A few years ago, I was asked to evaluate ways to relaunch the EBU TV department’s ‘Solidarity Package’. This was a successful EBU initiative between the years 2010-15, which aimed to provide the smaller Members of the EBU with great quality TV programming, contributed by the larger ones, with the aim of strengthening public service broadcasting as a whole.
DigiBeta tapes were shipped around various parts of Europe, and occasionally I remember them making a glorious homecoming to the EBU TV corridors – presumably because no Member had space to house them, and indeed I remember a few of us having to squeeze rather grumpily into our own workspaces during those visits.
I still have the notes I made during the feasibility study for that, including calculations of how many tapes could be loaded onto a shipping pallet and how much this would weigh, and comparing the cost of docking this at 16 or so ports across Europe to those of delivering the programmes via satellite or IP. I’m not going to reveal which delivery solution I calculated to be the best adapted to the needs of the project at the time, but I don’t mind admitting that I factored in a year of planning and preparatory work, and a six-figure setup and delivery cost. All this was before we had even assessed whether there was any content available. In the end, we never got as far as that because the overhead and coordination costs were deemed too high for us to take on at the time and regrettably the initiative was discontinued.
That was in late 2014. How things have changed.
On 19 March 2020, ten days after Giuseppe Conte shocked Europe and the world by restricting the liberties of 70 million Italians in a way unthinkable even 24 hours previously, I was once again set the same challenge, once again.
With a group of 50 or so EBU TV contacts during a memorably sombre virtual roundtable meeting, we discussed the impact of lockdown – by then inevitable across most of the continent – on TV workflows. Like many on that call, I was, personally, left almost speechless by the grim realization that the vast majority of TV production was about to become impossible, and that we, collectively, were facing every broadcasting professional’s worst nightmare: dead air. And this just at the time when audiences would be needing quality programmes more than ever, to transport themselves out of their isolation, a situation calling almost for the re-coining of the word ‘tele-vision’.
The need was clear: the EBU had to find a way to make programmes circulate among its Members, and quickly.
And so, together, we did. My colleagues Karen, Grace and I spent long hours effectively designing the nuts and bolts of a programme selection and distribution system. Laetitia from the EBU Legal department contributed an agile and flexible legal framework. Colleagues from Technology and Innovation and Eurovision Services gave vital advice on technical solutions to the delivery, on which our indefatigable Media Department colleague, Alain, worked late into the evening analyzing and implementing.
Meanwhile, something incredible was happening across our Membership. In the first round of the appeal, over 1500 hours of programmes were offered by over 20 Members of all shapes and sizes. In the second round, currently in pre-selection, the numbers are similar, and even more broadcasters have become involved. Behind each of these hours of programming is a substantial gift of rights research, technical versioning and, for the selected programmes, contribution. Alain, Grace and I each have over 200 new friends across our Members’ sales houses, MCRs, legal departments and commissioning teams. Christmas cards this year are going to take a long time to write.
Just over 30 days after that first call, on 23 April, we delivered the first tranche of programming, and now, at the time of writing, over 100 hours of programmes are available to our Active and Associate Members across Europe and the world. We have serviced over 700 hours of programming requests, and will service many times this amount over the months to come.
I can truly say I have never seen anything like it in ten years at the EBU. I am proud to work for the agile, responsive organization we have become, and humbled by the power of what we can achieve with our network. It was never my or anyone else’s intention that the EBU should get involved with programme distribution. On the contrary, it’s something I’ve been resisting for many years as, in normal times, there’s a well-functioning sector of the broadcasting industry that handles that, and very well.
Where all of this will take us next, we don’t yet know. What we do know is that viewers across Europe are watching substantial amounts of programming resulting directly from this new exchange, reaching into formats, stories and cultures previously unknown to them. I find this extremely interesting, and will be carefully analyzing the effects of this initiative once we have addressed the primary need. For now, it’s consoling to feel that such a positive cultural exchange can emerge from these times of suffering.
Personally, I feel motivated and energized by this experience. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in our collaborative journey, to strengthen public-service broadcasting in ways none of us have yet imagined. It is my sincere hope that these arise from happier circumstances than the Content Appeal did, but whether or not that’s the case, I’m confident we will find a solution together.