TV and academia collided at AHTV at the Barbican, Wednesday. Historian, presenter and producer Bettany Hughes opened the second edition, which brought together two worlds with common interests but not always a shared language. Specialist knowledge and research underpins the best factual television, but decoding TV for academics, and ensuring TV producers understand how to work effectively with experts, was top of mind at the Arts and Humanities Research Council and The TV Foundation event.
Hughes recounted being told by a BBC executive in the mid-1990s that “nobody is interested in history.” The exec added: “People don’t want to be lectured at by a woman.” BBC, Netflix and other series later, Hughes proved that TV dinosaur wrong. While the gender imbalance has been tackled it hasn’t been redressed, but the work of Hughes and her peers means women won’t be airbrushed from factual TV’s future.
While AHTV was heavy on tips and takeaways for academics seeking exposure to a TV business that can resemble an insider’s club, Hughes turned the tables and offered up some advice for small-screen decision makers; trust the audience and let viewers engage with subject matter that doesn’t yield neat and tidy answers. “Traditional TV is wary of questions,” she said, but academia can bring the clarity “of the right-asked question at the right time.”
The challenge was underlined later in the day as producers noted academics often want nuance and detail, which can be at odds with programme-makers’ mission to reach a mainstream audience. Lion TV’s Bill Locke reminded the assembled that making TV is not like giving a lecture and that while academics often think about the reaction from their peers, producers are laser focused on winning eyeballs.
A quartet of the TV Foundation’s TV PHD 2019 intake each speed-pitched programme ideas – fearlessly given they faced commissioner and development bosses as well as a room packed with their peers. The key advice was to think about how their formative ideas will look on screen, will it be presenter-led and who might that person be? “Where’s the telly?” was the mantra.
For experts wanting to be in front of the camera, the advice was clear; make yourself visible, notably on Google. Oxford Films’ Nick Kent highlighted would-be presenters now have social channels at their fingertips. They don’t need to rely only on commissioners and channel controllers to provide a platform and exposure.
BBC Two controller Patrick Holland talked up making contribution from academics central to a show – elevating them to “super contributors” – a term revisited through the day.
Music, arts, history, and drama-docs were all put under the microscope. BBC head of music commissioning Jan Younghusband said she wanted elevator pitches not 30-page documents.
As TV folk and academics decamped to the Barbican Conservatory for drinks, there was a sense that some issues remain. But if getting together is crucial to overcoming these obstacles, AHTV ran with it.