At MPTS, speaker after speaker including the director of Mr Bates vs The Post Office voiced fears for the future of the UK TV industry.

The Media Production and Technology Show (MPTS) felt like a busy show but the energy from many leading creatives and executives belied the perilous state of UK TV production.

Dan Snow

MPTS: Dan Snow

It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are a director with a strong track record or a runner trying to catch a break, the industry’s finances appear to be at breaking point with opportunities for work leaving freelancers high and dry.

“The shows that we cut our teeth on have gone,” said James Hawes, who directed the first season of Slow Horses for AppleTV+ and has just made feature film Amateur with Remi Malek. “We have to replace it otherwise we won’t have new British storytellers as part of our industry. When shows like Mr Bates vs The Post Office can only get made when the actors take a significant pay cut and the producers defer their fees it tells you something is wrong.”

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James Strong, the director of Mr Bates, revealed on the same panel that ITV came close to pulling the plug on the drama just eight weeks before the start of filming over budget concerns.

“The quintessentially British drama series is hugely under threat and could well be gone in two to three years’ time,” he warned. “The single film for TV has already gone. It’s not even a Bafta awards category any more. The limited series is not seen as financially viable. The success of a show like Mr Bates will be a unicorn unless we build an industry around the indies that make them and unless we have bigger tax breaks to make them economically viable.”

Learning the trade

He decried the BBC’s axing of Midlands-based serial Doctors which had run for 24 seasons since 2000.

james hawes on left and james strong on right

MPTS: (L-R) Sara Putt, James Hawes, Christiana Ebohon-Green, and James Strong

“At a stroke the biggest place that new and upcoming directors got a chance to do scripted TV week in week out has gone,” he said. “Shows like this are where all of us learned to make and tell British stories. Now that really is under threat.”

Hawes said it was critical that the government deliver on enhancing the tax credits for high end TV, especially targeting indie producers creating locally sourced stories.

“In many ways it has been a huge benefit to have big US studios invest here the flip side is that a lot of content they produce is not local. That creates problems for British companies wanting to tell British stories because they can’t compete against their budget levels so we need to balance that out with tax credits.”

He added: “We all have to do more to create space to be able to train new directing talent. Broadcasters and producers have to be willing to take people on and support them to move across departments so that they learn different aspects of production. It’s not enough to give them one break and see them stand or fall flat on their face. It’s something the industry has got to think about very hard and urgently.”

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The impact of a lack of jobs is impacting at producer and head of department level too.

“A lot of good talent is not working,” said Daniel Nettleton, Creative Director & Co-Founder - Bandicoot TV in another MPTS session. “It’s a very competitive selection process. As a production company we used to go to a broadcaster with our idea of who would be the best director or head of production but now there’s such a pool of amazing talent the commissioner asks you for a shortlist. Then it comes down to who they know. Even if we say this is who we think is the best person, the job may go to someone who has a prior relationship with the commissioner. It’s another hoop you’ve got to jump through.”

Sarah Stevenson, Head of Development - Yeti Television said that groups in the disabled sector or those from a working class background were being cut out of the market because of short term contracts and uncertainty.

“So many people simply can’t afford to be in the industry anymore,” she said. “When we made so much progress [with diversity] over the last few years it feels we are going to go backward rather than forward. I don’t know how people are going to cope.

“We have to be realistic that the next 12-18 months will still be slower than what it has been before. When it does pick back up the landscape will have changed irrevocably.”

Dhanny Joshi, MD, Big Deal Films called the situation “very bleak”. He added, “Everyone has taken for granted the luxury of employment in this industry and the luxury of having a commission. But I’m afraid it’s a case of who you know in the business at all levels. You have to reach out to whoever you know in order to keep on their radar.”

The same theme was picked up in another session, this time led by female industry leaders, where the focus was on mentoring talent.

“I speak to many freelancers who are seriously considering leaving the industry all together,” said Sarah Asante, Scripted Commissioning Editor, UKTV. “It’s heartbreaking that there aren’t enough tangible things in place to help prop up the industry while things are in flux.”

Despite ITV’s more positive forecast for ad revenues in the coming quarter (boosted by the UEFA Euros) the overall advertising market remains cautious and international partners have restricted their production budgets.

“Hanging in there is not the message that really helps pay the bills,” said Asante. “Yet many people have written off 2024 and are trying to hang in [the industry] until 2025.”

She also made the point that those with less financial resources are being forced out of TV. “Only those who can afford to own a car and are willing start work at 6am while being paid peanuts will be survive. That can’t be right.”

Priya Singh, Director of Operations, Commissioning & Content at ITV echoed that being freelance was extremely challenging not least because content itself was becoming more complex.

“There is so much change in terms of blurred lines between long and short form, between content which is marketing versus programming or a traditional TV show that stems from a visualised podcast. Being able to diversify into different formats and media by equipping yourself with those wider skills is important. Younger generations wouldn’t put themselves into a box. They are just content creators and technology plays a massive part in enabling that.”

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AI has moved from lab to set

AI had its own sidebar conference at the show but the technology refused to be ringfenced. It permeated almost every conversation.


MPTS 2024

James Hawes said he advised directors to go on training courses to learn how to use AI as a production tool.

Even broadcaster Dan Snow talked about how AI was being used at his production company History Hit to create visual props and even additional video clips in documentaries.

“I know this is a very tricky area and we have to tread carefully,” Snow said. “Where we have used AI on screen (to generate additional clips of a tapestry for example, or figures in paintings from the middle ages) we acknowledge this on screen.”

History Hit has also cloned Snow’s voice to augment narration. A demonstration had him singing Elvis Presley and De La Soul.

“Dan is a very busy man with finite time while the practical side of making films means we sometimes don’t always have time to tweak something in Dan’s voiceover recording,” explained Bill Hancock, Senior Editor, History Hit. “An ‘AI Dan’ comes to the rescue to restore that bit of voice which we put into the film so we make our deadlines.”

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Hancock made it clear that History Hit does this for shows it publishes on its own platforms and doesn’t use AI in co-production.

“We are very mindful of copyright and ethical issues and don’t want to get into hot water,” he said. “Additionally, audiences want the authentic Dan. We don’t want to create an entire film with AI.”

Snow said he had experimented with using AI to script shows but found the tech wanting. “It is unreliable for historical content, It is factually inaccurate. At the moment it is not writing our scripts but it is a useful research tool.”

AI could also help give indies like his achieve the on-screen production value that was once the preserve of broadcasters and studios.

“AI can give even smaller operations like ourselves the ability to produce drama docs and factual shows like Walking With Dinosaurs,” Snow said. “The expensive parts of production are CG and graphics so if we can bring the cost of that down just as the cost of shooting has come down, AI gives us a huge advantage.”


Newsnight’s infamous 2019 interview with Prince Andrew was another headline grabbing drama given an MPTS spotlight. The real life star of Scoop, executive producer and author Sam McAlister (played by Billie Piper) gave the low down on how the story was adapted for screen, alongside director Philip Martin.

Scoop (2)

Scoop: (L-R) Ria Hebden, Sam McAlister, Phillip Martin

“I screamed when I found out Billie had accepted,” she said. “I was in a restaurant with my mum. Billie said she had followed the story when it unfolded but wanted to make someone who was unsung, ‘sing’. That was why we got on so well.”

McAlister explained why she thought the story had proved such a hit for Netflix. “Ninety-eight percent of TV and film production is grafted behind the scenes by people like me you’ve never heard of. So many people related to that story. It’s not just about the resilience of doing your job but the resilience of doing your job against your own organisation and sometimes your own colleagues as well as resilience against the huge institution of the Royal Family. Had I known the outcome of the interview beforehand I don’t think I would have got it. It was beautiful ignorance that kept me optimistic.”

Scoop is adapted from McAlister’s book and she is an exec producer on the movie.

“I went from being an assistant part time BBC producer and in less than a year I walked onto a film set with Billie Piper playing me in a wig. It was a once in a billion lifetime experience.”

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