Why Co-Produce? Elementary, Holmes.

March 11, 2014
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My last post argued for the existence of a unique televisual formation comprised by US/British co-production, which I jokingly dubbed “Trollywood.”  I am now dropping that rather silly term after criticism from all quarters, but want to say something further here about what I mean by “transnational television co-production,” the tensions that shape it, and why I think it’s worth studying.

images-1First, a definition: transnational television co-production is the practice through which a producer/distributor based in one nation agrees to contribute up-front funding to a program produced by a company based in another nation in exchange for distribution rights as well as for some degree of creative input into the production.  Often the subject matter of such a production reflects or refers to its transnational roots by self-consciously including elements of cultural negotiation within the narrative situation; other times transnational convergence can be seen in elements of style, structure, aesthetics, or address. It is specific to television, with its strong national basis and its unique serial form, as well as its semantic flexibility enabled by practices such as scheduling, presentation, and promotion.  It is a transcultural form.

Though much attention has been paid to the reality format in the scholarship on global television, my focus here is on prime-time drama and documentary, where issues of national culture, media policy, audience specificity, and authorial integrity are more difficult to negotiate and often become the subject of considerable debate.  This type of production also differs from the more traditional “international co-ventures” that scholars such as Serra Tinic, Barbara Selznick, and Timothy Havens have discussed.  There are important and interesting distinctions to be made here, between a co-venture and a co-production, between co-financing and off-the-shelf sales, between format and fiction, but I will skip over these for now to focus on why and how transnational co-productions come about.


Co-production screen credits for Sherlock.

Most explanations go right for the money: co-production is a way of bringing in another source of finance that can have an immediate effect on the production, enabling bigger stars, better locations, and a glossier production all around.  This usually comes with exclusive distribution rights in a specific territory; so, for instance, when WGBH/Masterpiece puts a million dollars or two into a BBC production it expects to have the first, sole window of distribution in the United States.  BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial sales arm, might be slightly miffed to miss out on chance to sell Sherlock more widely in the States (though in this case they participated as a co-production partner as well) but the existence of co-production funding can be the ticket to getting a high-cost production greenlighted when others are not.

Yet because success on the global market means an ability to address and attract broader- than-national audiences, another rationale for entering into transnational partnerships is precisely the opportunity to think trans-culturally.  Inclusion of characters or production teams from both countries (the easiest technique), narratives and subjects that span cultural locations, properties (like Sherlock) that already have transnational recognition and can work that imaginary identification into their narrative focus:  these are qualities that mark the most successful co-productions, and that draw together transnational publics.

Co-production can also help to support other forms of programming that are necessarily more nationally-specific and often of higher priority.  For WGBH, in this example, the investment of a relatively small amount of money in a co-produced prime-time drama, as opposed to sinking many more millions into an original production, means that scarce funding can go into news, public affairs, and children’s programs that are a more central part of PBS’s mandate.

Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, with Benedict Cumberbatch at a season kick-off event in New York.

Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, with Benedict Cumberbatch at a season kick-off event in New York.

However, given the strong national focus of television – particularly for public broadcasters, though commercial channels also have their home markets to please – this kind of cultural negotiation can have its drawbacks.  Most notably on the British side this has involved accusations of cultural dilution, of using the television license fee paid by all British TV viewers on programs made for Americans.  Implied here is that making programs that appeal to Americans somehow weakens their essential Britishness.  This has come out in criticism of the recent transnational hit Downton Abbey (an ITV/WGBH co-production) for its substitution of melodrama for historical accuracy, though it has proved very successful with British audiences as well.  More to the point, both the BBC and ITV (Britain’s two central broadcasters) are specifically charged with producing a high proportion of original British programming in all categories – how much co-producer influence can there be before this claim becomes weakened?

Yet co-production is on the rise.  Changing structures in the British TV industry since the 1990s – from the “outsourcing” mandate of the 1990s to the 2004 Code of Practice that acted something like the fin/syn rules in the US – have greatly increased the number of independent producers and strengthened their hold on program rights (Chalaby 2010).  How can the rise in global partnerships be reconciled with mandates for national specificity?  What kinds of creative practices have been employed on both sides of the British/US co-production nexus to work within these constraints?  I’ll pursue those questions in my next post.


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