The Battleground for International Television: what can policy-makers learn from tv drama The Bastard Executioner (FX 2015)? by Caitriona Noonan

It’s that time of year when we look back on the previous year assessing how things went, and for television production in Wales 2015 was a mixed year.  Locally produced programmes such as Dr Who and Hinterland continued to entertain global audiences and in the case of the latter, Netflix offered a new route to market.  However, the precarious situation facing the production of content about and for Wales was also a theme in 2015 highlighted further by the publication of the Institute of Welsh Affairs Media Audit  (IWA 2015) in October.  They reported a significant decline in the volume and range of content about Wales available for people in Wales pointing to the fall of 25% in the last decade in the amount of money spent by the BBC on programmes for Wales in English.

While the production of indigenous content is certainly vital to the sustainability of the television sector I want to look at some of the challenges and rewards of the other plank of television production: inward foreign investment.

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Image via FX

In September last year there was a very public announcement that The Bastard Executioner, FX Channel’s new historic drama about a 14th-century knight-turned-executioner, was going to be filmed in Wales.  The announcement was significant in a number of regards not least that this was the latest drama from Kurt Sutter, creator of the hit biker drama Sons of Anarchy.  It was also meaningful in the decision to locate filming in the Dragon Studios at Pencoed (locally nicknamed ‘Valleywood’), which had been mothballed since 2008 when it went into administration.

This was certainly ‘a coup’ for the local industry and a ‘show of strength’ for Wales in the international television market (West 2015).  The Welsh Government used the opportunity to highlight their support (both financial and policy-orientated) for the sector.  Indeed the Economy Minister Edwina Hart was widely reported proselytizing the importance of the project to Welsh tax-payers and television professionals: “It is testament to the high-quality infrastructure, beautiful locations and talented workforce here in Wales that Fox 21 Television Studios have made this long-term commitment to Dragon Studios. I look forward to seeing even more high quality drama being made here in the future.”  However, for Ms Hart the long-term commitment and future for TBX was not to be.

In November Sutter took the unprecedented step of announcing the show’s cancellation through a series of ads in the Hollywood trade press. In the ads he wrote: “I have been awed by the talent and commitment of this ‘TBX’ cast and crew […] The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is, ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”  As Sutter alludes to in his rationale audience ratings and reviews from the critics were decidedly lukewarm.  However, rather than dwell on why that might be the case I want to unpack what lessons policy makers in Wales, and indeed in other nations, can learn from this case.

One of the key challenges for policy-makers and government in supporting this sector is the project-based nature of the work in which time is often a luxury.  When the opportunity for investment arrives governments need to move quickly to mobilise financial support.  However, as the case of TBX so neatly illustrates when the end comes, it can come as quickly.  Unlike other traditional industries where pre-production, production and distribution can take years, if not decades, creative sectors operate in a much more unstable ecology.  This means policy-makers need new forms of mobile support and need to take a wider view of planning which goes beyond a single project.

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Image via FX

This links neatly to another challenge – the difficulty in predicting what will be a success.  On paper this production had many winning ingredients: an experienced and successful writer, for instance, and big budget dramas with plenty of gore do seem to be a hit with audiences.  The phenomenal success of Game of Thrones (filmed in Northern Ireland) and Outlander (filmed in Scotland) demonstrates the appetite for historical drama filmed in the rugged Celtic landscape.  Yet despite these positive omens, success for TBX was to be elusive.  The disappointment around TBX highlights that many of the factors for success are outside policy-makers direct influence and that predicting success for a production is always going to be a frustrating task.

There are some positives that policy-makers in Wales can take from this case.  The capacity of the Welsh labour market to provide the appropriate technical skills and craft skills is certainly not in doubt.  Sutter’s praise for the Welsh crew and his acceptance of blame for the failure of the project, points to the crucial role of writing and directing talent within television production.  While technical and craft skills can be developed through qualifications and on the job training, writing and directing talent is much more difficult to nurture and needs alternative forms of intervention in the long term.  Providing space for writers and directors to work in relatively low risk (and often local) projects, coupled with industry mentorship seems to be more effective in cultivating the next generation of above the line talent.

And it is here that the strategy for attracting international investment dovetails with a strategy for producing content by and for indigenous audiences.  In our research of the television production sector in Wales the value of local productions such as the Welsh language soap opera Pobol y Cwm in nurturing writing, directing and acting talent was clearly articulated by those in the industry (McElroy and Noonan 2015).  Therefore, attracting large-scale international productions can only be one element in a much larger, more complex strategy.  As nations increasingly compete for the potential prestige and rewards of international production it is going to become even more difficult to differentiate one nations offering for another  (especially as competing through tax credits becomes the norm).  Therefore, for policy-makers intervening in television production local production needs to be seen as a necessary complement to international aspirations.

References:

Institute of Welsh Affairs (2015) IWA Welsh Media Audit 2015 Online.  Accessed: http://www.iwa.org.uk/cy/cyhoeddiadau/view/247

McElroy, R. and Noonan, C. with Blandford, S. (2015) Television Drama Production in Wales: BBC Wales, Roath Lock Studios.  A report by the Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations.

West, Karl (2015) Wales captures The Bastard Executioner in show of strength for TV industry.  Guardian Online.  Accessed: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/14/welsh-tv-industry-captures-bastard-executioner-show-of-strength

 

Dr Caitriona Noonan is lecturer in Media and Communication in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) at Cardiff University.

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