Fourth floor says… We want better quality programmes
A word from Associated-Rediffusion management in 1959: has the quality of A-R programming fallen?
The company, in fact Independent Television as a whole, has recently been going through a bad patch with the critics in the newspapers. I think the main reason for these attacks on us is that we are successful: the BBC arc now the underdogs and therefore get the full support of the fair-minded British press, whereas when we first started in 1955 we were the ‘David’ challenging the BBC ‘Goliath’.
Recently there has been further criticism following upon the misreporting of our chairman’s remarks after the Rediffusion annual general meeting: I have already circulated to members of the staff a memorandum dated 5 August, which correctly reports the chairman’s remarks, and I wish to pick out from that memorandum the following sentence: ‘The chairman did not say that Associated-Rediffusion would reduce standards of programming rather than reduce profits.’
In fact, the management, urged by the board, is doing all it can to improve the quality of our programmes. It is only by producing high-quality programmes accepted as such by our public, that we shall achieve the ratings and the reputation necessary to persuade the advertisers to pay the comparatively high rates we are charging for their commercials.
As all of us in television know, one cannot buy quality; doubling the budget for any particular show would not make that show twice as good. Quality is a combination of many factors skilfully welded together. I would like, therefore, to run through these various factors and tell the staff what the management is doing to increase standards.
Nearly every programme is dependent on a good idea and a good script. Many people have ideas and many of the ideas are good, but not many people can develop them into a good script. The company has been making investigations into the best method of attracting the best scripts for our use. We have placed under contract four or five good scriptwriters and pay them an annual retainer plus a fee for each accepted play. We have engaged from the film world one of the most successful scriptwriters who is under contract to produce us eight plays over two years. We have obtained from America one of the most experienced American drama writers who is engaged in teaching our British writers how to prepare the scripts which are the envy of us all. We have also reorganized our script services and increased the staff. I think there is no doubt that this policy is beginning to bear fruit.
When we commenced it was natural to assume that the best artists would be those who were most successful in the theatre, music-hall or on the screen. This is, to a certain extent, still true, but undoubtedly television is bringing out the best in many artists who are not West End or film stars.
You will have noticed that we are now regularly casting first-class actors and actresses whose plays get critical acclaim – and who are accepted with loyalty by our public. Our plays are on average seven to eight points higher in the ratings than those of other companies.
We are supporting Drama Schools and giving scholarships to students in the hopes of bringing forward new television artists. We are supporting the Wimbledon Repertory Theatre with a view to trying out new actors and actresses as well as some of our scripts.
One of the surest ways of producing better quality programmes is to have the best possible production facilities. In this we have always led the other companies. We are now building Studio 5 in which we hope is incorporated every proved modern improvement. We are installing six videotape recorders and a high definition telerecording system. We are spending a great deal of money to improve the general engineering facilities, and in particular those of master control.
We are also building additional rehearsal rooms in Television House, so that rehearsals can take place in greater comfort and with greater efficiency than in the hired halls. I have no doubt that when Studio 5 is completed and the engineering facilities finalized, we shall have all the production facilities necessary for the best quality productions.
The real key, however, to a high-quality production is the staff. A bad director can ruin the best scripted play, cast with leading West End actors: a vision mixer or a maintenance engineer can by a very small error wreck the programme. The production quality of the programme is recognized, albeit subconsciously, by the public, from the standard of the camera work, the lighting, the scenery and the sound. It may take an expert to know what is wrong, but the public know there is something wrong and say ‘not a very good production’.
It has always been my aim, and that of the other principal executives, to choose the best people for every job: this is not a very easy task, since people who are sometimes the best technically are by personality often less suitable. A man who cannot work as a member of a team does not help good-quality productions even though he is technically highly competent. You will know that it has always been this company’s policy that, having selected the staff, they should stay with the Company unless they are proved incompetent, or make themselves a damned nuisance.
At times it is suggested that a more ruthless policy might lead to better quality: by this it is meant that one should have the majority of the staff on short-term contracts, and continually replace them by new blood who have proved successful elsewhere.
We, in this company, do not believe in this policy because it is firstly unfair to the staff, and secondly leads to undesirable internal competition to catch the superior’s eyes or to claim credit. However, we do, in certain sections of the company, employ men on contract, in particular every now and again we have outside directors for our plays, and some sections have researchers and scriptwriters on contract.
I am convinced that we have a better staff than any other Television Company or Corporation in the British Isles, and that with our new facilities the staff can and will produce programmes of quality which are unchallengeable.
Many of the readers of Fusion will now say ‘but what about the money’. There is a somewhat widespread feeling that an increase of budget will necessarily increase the quality of the programme. This is sometimes true, in particular in some of the light entertainment programmes and in the programmes which require film inserts, but it is by no means necessarily true. Too many people get in each other’s way and reduce the clarity of a production, too many gimmicks or too much scenery confuse the small screen and the viewers who look at it: some of our most successful productions have been produced on a very small budget.
However, the staff can rest assured that the management is not planning to cut budgets at the expense of quality. Actually, the programme budgets for the forthcoming autumn schedules are very considerably higher than the last autumn schedules, and this is not by any means entirely the result of the increased salaries or wages now paid to the staff. More is being paid for the cast, more for the scripts and more, in an indirect way, for the provision of facilities.
I confidently believe that when I write a sequel to this article in August next year, I shall be able to draw the staff’s attention to the great improvement in the quality of our programmes, and to the fact that this has now been recognized by the critics.
About the author
Captain Thomas Marcus Brownrigg CBE DSO Rtd) (1902 – 1967) was general manager of Associated-Rediffusion