Internationalization of TV in and from Small Nations
In November 2015 as part of the network’s activities an international group of academics and television professionals met in Cardiff to discuss the current television landscape within small nations. Contributors represented a range of nations including Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Macedonia and Slovenia (the programme for the event is available here).
In gathering together these diverse voices we wanted to begin the process of identifying the challenges and opportunities for television production and to being developing a more nuanced understanding of how this is experienced and negotiated in small nations.
This part of the website maps some of the discussion that emerged as part of the workshop and concludes by highlighting further subjects for discussion at the next workshops which are kindly hosted by our partners, the Welsh-language broadcaster S4C (March 2016, Cardiff) and Aarhus University (June 2016, Denmark).
The day began with two fascinating presentations from industry collaborators on content which has garnered national and international attention. Ed Talfan (Severn Screen) and Ed Thomas (Fiction Factory) reflected on the production and international journey of the Welsh police drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland, due to film its third season in 2016. Anne Blohm Rudbaek (SF Film Productions) spoke about her involvement in a new Danish police drama Norskov and its filming in Frederikshavn.
All three spoke at length about the importance of the location to both the aesthetics of their series’ but also to the delivery of the final product. Ensuring the production had well-nurtured relationships with various local stakeholders including local government, education providers and location managers ensured the drama remained on screen, rather than off it.
The centrality of digital platforms to leveraging new audiences and new territories was also a theme of their accounts. For those involved with Y Gwyll/Hinterland, Netflix has been an important platform for internationalizing their content, enabled in large part by their distributor All3Media and the association with public service broadcasters like S4C and the BBC. For Norskov, achieving a record high for viewings on TV2’s online platform allowed the series to build its audience in what is always a crowded and competitive genre.
These themes of online distribution, the role of public service broadcasters, and new forms of competition and collaboration within the market, appeared throughout the day. In the open discussion of the opportunities and challenges for small nations television sector the centrality of Public Service Broadcasting to the television ecology of small nations was echoed by both industry and academics across all of the nations represented – ‘without PSB we are in an impossible situation’.
Whether as a ‘reflection of our reality’, to support regional programming especially drama, or to take risks relating to content and technology, public service broadcasters were crucial to the sustainability of television production going forward. Compared to its larger neighbours, PSB in small nations was deemed ‘even more critical’ due to the size of the market and the ongoing competition from imported content (see this exchange between Turnbull and Lealand on the tensions between large and small nations here). For one participant, PSB ‘changes the possibilities of what this country are. This is not just an economic question but a portrayal question in itself’. The tangible value of PSB to nations is illustrated by Ruth McElroy in this blog.
Participants also agreed that the sustained cuts which public broadcasters have endured over the last few decades are having a significant impact on both investment and market share of these institutions across Europe. However the way in which these cuts are experienced differs significantly across national contexts thereby destabilizing any claim that small nations are homogenous in their relationship with television.
For instance, the workshop heard how the Macedonian government has allowed payment of the licence fee to be optional and the resulting loss of funding has meant that output such as drama and children’s output has nearly disappeared and the majority of content produced is now studio-based. Elsewhere however, in Slovenia and Norway for example, public support for PSB has made substantial cuts politically difficult to enact, though freezing public funding has its own consequences in an increasingly competitive television landscape.
For many of the contributors this pointed to a wider weakness in how the public value of broadcasting is articulated to and by policy-makers. Traditional arguments relating to PSB, such as facilitating democracy and public debate, may limit the scope for change and participants suggested that new arguments could offer alternative ways to articulate public value. Research by one of our partners, the European Broadcasting Union identifies the various types of value that have legitimated PSB, and analyses the challenges going forward in an evolving television landscape.
For many participants the consequence of the current focus on instrumental value relating to PSB has been that a limited range of interventions in the broadcasting market are being considered. Both tax breaks and top-slicing of the licence fee are considered by policy-makers and government, however, contributors argued that these are often limited in their impact and accessibility especially to local industry.
Here both The Missing (a British drama set in France but filmed in Belgium) and Game of Thrones (filmed in multiple international locations including Northern Ireland, Croatia and Iceland) were discussed in terms of the cultural visibility and economic benefits they deliver to their ‘host’ countries (see Martin McLoone’s overview of the impact of Game of Thrones on Northern Ireland here). For some at the workshop the unequal balancing of economic gain and cultural visibility were ‘symptoms of an audio-visual sector in some small nations which is still very much in development’.
The group agreed that in the race for big-budget foreign investment, essential local and often small-scale productions are frequently overlooked to the detriment of creating a rounded production ecology. A successful television production sector in a small nation will have a balance of both big budget productions which bring economic benefits (though are perhaps culturally ambiguous) and local productions which speak to indigenous stories and concerns. This debate is also reiterated in a 2015 report by the Institute of Welsh Affairs which highlighted a serious contraction in the funding of content related to Wales.
Debate continued into the final session where academic and industry contributors were partnered to discuss a shared interest from their respective vantage point. A diverse range of topics were explored in more depth including: what do changes in distribution, including the rise of new players like Netflix, mean for small nations and particularly drama from those areas; have the current policies for broadcasting at both national and EU level failed the television sector of small nations; how do location aesthetics drive the commissioning and production of drama and how is this leveraged as a resource for international success?
Co-production and partnerships have become established models for developing and creating content within small nations especially drama projects of scale and with production values to match. However, questions of power still remain especially in terms of rights negotiations for both content and platform access.
For one broadcaster, negotiating rights with suppliers to clear content to be offered across various platforms is ‘horrendous […] we thought we were a broadcaster, we want to make content, not negotiate contracts’. This has excluded smaller broadcasters from platforms as the high cost of development and content rights prohibits their engagement in all of these spaces.
Acknowledging the lure of partnerships with SVOD service like Netflix and Amazon Prime, one participant pointed out that while these players fund the production of content they are often reluctant to put in development money and so funding only arrives at the end of the project.
They also added that these partners offer less in the way of rights to producers and warned that ‘a wider shift towards that model doesn’t bode very well for the indies’. Small nations have traditionally been home to an often fragile independent production sector and this offers a worrying scenario for how their power might be further circumscribed in the future.
From what was an animated and engaging discussion, a number of fascinating themes have emerged. The centrality of publicly funded broadcasters in small nations, the disruption and opportunities offered by new players such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, and the ongoing concerns around cultural specificity in a global market were recurring topics. The debate reinforces to us the significance of the experience of smaller nations in the current television landscape and the benefits of industry-academic engagement in creatively tackling some of the challenges facing TV in and from small nations.
We will address some of these themes further in our next workshop which is on ‘Digital Innovation: recipes for cultural and commercial success’. If you would like to contribute to our discussion or hear more about the project please email Ruth McElroy (firstname.lastname@example.org), principal investigator of the network.
Caitriona Noonan, 19 February 2016
Dr Caitriona Noonan is lecturer in Media and Communication in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) at Cardiff University.