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EDN Director's Blog #2: Full EBU Documentary Group keynote speech: Why public broadcasting?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

On behalf of the independent documentary sector that I have the honour to represent here, I want to thank you for having invited me to deliver this keynote address.

I would like to use this occasion to inform you about how the independent producers look upon the current production situation and the relation between “content providers” and “content distributors”, and to share with you not only our worries and fears, but also to extend an inviting hand to tackle together the many current changes in the media landscape that drive us out of our comfort zone and that force us all to become more daring and innovative than ever before.

I think I can say with absolute certainty that today there are no certainties anymore. Every single current media-model is under pressure and although there are many questions about where the future will take us, there are no clear answers yet to put our minds at ease. I don’t think that I’m the only one who experiences this kind of situation as disruptive, paralysing and threatening. But it’s not because many of us feel disrupted, paralysed and threatened that we should sit back, pretending that nothing is going on and that if we just wait and sit still everything will go back to normal. I’m not the smartest guy on earth but one thing I do know for sure; as far as our common professional activity is concerned, nothing is ever going to go back to how it was before.

Over the past months, I have been talking to many professionals and from these discussions resulted an analysis that I have recently presented to several documentary film makers - directors and producers alike – under the very optimistic title: HURRAH, WE’RE IN A CRISIS.

While I was preparing today’s speech, it dawned on me that although I’m now addressing the players at the other side of the pitch, I might as well use the same title. I own the copyright anyhow, so I can use It for free. Very important in these times of severe budget cuts. 

Over the past years, the independent documentary sector and you, the commissioning editors and decision makers, we’ve had our quarrels and differences of opinion about how to work together, and we both have been defending what we thought was right, seen from our own side of the playing field. Fair enough.

Today we have to set our different opinions aside and reunite our forces, for in my humble opinion if we fail to do that we might very well get kicked off our playing field altogether.

Let’s face it: we’re in a crisis. No doubt about that. Changes in the entertainment and media environment affect all sectors of production and distribution.

In spite of what our friends the creationists mistakenly think, the old theory by Darwin is valid, more then ever: ADAPT, OR DIE.  But the other side of that coin is the second part of that theory; THE STRONGEST WILL SURVIVE.

Reflecting on that, we might ask ourselves whether a crisis is a problem or a blessing? It’s a cynical and certainly not a popular question to ask, but it’s not because it’s not popular that it should not be raised.

A couple of years ago, just before we were all struck by the financial crisis and severe budget cuts, I read a book by the American sociologist Richard Florida, titled: THE RISE OF THE CREATIVE CLASS (with the subtitle: and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community & everyday life)

Although his conclusions are very much concentrated on the American situation and some of his theories are considered by some to be rather controversial, I was struck by at least one theory that I thought made sense. According to Richard Florida there are three elements that play an important role in the successful development of a creative environment. An environment that although what’s being produced there it’s less tangible than the products of steel works or car manufacturing, also brings prosperity where they’re being welcomed. The three elements are: TECHNOLOGY, TOLERANCE AND TALENT.

Analysing today’s situation, I feel that these same elements are the forces that drive the changes that we’re all confronted with. The way we deal with them will – once again in my opinion - decide whether as producers of creative documentaries and people in charge of quality factual programming, we will survive or whether we’ll silently whither away. 

Let’s talk about TECHNOLOGY first.

Twenty years ago, when I was still producing and there were clear and simple rules of understanding between the content providers and the content distributors, I sometimes felt a bit bored and jealous of the pioneers of television who, somewhere in the fifties, where confronted with a completely unknown medium, and they had to find out how to deal with it and how to turn it into a success.

I always admired them for daring to say that the medium was there for Education, Information and Entertainment… more or less in that order. How exiting it must have been to be selected to work in that brand-new environment and carry such a wonderful mission statement!

Actually, I think that today we’re in exactly the same position as those pioneers back then but we don’t seem to realise it. We’re also on the brink of a completely new media society and like them then, we now have to work out how to deal with it.

If we look at this slide we notice how everything in between the fifties and the last turn of the century was EVOLUTION.


Cinema has been around for more than a hundred years, and although the quality (technically speaking) has improved I do not see major changes in that medium. The big 3D push that the manufacturers try to sell is nothing more than a repetition of the 3D hype that the studios tried to impose on their audiences in the fifties. It didn’t work then, and I don’t think it will work now.

Our own medium of course is much younger but actually hasn’t changed that much in 65 years. From black and white we went to colour, sound became better, image quality improved over the years but basically nothing changed fundamentally. It has been a soft and gentle evolution that allowed those who were working in the medium to settle in and feel comfortable as members of a technological and cultural elite.

It was only around 1970 that the first serious changes could be witnessed. You will certainly remember how the power shift started when consumer video became widely available and for the first time in television’s history the audience took a little bit of power; now at least they were able to record programmes and watch them when they wanted it.

A second change came when the analogue satellite and later the analogue cable appeared and opened the doors of international television for the audiences. Instead of a limited choice of channels they could now watch a wide variety and get a taste of what was happening elsewhere.

Instead of waiting for the own broadcaster to bring foreign programmes into the living room, the audience now had the opportunity to discover for themselves what was on offer, and that choice became even wider when the proliferation of commercial broadcasting started all over Europe. I strongly believe that this element of choice had a beneficial effect because suddenly local programme makers found themselves in a competitive environment: the audience could compare what was on offer and if they didn’t like what they saw on their traditional channel they would just leave and find something they liked, elsewhere.

Under the pressure of the circumstances the broadcasters discovered the value of collaborating with independent producers: innovative ideas and new formats became available; faster and less top-heavy decision processes allowed for quick action and new sources of financing could be called upon. It was a win-win situation.

Changes in society also played a role in this evolution.

People started travelling more, witnessed political systems disappear and frontiers being opened and at the same time they became more technology savvy, so that when digital satellite and digital cable started replacing the old analogue systems, the audience knew how to make full use of the technologies, including the interactive red button.

After having been offered a wider choice, the audience now got a louder voice. They could actually start to communicate with the television makers and let them know whether they liked what they saw... or not! The person that television had been working for over a 50 years period – the viewer – now became the “consumer”. Enter on stage: the marketeers!

Changes… yes, but all in all it was still an evolution, although one that started to seriously undermine the certainties that had always been the cornerstone of the relation with the audience. By the turn of the century, these changes became really disruptive. Television became business and the first victim of that evolution was the public broadcasting service.

Since the late eighties, early nineties, the public broadcasting has been under constant attack and quite frankly I have the feeling that until now it did not manage to counter-attack. All that has been done has been damage control.

The vision and mission statement that was pronounced so clearly at the start of television broadcasting has not been sufficiently updated and adapted to the new social environment, and with me many others ask themselves what the mission of public broadcasting is today? If it is to entertain the world with the expensive Eurovision Song Contest, then I completely disagree.

I’m sorry if this sounds provocative in this environment where I’m a guest, but that’s how many feel about it.

Don’t consider this to be an accusation: it’s more an expression of a deep worry. More than ever, many out there are fierce defenders of the public broadcasting system, but only willing to act if they know what exactly they’re defending, and that, dear friends, is unclear.

Allow me to turn back to the slide and my envy of the pioneers of broadcasting’s early days. It is my conviction that today, for the first time in more than six decades of television we are confronted with a REVOLUTION.

Just look at the list of recently developed technologies and the new platforms that have appeared over the past 10 years, and mind you…this list is far from complete. A lot more has happened in that short period of time than it has over half a century before that. And this time, we’re talking about more than just technological steps forward. We’re talking about game-changers that affect us all. 

With Richard Florida I say that the current TECHNOLOGY is a game changer of a kind we haven’t seen ever before. We might not like some of these new technologies, and some of them have already become obsolete, but only to be immediately replaced by faster, more powerful and easier to access technologies that put the audience, the consumer, at the helm. 

The times are over when broadcasters produced what they wanted, when they wanted it, how they wanted it, and when a small group of specialists decided when to distribute the content and where. PUSH MEDIA have become PULL MEDIA.

I think that the golden age of commissioning and scheduling (the TOP DOWN system) is history. It sounds like a cliché, but it is the simple truth: today’s audiences consume what they want, when they want, where they want and on the screen they want. Media consumption has now become a BOTTOM UP decision process. Neo-liberalism, the system where the market decides what it wants, has entered – or should I use the world “poisoned” - our beloved medium.

This brings me to the second element; TOLERANCE. 

For many years public broadcasting has offered a platform for different, often provocative views and opinions. It took us to places where different morals and opinions reigned and offered us the necessary information to allow us to form a well-considered opinion about them. It has been – another cliché, I’m sorry for that – a window, wide open on the world.

It has helped us to understand the living circumstances of the other; to take a critical look at our own circumstances; to not just accept what the powers that be told us to believe. In other words:  public broadcasting built bridges towards a more open, tolerant and democratic society. 

I believe I can say that to achieve that noble goal, you as representatives of broadcasters and we, independent content providers, have been working together very well over the past 25 years. Together we’ve developed and produced documentaries and factual programming that was of high quality, on subjects that mattered.

We managed to set up a form of collaboration that went far beyond the financing needs of a documentary. In a process of constant consultation and discussion we were able to produce content that upheld certain norms and values and that gave the viewer the guarantee that what he saw had been checked and double-checked before it was broadcasted. Call that “a quality stamp” that was administered.

Within your slots and strands there was room for dissident voices, for different ways of storytelling and in general we can say that you would offer the viewer an experience that would leave him or her an intellectually richer person after having watched the programme. Big words, maybe, but that’s what you did.

Can we honestly say that our public broadcasters offer that same guarantee today? Can we? Looking at you, I know that many of you do try to uphold this system; that you do fight to offer more to the viewer than the commercial pulp that is shoved down our throats by numerous channels that seek to please as wide an audience as possible. But I can’t help getting the impression that you’re becoming the exception that confirms the rule. Of course I can only guess, but I fear it must be lonely out there, where you try to do a good job.

Please prove me wrong, but I can’t help thinking that on television – like in the outside world – tolerance is a word that is rapidly loosing its meaning. Everything that is not confined within the suffocating borders of the largest common denominator seems to be a hard sell these days.

This situation is affecting the relation between the broadcasters and the independent sector. How does management control people who call themselves “ independent”? That relation is a contradictio in terminis.

For many years the maverick views and out-of-the-box storytelling have been considered an added value that the independent sector could offer to the broadcasting world. Today, in many cases, they are considered to be a risk, a danger, and – so many of our members tell me – it has become incredibly hard to collaborate in a respectful and positive way. I can vouch that I’ve talked to many desperate people, recently.

But it’s not only us, the independents, who are threatened!

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a friend who had just returned from the Hot Docs Pitching Forum and who was extremely worried by a phenomenon he had witnessed: many of the projects that were presented had incredibly high budgets (often over 1 million dollars) and the presence of broadcasters in the financing plan was very limited. Foundations, crowd funding and input by NGO’s had replaced the traditional funder that television has always been. 

This phenomenon it seems, led to a fierce discussion between European producers. Some said that this was the beginning of the end, for they claimed that the lack of editorial control by commissioning editors would result in bland and one-dimensional documentaries that no longer would try to look for the wider truth but would only present one very specific point of view, in defence of an isolated issue. In their opinion this will undermine the power of documentary and turn it into mere propaganda and entertainment. 

Others applauded this evolution and said that this new way of financing would set them free from what they called “the tyranny of commissioning editors and pre-formatted demands”.

As usual the truth will be found somewhere in between, but the fact that this debate became quite heated should make all of you think about it. You might be loosing some of your former allies. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Which brings me to the third element: TALENT.

Now if there’s one thing there’s no shortage of, it’s exactly that.  At least, judging by the numbers.

Sheffield received over 650 demands for a meeting with you during the MeetMarket; DocsBarcelona had to deal with more than 250 applications from producers who wanted to get in touch with decision makers to ask for your support, and from my own experience in film funds I can tell you that there we are confronted with the same increase in applications. It seems that today everybody wishes to be a documentary filmmaker. And this in an environment where there’s less and less funding available!

Now it’s time for me to look into the mirror and ask myself, as the defender of the interests of the independent documentary sector, whether quantity equals quality? In my opinion, as a community of documentary filmmakers, we should be very critical towards ourselves and honestly examine whether what we offer is of the highest standards, up to par with what you need to fulfil your promises to your audience.

Can we reach that level of excellence by ourselves or do we need input by third parties? That’s exactly what the debate in Toronto was about. One thing I do know for sure: if we want to convince our audience that spending time on watching documentaries is time well spent, it will not be enough to offer them good documentaries, no… we need excellent ones. And personally I think it would be unwise not to accept the experience of professionals like you in the process of making a documentary.

But on the other hand this kind of collaboration can only be successful and mutually satisfying if it’s conducted under the terms of respect for each party’s talent and opinions. We need friends and partners, not – sorry, cliché number three, I believe – not interfering mothers-in-law.

None of us, professionals, should turn a blind eye to the fact that technically speaking, today everybody is a filmmaker and a content distributor. Only two decades ago one needed to be a trained cameraperson, an experienced sound engineer or seasoned editor to be able to work with the expensive and sophisticated equipment that was needed to turn top-quality images and sound into compelling stories.

Today, an untrained but technology savvy person who owns a 6.000 euro camera, a 2.000 euro portable computer and a couple of software programmes worth not more than 1.500 euro can produce a film that looks better than what we produced - at top-prices - 20 years ago. That’s what technology does for you.

And that’s also what tolerance does for you. All of us here in this room pay - more or less happily - about 1.500 euro for a top-of-the-range flatscreen TV so that we can watch those wonderful programmes in the very best quality, but the younger generation couldn’t care less about size.

See them walking around with their PSP’s, their mobiles and I-pads or other tablets, consuming all kind of content that appeals to them on a screen, the size of which gives us a headache.

Do they care? Not in the slightest. They love it. They produce and distribute their own content and happily consume their friends’ content, delivered at internet speed by many platforms that are available for free and on which everything is allowed. 

Often what they find there is funny, shocking, revealing even, but more often it’s boring, purely exploitative and repetitive, and what is almost always lacking is a good story.

We’ve entered the digital age, for sure. I consider people of my age to be dinosaurs who try to keep up with the new technologies and fight a bitter struggle to integrate them in their professional strategies – and often fail. People between 15 and 45 are the ones that are of the mixed generation: they know how to use the new technologies but they still remember more or less the old world and therefore they can relate to us, still. But those who are younger than 15 – the digital natives – they have never known what I would call “our world” and they don’t see a reason why they should. And let’s face it: these are the future audiences. 

Like it or not, but more and more we’ll have to cater for their needs and expectations. If we fail to do so we’ll loose them and they’ll find their way to the “Over The Top” platforms and the V.O.D. offerings, where they will find exactly what they will be looking for.

All this sounds horrible and depressing, doesn’t it?  But let me return to the storytelling element. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that the pendulum of time swings to an extreme position and than returns to normal, whatever that “normal” might be.

I am convinced that we haven’t even reached the stage of the extreme yet. Technology will continue to surprise us, audiences will run after these new offerings like donkeys chase after a carrot on a stick; we will be confronted with horrible abuse of media power to advocate the most horrendous causes and yes… accidents will happen and there will be victims. But then the pendulum will have reached its outer limit and will return. And then we all have to be ready.

Let’s not try to fight the tidal wave of media lunacy that will roll over our heads, but let’s take a deep breath and break through the surface of the wave after it has passed and continue to do what we’re good in: make a difference and deliver quality. 

When we will resurface we will not be the same; we will have changed and we will need to find other ways of collaboration. For there’s one thing I’m sure of: none of us will be able to survive without the help of the other. 

In the new media world that we will be confronted with, we will need to create compelling media experiences, take into account different media consumption patterns and find ways to make our stories work in a multiplatform environment. That’s quite a challenge and it can only be answered by being innovative and by using the creative input that comes from different sources. 

Creative, that is what we’ve always been, but in a way that made us also the victims of the comfort zone in which we have been sheltered for such a long time, and of the cosiness of it that limited our drive for innovation. We have been around and successful for such a long time; we don’t need anybody else’s advice? Or do we?

Once again I have to refer to the world of IT to make an analogy. How many of the technology companies that were too big to fail in the seventies, when the IT world started to develop, are still around? Texas Instruments, Digital, Wang… I hope you didn’t invest your early savings in their stock. Those who survived, like IBM, diversified and changed their ways of doing business. 

These blockbuster companies were so sure that they knew it all, they had the money and they had the brains and they would dictate how society would use the new technologies that they would chose to develop. Time has proven them wrong!

That example should make today’s big structures think twice about how they see themselves develop over the next decades. Clinging on to what once was has never been a good survival strategy. This goes for an institution like EBU, but it also applies to a less official community like the one of the independent documentary filmmakers.

Actually, I fee a bit ashamed addressing you in this way for I have the feeling that I’m aiming at the innocent piano player in the saloon, and not at the bar owner who hands out the sheet music you are forced to play and who seems to be removing more and more strings from the piano, until it comes to the point where it’s impossible to play decent music on the instrument.

Just looking at who are present here today, I notice several people working for a broadcaster whose budget was cut severely. How can I expect you to fight the existing powers who will use every single occasion that presents itself to save another eurocent? Looking at the economic figures and the expected further zero growth or even the threatening recession, how can we be sure that the politicians will not be looking for another easy target where they can take money away from? Now let’s see… who could that be. 

Commercial broadcasters are also under heavy pressure and face difficult times and oh boy …are they good in lobbying! And right they are to do so. Google, Apple, Netflix and other Hulu giants are waiting for just the right moment to invade Europe and crush our markets with the power of their deep pockets. And no European Commissioner will be able to stop them. If and when they come every available eurocent will then be needed to keep the audiovisual industry alive and the money will be taken from the easiest chicken to pluck: culture and public broadcasting. 

Looking at how commercial broadcasters have accepted that they too have to play a role in promoting the social awareness in our society and are developing activities in that field – and doing it honestly and well - the question “why public broadcasting?” becomes relevant and the answer might be very simple: we don’t need it anymore.

That would be a disaster for you, that would be a disaster for the creative independent production sector but foremost it would be a disaster for the society as a whole, for however honest in their intentions, the commercial broadcasters will never defend cultural diversity like the public broadcasters can, or should.

I’m sure you are aware that at this moment there’s a debate going on about the cultural exception in the discussions about General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade between the USA and Europe.

For many years this agreement has accepted the cultural exception, which made it possible for the national governments to support their own culture, i.e. the national audiovisual industry. This principle is now under threat and although Commissioner Karel De Gucht insists us that culture will not be touched, he refuses to put that promise on paper. I think that by now we all know what’s the value of a politician’s word. 

EBU has taken action against this threat. It has protested and is advocating that the exception be kept as an essential part of the agreements. Cultural Diversity is a very important but vulnerable thing and must be protected.

Hurrah, bravo, applause. But might I suggest that EBU asks its members to respect a bit more the cultural diversity in their own dealings. While you are afraid of USA blockbusters coming over and crush you, on your own level you create your very own mammoths.

When I started in the business I could detect three sizes of production companies. The first one I would call the big boys. These were indeed the blue chip companies (often founded by former commissioning editors who left the broadcaster) who had privileged relations with the broadcasters. They seldom had to pitch, or did not really have a hard time when they had to do so, because indeed they were serious, well organised and well structured. No harm in having them around and every big language territory had a limited number of them. But because they were so big they were also rather expensive to work with and therefore could not cater for the poorer slots.

Let me now first jump to the other side of the spectrum where in those days already, one would find the idealists, the experimentalists, the people who were fond of media but who had no real intention to make a direct living out of it. Very often they would be very close to the art world and live either from somebody else’s income or from state subsidy. Their products where seldom to be seem on the regular screens but they would form the environment in which new techniques and forms of storytelling would be invented and would be tested. But this was a rather small group indeed.

In the middle, there would be a rather large group of medium sized companies. Also rather well structured but less well capitalized than the big boys; working with a more limited staff and very often contracting independent researchers and directors. They would also be more mean and lean in their organisation structure. They would be making a limited number of documentaries per year, enough to keep them alive and have some butter on their lunch sandwiches. They would actually make enough money to pick up some of the better ideas of the experimentalists and turn them into more mainstream forms of storytelling. Once these ideas would have been tested and approved, the big boys would often take them over and start making real money with them. But actually, this sector would be the place where new talent could be tested and got battle experience, before they moved on to better paid levels.

It was not a bad system: between the real factual programmes “industry” on one side and the experimentalists on the other, there would be this important middle class that would serve as cement or glue and keep everything together, driving forward creativity and innovation.

Exactly like in the real society, this situation has now changed. We see the disappearance of the middle classes everywhere, and we witness the disruptive effect is has on society. The same is happening in our own media environment. The middle class production companies are struggling to stay alive and are getting less numerous by the day. A recent study by Joerg Langer for AG.DOK in Germany revealed that the average wage for a producer is less than 10 euro/hour.

The group of big boys has become a lot bigger but also a lot more international, which means that there’s not a lot of diversity to be found in their programmes. More and more they offer “one size fits all”. And still they are the ones that the public broadcasters increasingly want to work with.

The group of experimentalists and idealists has grown exponentially. They produce an enormous amount of content but it will never find its way to the traditional screens. They are the ones who will cater for the needs of the internet, but very few of them will actually make any real money. That’s sad, but that’s also life.

But the real danger lies in the fast reduction of the number of middle class companies. The way they are being put aside and treated as beggars by many public broadcasters is not correct. If they manage to find some support at all, in many cases the amounts that are being offered are scarcely enough to cover a limited part of the production budget, and generally these companies are considered to be a pain in the ass.

It’s true that working with them is challenging: there’s more risk to it and certainly more work involved; they might be more stubborn than the big boys in defending their ideas and also yes… their productions are more demanding and are less aiming at entertainment and therefore less crowd-pleasing.

But they are the voice of an important part of our society and they are the gatekeepers of quality, innovation and creativity. The audience doesn’t like their films? How could they, if the audience doesn’t know about them? How can the audience like something they never see?

I am very clear in telling the owners of the public saloon – not the piano players, mind – that they’re not doing their job. If they honestly defend the principle of cultural diversity, than why not start by respecting it themselves? We need a new Emila Zola who writes another “J’accuse” and you know, I might take on that job myself.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry it this was too long a talk and too cramped with opinions and information, but believe me… I could go on for hours on this subject. So much more could be said. 

We are all gathered here for the same reason: because we believe that we have an important role to play in the cultural development of our society and because we love documentary. Because of this shared belief and this common love we have to set our futile differences aside and together dare to challenge those who have a different view on why documentaries and public broadcasting matter. 

It will be a hard battle to fight and all I can promise you is blood, sweat and tears but remember that other geezer who promised those same things long time ago, and remember who finally won the war.

Thank you for your attention.



This keynote speech was delivered at the meeting of the EBU Documentary Group on June 6, 2013 in Sheffield. You can comment on this blog posting at The EDN Online Forum.