From independence to independents, public service to profit: British TV and the Impossibility of Independence

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


… it’s a brutal, horrible business. The media and creativity in general are impossible. I mean TV independence is impossible and factual TV independence is impossible. I mean they’re all impossible.
—CEO of UK ‘Indie’ TV company (Interview 40, 12/5/2011).

This chapter examines the central role independence has played in the structure of UK television, since the inception of broadcasting with the BBC through to the emergence and growth of the independent production sector. The chapter argues that there has been an elision between the independence—as an ideal providing creative freedom from commercial and governmental pressures—and independents—the profit-driven sector that now produces much of UK content. Independence, I argue, emerges as a key site tension in the UK television industry between public service and profit, editorial freedom and risk, and the conditions of labor that result.
Drawing on interviews with a range of workers within 30 independent television production companies, as well as commissioners at the BBC and Channel 4, this chapter looks at how the production cultures of Indies themselves try to understand and resolve this tension. Across these interviews, two key discourses emerged in interviewees’ explanation of this public service-commercial tension: “quality” and creating programming that “makes a difference.” Thus in trying to resolve the “impossibility” of independence, the CEO quoted above, explained “we just try and make good stuff.” This chapter asks to what extent “independence” can ever truly be achieved in the context of making high quality public service content that “makes a difference,” at the same time as delivering profit. As the pressure for profit increasingly squeeze production budgets and working conditions, we look at what independent public service production means for those involved in this “impossible” business.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedia Independence
Subtitle of host publicationWorking with freedom or working for free?
EditorsJams Bennett, Niki Strange
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)978-1-13-802348-2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015


  • Television
  • Independent media
  • BBC
  • public service broadcasting
  • production cultures

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