Thursday, 9 April 2015

Making space for light entertainment

Shiny-floor formats haven’t been squeezed out by high-end drama and even quiz show productions are demanding larger, higher-spec spaces.
Recent reports about UK studios have concentrated on the capacity squeeze resulting from tax break-lured feature films and TV productions.
The bedrock of the TV studio sector, however, remains light entertainment, for which demand is still healthy and space ample. “A few years ago, some people were forecasting the demise of traditional studio shows and claiming that the audience would be diverting to drama or event programming rather than shiny-floor formats,” says David Conway, managing director of BBC Studios and Post Production (BBC S&PP).
But since BBC S&PP relocated to Elstree in 2013, with BBC Television Centre (TVC) under scaffold, it has hosted 50 titles, ranging from Tumble and Strictly Come Dancing (back for 2015) to panel and quiz shows for ITV (The Chase, Celebrity Juice, Your Face Sounds Familiar) and the BBC (Pointless, Never Mind The Buzzcocks). “The sector is still vibrant and we can even argue there’s been a small level of growth,” says Conway.
Incidentally, Elstree Studio D is the BBC’s base on election night. It will be part of a complex operation, with multiple feeds into the gallery mixed with the studio’s own 16-camera coverage and augmented reality graphics.
The shuttering of Teddington Studios in December, the sale of Wimbledon to sole tenant Marjan Television Network, the closure of Riverside Studios and the redevelopment of TVC until 2017 has increased business for those left standing.
“Closures in the London area have definitely helped us,” confirms Julia Hardwell, studio resources manager of Maidstone Studios. With space at a premium, Maidstone’s 12,000 sq ft studio 5 is coveted. Its biggest light entertainment shows are Later… With Jools Holland and Take Me Out, both of which require extra dressing room, green room and storage space.
Meanwhile, Fountain Studios is home to 12 Yard’s Big Star’s Little Star, the final of ITV Studios’ variety show Get Your Act Together, Hungry Bear Media’s Play To The Whistle and the live finals of Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor.
“Rather than risk not having space at all, and conscious of possible studio shortage, producers are pencilling in larger chunks of time,” says managing director Mariana Spater. “It’s very much business as usual. We’re fighting as hard for budgets as we always have, and demand has certainly not dropped.”
Drama vs entertainment
While a steady stream of drama (including E!’s The Royals), commercial and promo clients enter 3 Mills Studios in London’s East End, studio executive Tom Avison says increasing enquiries about light entertainment are giving him something of a quandary.
The studio has housed shows such as Channel 4’s Million Pound Drop and is currently home to BBC1’s MasterChef, but the studio does not have a bespoke TV space. “It’s wrong to suggest that studio occupancy in the UK is full,” remarks Avison.
“We have occupancy running until the end of the year, but a lot of those are conversations rather than confirmations with drama productions. That’s why we’re looking at the feasibility of adapting one of our stages for dedicated TV entertainment or continuing to bank on drama.”
The dry-hire facility would need to install lighting rigs and improve the flooring, air conditioning and access points in at least one of its 11 stages, and convert adjacent spaces into control galleries, to attract regular light entertainment business.
Outside the capital, shiny-floor, quiz and panel shows are trickier for studios to attract, mainly because of the reticence of London-based presenters to travel far from home.
A notable exception is Deal Or No Deal, which has been housed at Bristol’s The Bottle Yard Studios since 2013. Endemol-owned Remarkable records up to four times a day for C4, from production facilities provided by BBC S&PP. Series post production, managed by The Farm, is also performed at the Yard.
“It’s a year-on-year commission and there’s no guarantee of another one,” says site director Fiona Francombe. “We do have a quiet concern about what may come in its place when the run finishes. We’ve proved we can manage a high-profile audience show, but we tend to get overlooked for light entertainment purely because of our location.”
Fortunately, the studio is about to cater for its fi rst live-action children’s production and is hopeful of rebookings for further series of BBC1’s Poldark, ABC’s Galavant and Sky comedy drama Trollied.
Nor does talent seem shy of travelling to Salford, where Dock 10 hosts 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown and all bar the last three shows of The Voice UK (which move to Elstree). “We are blessed with winning a number of commissions from ITV Studios [Judge Rinder, The Jeremy Kyle Show, Countdown, University Challenge],” says studio head Andy Waters.
Size matters
There is further evidence of light entertainment productions upscaling accommodation. The next series of Sky 1’s A League Of Their Own is being upsized to suit a larger audience at Elstree’s George Lucas stage – at 15,000 sq ft, it is the biggest such environment in Europe, according to BBC S&PP.
These shows are using the space in much the same way as a drama would, with preference for easy access to large floor space, multiple dressing rooms and copious car parking (always a bonus that studios like to flag).
The Sharp Project in Manchester, for example, was built for drama and is housing Sky’s Mount Pleasant, BBC Children’s World’s End, ITV Studios’ Danny Baker autobiography Cradle To Grave and BBC transgender sitcom Boy Meets Girl, but has also enticed Dragons’ Den to relocate from Dock 10.
The tenth series of the BBC2 show has taken over 10,000 sq ft studio 3. “The producers wanted a slightly larger and enhanced stage, dressing rooms, catering and a standing set in another area of Sharp,” says founder and chief executive Sue Woodward.
Studios keep on top of these service extras but the trick to gaining return clients is to offer what Spater calls the “wow factor”, and what Elstree managing director Roger Morris says is “a facility team who work with productions, rather than against them”. At Elstree, BBC S&PP has focused on speeding up turnaround times.
That includes 200 monopoles to facilitate a more fl exible lighting arrangement. “It’s all to do with increasing our ability to turn programmes around to accommodate more productions in the existing footprint,” explains Conway.
Future-facing 4K upgrades are on the distant horizon for most studios. For those catering for live production, it means a commitment to new vision mixing and signal routing. While 4K studio cameras from the likes of For-A or Ikegami can be hired in, some studios have committed to purchase.
Trickbox TV, whose main clients are news broadcasters like the BBC and Canada’s CBC, is testing 4K waters with a Panasonic GH4 as a prelude to investment in 4K studio cameras.
It is too early for equipment to be specified for TVC and Riverside, but both facilities would be missing a trick were they not outfitted with 4K infrastructure on reopening.
Dock 10 will soon have more than 100 Avid AirSpeeds for recording camera channels into its fi le-based facility, while Maidstone has made recent investments in sound and lighting control gear for studio 5, as well as extending dressing room capacity in studio 2, home of ITV’s Catchphrase.
Celebro Media Studios near Oxford Street claimed to be the nation’s fi rst full 4K facility on launch last August.
The 2,000 sq ft studio’s workflow includes Blackmagic Design Studio Cameras and an Atem vision mixer, plus a mix of copper, fibre-optic and cat6 cables for flexible routing. “It’s about recognising that 4K is coming and producers will need studios to be ready,” says Celebro chief executive Wesley Dodd.
The site, used by London Live and Al Jazeera, offers a highly automated set-up, with three Mr Moco (Mark Roberts Motion Control) robotic cameras, automated servers and graphics playout.
“It is for broadcasters wanting to make a live programme with fewer personnel in a space that typically requires 20 people to operate it,” says Dodd. “There’s not much point in having a camera-op moving between a wide and a close-up [shot] when those moves can be programmed.”
Dock 10 may trial 4K cameras for similar cost savings. “The idea is to shoot a panel show with fewer cameras and build the show in post. You would use shots that are of such high resolution that a wide selection of ISOs [isolated position] could be reframed in HD,” explains Waters. “While 4K may not yet be needed for quiz shows, such a 4K workflow could become a more efficient method of production.”

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