest studio show, A League Of Their Own, has taken on a more intimate quality without an audience, almost like viewers are being invited into a private conversation between friends. Phillips echoes this in reference to Strictly, during which contestants acted as substitutes for members of the public, cheering on their rivals from jazz club-style tables next to the dancefloor. It’s a change that might stand the test of time. “The old adage, necessity is the mother of invention, is very true,” adds Phillips.
Perhaps the most dramatic format overhaul of the coronavirus-era belonged to ITV’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!, which relocated from Australia to a derelict castle in Wales. It resulted in some of the best ratings in the show’s 19-year history, as stars wrestled with the extremities of British winter, rather than the critter-riddled steam box that is the Aussie outback. “With these long-running shows, you have the slight advantage of this dedicated audience who just adore it and can’t wait for it to return. They are with you and they understand if you’ve got to adapt and change,” says Lygo.
His focus has now switched to where Love Island will be staged. Lygo says he is due to make a call this week on whether the formidable dating show, which was canceled last summer, goes ahead in Mallorca or moves to Jersey this year. He gives us an insider perspective on the conversations currently taking place: “We’ve taken the view that we will do it this summer, it’s where that is the debate. Obviously, we want to go back to Mallorca, but you have to make that decision around now, otherwise, you’re not going to make it in time. Anything could happen between now and transmission where Spain closes down again, or we put Spain on a red list and you can’t get anyone out there. At the moment, you can do it technically, but do you want to gamble all of that, because realistically, you can’t have a backup, should it collapse at any time in the next two months. So do you do it in Jersey? Can it be done there and would it be a safer bet? And does an audience really mind?”
It sounds like Lygo might be leaning towards the Channel island, but says he needs to hear representations from ITV Studios producers before making a decision. Remote editing could be a gamechanger, he adds, meaning ITV doesn’t have to send hundreds of people to Spain. The obvious question with Jersey is: Can producers guarantee the sunny weather that is so central to the bikini-clad antics of the Love Island format? “You can’t, but it was a challenge on the winter Love Island in South Africa,” Lygo replies. “The weather wasn’t great and they were quite cold and it wasn’t sunny every day. You just have to adapt. When we used to do Big Brother in the summer, there would be days when they were all sunbathing out in the garden and then it rained a bit and they were all inside. You’ve got to have more heaters around the [outdoor] beds and producers have to be more inventive with tasks and games.”
These are the kinds of dilemmas TV controllers are wrestling with every day as overseas filming remains one of the biggest outstanding problems of the pandemic. Channel 4 is holding back on travel shows and overseas property brands, so Katz is instead pushing resources into locally-produced shows that lift viewers out of lockdown gloom. It’s a mantra he calls “joy in a joyless age,” and, like Channel 5, the broadcaster has embraced warmth, kindness, and the great outdoors with shows like Extraordinary Escapes with Sandi Toksvig. It’s not gone unnoticed at Ben Frow towers. “Let’s just say, I study the overnights with great interest and I notice quite a lot of copycat programming happening from one of our close competitors,” he says playfully. Back to foreign filming, and Channel 5 is not sending Jane McDonald or Susan Calman out on any cruise ships any time soon, for obvious reasons. International drama shoots also remain incredibly tricky, though Bennett says Riviera got around a Venice shoot by despatching a Julia Stiles double, and Sky has found a way of making Ben Chanan’s upcoming road-trip series, You, across as many as five different European countries.
The difference between dramas and international factual entertainment shoots is often a controlled environment. So, while Kudos can carefully plan You for Sky, the BBC can’t predict how contestants will travel through different countries on Race Across The World. The BBC is, however, committed to the show and Phillips says production talks are currently taking place with Studio Lambert. One unpredictable format confirmed to return is The Apprentice, which will be filmed in and around London this year after the business show’s 2020 hiatus. “We are planning to film The Apprentice because we’ve all got a lot more experienced in how we can make these shows under restrictions. But also, hopefully, as we come into a lifting of lockdown, we will be able to do a bit more,” explains Phillips, though she acknowledges that the Naked-produced format will not be the same. “We can control and bubble the candidates in the house, but are we going to be in a world where they can be on the streets, madly running around grabbing people? If you grab someone on the street now, they will be really quite alarmed. So it will be different.”
The uncertainty, delays, cancelations, mindboggling safety complexities, multi-faceted decision-making, and home working have taken their toll on most in the industry. On top of all that, broadcasters are grappling with the seismic shift to streaming, with the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 restructuring their content teams to compete with Netflix and better meet audience needs online. Frow also reveals that he is taking ownership of streamer My5’s editorial output for the first time. Lygo says ITV’s digital overhaul took on real urgency because of the pandemic. “We’ve seen a significant shift in people’s behavior in how they watch television in the evenings,” he reveals.
TV controllers have not been immune to the cumulative mental health challenges of all this breathless change. “I think of myself as really strong-minded, but even I’ve had moments where I just want to smack my head on my desk,” says Sky’s Bennett. Phillips, from her loft, says the isolation has not always been easy. “TV is a very sociable industry. We thrive on contact, brainstorming, collaborating, and purpose. It’s been a massive shift,” she explains. Frow says he’s become as much a counselor as a commissioner during lockdown. “I’ve had a lot fewer arguments over Zoom than I would have done in the office. My team might disagree, but I think I’ve become a lot more empathetic and considerate, and mindful of people. Maybe to the people who deserve it more than others,” he smiles.
Katz thinks the past year has made him a better TV tastemaker. “We have almost re-contracted with our audience. We’ve forged a new kind of relationship with them that feels more responsive,” he says. “My preoccupation now is where the audience is going to be in a year’s time, and what this period will have done to them emotionally and psychologically. We’re pivoting now from joy in a joyless age to commissioning for a post-Covid world. How will people’s obsessions, desires, preoccupations, and fears have been changed by this period?”
None of the controllers forecast a relaxing of safety protocols over the coming months, even with a vaccine now in the arms of 30.5M Brits. The great hope, though, is that things become easier if infection rates are kept under control and the world opens up again. Sky, for example, has recorded a total of 70 positive tests across its scripted productions over the past year, but there were no new cases in the first two weeks of March. In this environment, keeping Covid at bay on productions feels more routine, and less like shielding from a tornado. And here’s more good news: The hard work is paying off, with badly disrupted shows like Line Of Duty finally making it to the screen and delivering big ratings.
Frow sums up the challenge like this: “Let’s prepare for another 12 months of unpredictability. And then if it’s easier than we thought, fantastic. And if it’s as bad as we thought, we’ll be prepared.” Just don’t expect to see him back in the office five days a week, which is no small thing for a man who has commuted for the best part of 40 years. By that measure alone, TV has changed beyond recognition.