Steve November, Head of Continuing Drama at ITV talks diversity, future of ITV drama and opportunities for new writers.by The TV Collective May 4, 2012
To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Emmerdale, ITV is on the search for talented writers for a new initiative. Writers from a Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnic background are under-represented in the industry so they want to support and develop original voices that might not always be heard. Their emphasis is on character- led rather than culture-specific but are looking for writers who will bring their experiences and nuances to the show.
We recently caught up with Steve November the Head of Continuing Drama at ITV and discussed the inspiration behind this new initiative, diversity and the future of ITV drama.
Steve, tell us about your role as Head of Continuing Drama?
I am part of the ITV Drama commissioning team for the ITV network. I primarily take responsibility for continuing and long running dramas such as the soaps Emmerdale and Coronation Street, Midsomer Murders, Law and Order, DCI Banks, Poirot, and Case Sensitive. I also oversee some of our new dramas so it’s quite a broad slate of drama production.
You have recently launched a new writers’ scheme for BAME writers. Can you tell us the inspirations behind it?
The scheme grew out of discussions around ITV and was very much orchestrated by Miranda Wayland and Tanya Mukherjee, from our Diversity department, focusing on our responsibilities and activities in various areas of diversity. One of the things we were keen to do was to move things forward. There has been a lot of well intentioned discussion around these issues but it hasn’t always translated into productive action very quickly. We thought it was important to get something going that had a direct affect.
I think the problem is a lot to do with perception, and we need to break down the perception of television in general as being something of a closed shop. The notion that you have to know somebody, have a contact, or come from a certain type of background, all contributes toward a certain misconception about TV. Some of these perceptions hold water, but on the whole it isn’t true.
ITV is a commercial channel and we need to connect with and appeal to the biggest and broadest audience as possible and also represent our viewers, which also means having various different voices behind the scenes.
We hope to achieve this in a twofold way: first – to create access and opportunities in areas which have previously been considered as difficult to break into, and secondly to encourage talent from diverse ethnic backgrounds to think about television, and writing for ITV as a possible destination for them. One of our aims is to make people realise that TV writing is open to them, it is open to everybody, it is very meritocratic and ITV should be their first port of call. We want those diverse voices; we want to create a range of talent behind the camera to represent our audiences. This is not altruism; this is a genuine commercial tactic to engage with the broadest audience possible.
Tell us more about the scheme?
It’s about trying to find interesting writers who are most likely to be outside the current network of agents and producers, and finding these new voices particularly from diverse and ethnic backgrounds.
Rather than creating a scheme or initiative that just offered some training and a few workshops but doesn’t lead to actual employment, we wanted to create opportunities for those writers once we’ve found them. We will give them a training route in-house on Emmerdale, along with our own team of storyliners who plot the show, episode by episode. From there they will hopefully graduate to the writers’ team that currently consists of about twenty scriptwriters. There is a very real opportunity for employment at the end which is the key thing. This is not a training opportunity alone, there are writing jobs available.
That sounds great as this is often one of the biggest frustrations of talent particular from diverse background about the various targeted initiatives, they very rarely lead to jobs. How will this be different?
It is important to stress that everyone in the team is there because they are good at what they do – we can’t afford to carry extra people but that’s the same for everybody. The writers on the team have all earned their place on their merits as writers – some have been there for twenty years and some for two months, it changes with a lot of turn over and opportunities for new voices. There is no guarantee of a long-term job for those writers; there are no jobs for life. Every writer in TV works on his or her own merit.
Once the writers from the scheme join our writers’ team they will follow the same course as other professional writers. There is usually a period of a three-episode probation, the ‘getting to know you’ phase. This is usually enough time for the producer and production to take a view on whether the writer has the talent, and then a decision is taken at that time on who will join the team.
We are hoping to find people who can make that grade and write at a high level. We fully expect to find these writers on this initiative. This is another way of reaching out and finding new talent.
Historically ITV has a somewhat rocky reputation when it comes to diversity, for example the headlines last year around Midsomer Murders often put off diverse talent as seeing ITV as their first port of call. Why do you think that is?
It’s such a broad ranging issue and one that I often feel unqualified to comment on especially not coming from that background. I assume there are some historical issues around TV not just ITV, but in a way it’s not purely a issue of ethnic diversity, there are also issues around socio-economic backgrounds and disability.
I think part of the issue is the misconception that TV attracts a certain type of person – a bit of an “old boys’ club”, which can put people off from even approaching us, or assuming they could contribute. It kind of kills the aspiration for many people as being something they can do. This isn’t based on any great evidence, it’s just a feeling I have based on the people I’ve seen entering the industry and those who sometimes don’t.
Do people aspire to work in TV? Do they think it’s a possibility? I think half the battle is often letting people aspire to it, you should be aspiring to a career in TV, it is open to everyone, so you should absolutely make it your aspiration.
There are also historical reasons, there has been a shortage of representation on the screen. I think you’re not likely to be attracted to something that appears not to represent you or your life in any way. The nature of TV, and this is not exclusive to ITV, and representation onscreen has historically suggested this is not a place were diverse writers can flourish.
That’s something we really want to change – representation on and off screen. Hopefully we can create some sort of virtuous circle, once we introduce more diverse writing it will in itself attract more diverse writers.
The commercial aspect also pays a big part. We have to be first and foremost commercial and that means appealing to a broad audience, which often rules out more targeted or niche programming. Because of the nature of the company, we unfortunately don’t have the luxury to show dramas that BBC or Channel 4 can because we have a very different remit.
That is not something we are wanting to change. We are not looking for writers to write dramas specifically for ethnic viewers or diverse viewers; we don’t want to make niche programming; we don’t want to make dramas for specific groups of viewers. So we are not looking for writers who want to write issue-led dramas – ITV wouldn’t be the home for something like Babyfather. We are looking for writers from all backgrounds to write for people of all backgrounds.
We want Black and Asian writers who can write for all audiences, and bring their experiences to it as well. I think that is probably one great difference between the BBC and ITV, our commercial imperative just takes out that luxury. That goes way beyond ethnicity, that’s any type of niche programming of any sort, that’s just not what we do.
I do think that there is a supposition, almost on both sides in all sorts of areas of diversity – be it race or disability – that writers are going to want to write something about a particular issue from their background, or their ethnicity; for example black writers will want to be writing about black issues.
Maybe that is the case as a lot of writers may have found opportunities where they have not found openings into mainstream or general audiences. But this is not the purpose of this writers’ initiative. We are keen to find writers who can write for everybody. When they are working on Emmerdale they‘re going to have to write for Edna the church-going flower-arranging spinster, who is prudish and disapproving of everyone else’s behaviour, to the Sharma brothers who are from a British Asian background and run a business. You are going to have to handle many different voices and we are looking for writers who can write for all of these characters but bring certain nuances to different characters that we currently don’t have.
You sat on the panel of a CDN event ‘Making a Drama of Diversity’, and Tanya tells me this scheme was inspired as a direct result as some of the frustration aired that evening. Where you surprised by some of the frustrations raised?
Yes, I felt very frustrated by it, I’ve found that things I’ve said can be taken as a sound bite, and I think “hold on I didn’t mean that”.
I don’t know 100 years of social history, so when I get asked questions I can often get caught out with that finer detail. In some ways all I want to do is say “hang on a minute why don’t we have a broader base of people working in this industry” Let’s make it happen.
I think this is why Tanya came up with this initiative, we wanted to stop talking about the whys and wherefores, and the rights and wrongs of what happened in 1972, let’s just make it happen now. Let’s look forward and say we know who our audiences are, we know the make up of these audiences, we know what the make up of British society is, so let’s get more people working for us and let’s get more voices on screen. It should be simply really.
I’ve found quite a few of the CDN events have too much analysis, a bit too much talk, it’s obviously such an extraordinarily emotive issue that I found personally quite difficult at times. Also the debate can get waylaid by quite personal, heartfelt and very genuine agendas; stuff of extraordinary importance but it almost gets in the way of actually doing anything. Maybe some of the action needed is quite simply a case of let’s just get on and do it.
What are your hopes for the future of TV drama when it comes to diversity?
We need to move beyond apologising and criticising, and move beyond the debate, I know it’s easy to say given the history, but I think we should just be very open.
I think people already are, and the strange thing is TV is a very meritocratic business. A good script is a good script, a good story is a good story, that’s a very straightforward and easy thing to judge, because that’s what we do. So let’s just make sure that we are opening up the opportunities to the broadest range of people as possible.
The thing I would really like to see, is not just the opportunity being there but also creating these aspirations. I want people to feel ‘I can do that’, and that’s those from different socio-economic backgrounds, not just around ethnicity.
I want TV to be viewed as an industry that even school children think this is an industry they can eventually work in and of course they can. It’s tough, of course just like anything else, but they can do it if they are good, no matter where they come from and that’s what I want.
I think it’s very important and that’s the only way we are going to get broader representation that is authentic, that is the key.
There is a real willingness amongst all the creatives I work with to have a very broad and fair representation on screen, but whilst there is a slight white middle class bias in the business, it’s difficult to make that representation truly authentic. It’s difficult to get the voice, the nuances and subtleties right, it becomes broad-brush strokes across many areas whether that is disability or class as well
So a very open industry to which people aspire, and genuine authenticity on screen would be great I think.
Advice for aspiring writers?
The first thing I always say is you have to keep writing. People seem to be waiting for their break before they start writing. You don’t become a writer when someone offers you a job, you are one and then you get paid for it. That’s the first thing.
Write something you can write well, that’s your calling card, send your work to as many people as possible and get them to read it. There are a lot of people genuinely willing to read your scripts with the right approach. Apply to agents. It is very tough no matter where you come from but not impossible. If you are good, you will get through.
The Emmerdale initiative won’t just be a one-off, we want it to become the norm where writers from a broad range of backgrounds are attracted to ITV, it’s the start of a greater opportunity. Keep writing and keep in contact with the ITV website for information on people you can contact for advice.
Click here for more information on the writers’ scheme.