Target: Production efficiency

The Programme Department means business

Fusion 36 cover
From Fusion, the house magazine of Rediffusion Television, for Autumn 1964

This article by general manager JOHN McMILLAN outlines the organisation of the programme department – how it has been shaped in its present form and why. It was written for The E.B.U. Review and is published here as one of an occasional series of articles dealing with the company’s organisation.

Someone in our business – perhaps it was myself – once said: ‘Vanity is the biggest item in this particular programme budget and it has no code number of its own.’ We were examining the projected costs of a documentary film which was to be produced by someone who had created a mystique around himself in the outside world. Those who were closer to the person concerned knew that a good deal of the credit belonged to a scriptwriter and a film editor who customarily worked with him.

Vanity kept on popping up in the budget. ‘First class air fares to Rome from London … Unit to be met by special representative of XYZ Travel Agency at Rome Airport … One chauffeur-driven limousine for producer and assistant … two chauffeur-driven cars for rest of unit … both to be available at all times throughout Rome location.’ And so on and so on. The particular producer is not with us now. The film editor was promoted and the writer would write no more. But, more importantly, the producer priced himself out of our business and it was cheaper just to pay his salary until his contract ended than to make him work for it.

I had that episode partly in mind when I wrote the article for Fusion 32 (October, 1963). Specifically, I said:

‘Waste – waste of time, waste of physical resources and waste of money – is the enemy of success. Waste can frustrate the best creative resolutions. In the system of graded delegation of responsibility, which is the company’s method of organisation, every person has some particular power to protect our production ability. The simple test of the value of a decision is to ask the question: “Will the result be seen or heard on the TV set and, if so, will the viewer benefit?” … In a few words, everything we have to spare and spend must be directed towards the viewer.’

Stuart Hood
Stuart Hood

It is necessary first to describe the present organisation of the programme department in Rediffusion Television and to refer to personnel in the accounts and publicity departments.

The programme department comprises two-thirds of the total staff, including all the electronic engineers, and is presided over by the controller of programmes. He is chairman of the programme board which consists of a chief programme executive, five executive producers and three service chiefs whose titles describe their specific responsibilities. They are the programme planning executive, the programme production executive and the senior technical executive.

The programme board resists enlargement. There are no representatives of any other departments in attendance for the simple reason that their presence would obscure the points of responsibility. The controller of programmes and his executive producers particularly, are thus clearly responsible – inter alia – for budgets, for initiating publicity, for screen promotion. To assist them to carry out these duties each executive producer has a cost assistant attached to his office from the accounts department and a publicity officer from the publicity department allocated to him. Both these people are finally responsible to their own departmental heads in order to ensure that company policy is constantly maintained. In practice there are seldom any clashes and, at the same time, the lines of communication are advantageously shortened by the system.

In addition, each executive producer has one or more assistants and managers, according to the volume of production in his group, to whom he delegates routine planning and administration.

Each manager is also responsible to the programme budget officer who in turn reports directly to the chief programme executive. This arrangement enables the controller to keep in constant touch with the flow of expenditure at early planning stages. He also receives from the chief accountant weekly and three-monthly projections of future costs and reports of actual costs which are derived from the cost assistants attached to each executive producer.

All this combined information gives him considerable flexibility of control. He can immediately reinforce one programme or replace a series or take remedial action of any kind in the full knowledge of his financial position.

The programme planning executive is mainly responsible for transmission schedules. Because the independent television system in the United Kingdom is composed of 14 autonomous companies operating a co-operative network, his responsibilities are extremely complicated. He is also in charge of transmission presentation and is traditionally the main link with the BBC and the EBU on operational matters.

The programme production executive is in charge of all studio personnel, excluding stage hands, house electricians and administrative personnel. His immediate staff operates the schedules office, that is to say, the office which plans the disposal of the studio staff and location production personnel. The system used is comparable to one which is just finding its way into industry in general, particularly in building construction, and is curiously called ‘network analysis’.

The programme board
The programme board in action

The programme production executive also has two other interesting responsibilities. He is in charge of the allocation of all programme directors who are centralised in a pool in order to ensure that they do not become victims of specialisation. This poses special problems at frequent intervals and requires delicate handling of what can only be described as negotiations. His other interesting responsibility is that of an executive producer for one series at all times. (In effect, we thus have six executive producers.) The purpose of this arrangement is to ensure that the person responsible for the running of the studios is constantly in practical touch with the forces and problems of creative evolution and remains sympathetic to the demands of television life at its most critical point. The senior technical executive is, as his title implies, responsible to the controller of programmes, for all technical staff and operations. This is an unusual arrangement in an organisation as large as Rediffusion Television. In many much smaller companies the chief engineer is independent. But we so believe in our method that even if we were to increase our size and output by 10 or 20 times we woulld not have it otherwise. As a director of the programme board, the senior technical executive is also a member of the creative force and is expected to play an equal part in discussions and decisions on all subjects. In that way we ensure that we get the most out of our equipment without demanding too much from it and that the programme people run the machines rather than being run by them.

The chief programme executive is the controller of programmes’ right-hand man and deputy. Consequently, the controller is relieved of much day-to-day management and is free to concentrate on the refinement of programme content and to maintain a wide range of contacts in the outside world. It will now be obvious to readers of this article that the central point of production efficiency is at the programme board. The chairman has the latest financial information at his disposal and it provides the essential background for all decisions in a business which must be bold and adventurous to maintain its pre-eminence in the world of communicating information, education and entertainment.

The programme board also knows what studio, outside broadcast and film facilities will be available because one of its directors is the expert and the board can safely decide whether to do this or that without fear of disappointment. The same applies to transmission scheduling on network, or locally, and to technical operations, including fine points such as the relative advantages of telerecording or videotape conversions of programmes being imported from a specific station or network in any other part of the world. The programme board meets weekly. Responsibility is established. Authority is vested in a particular member. From that moment onwards the executive machinery takes over in the different offices concerned. If an urgent improvement is conceived or an emergency arises between meetings it is referred by the authorised programme board member to the chief programme executive or to the controller of programmes according to the extent of its importance.

The programme board
The programme board in action

In general, we manage by our method of control to maintain a strict sense of intention which communicates itself throughout the production force. Because deviations from purpose are unlikely and unwelcome, the rest of the staff, including the programme directors, are not often presented with wasteful temptations and when they occur they detonate alarm signals very quickly.

Finally, it is of the utmost importance that the controller of programmes must be left to control within the broad framework of company policy set by the board of directors of Rediffusion Television which meets every two weeks. Between those meetings he has many other opportunities to consult, in case of doubt, with the managing director who takes the chair at weekly management meetings and, at all times, with the general manager.

However, he is undoubtedly the company’s chief programme man and he is given freedom to do what he thinks is right and the responsibility to do the right things. Thus, he is solely in charge of the general programme budget and can use it as he thinks fit. He is responsible for his own organisation and if (within his budget) he wishes to change it he may do so after consulting the general management. However, the production system cannot be assumed to be 100 per cent efficient. It is unlikely that it ever will be. But it is equally likely that it will be improved by the injection of new blood from an old respected and experienced source. It so happens that Stuart Hood has now become controller of programmes and he will, without doubt, take us much further towards the point when everything we have to spare and spend is directed towards the viewer.

Pictures by Dick Dawson.

About the author

John McMillan was general manager of Rediffusion, London

Leave a Reply