In My Opinion: Ian MacKenzie: Channel 4’s Alpha Fund is a ‘call to action’ for creative talent

BACK in the early autumn of last year, Channel 4 broadcast an hour-long show, ‘My Tattoo Addiction’.

Just as writing this blog is a first for me, so My Tattoo Addiction was a first for its producers, Rondo Media, their first-ever Channel 4 commission following years of trying.

It was also the first time an idea that my boss – Stuart Cosgrove – had originally rejected went on to being made.

It would seem that carving ink into your skin can indeed trigger many things: agonising pain, skin poisoning or an idea for television.

When Rondo pitched the early stages of this idea 18 months ago, I was as unsure as my manager how the idea would make for interesting viewing. However, when the statement, “Tattoos – everyone’s got them these days”, can be backed up by more than an anecdote, it tends to get commissioning editors interested.

Channel 4’s Alpha Fund supported the early stages of the project. Conceived by Stuart, late in 2010, the fund was, and continues to be, a call to action for a new generation of creative talent across the UK.

In simple terms, the Alpha Fund provides the opportunity for development funding of high-quality, creative, early-stage ideas with the ambition to eventually transmit on one of Channel 4’s platforms. It supports new talent and companies from all over the UK.

Industry observers may have initially focussed on the fund’s relevance to new talent, but it is also open to companies who have already proved themselves with other broadcasters or on other platforms, but not yet on Channel 4.

Rondo Media was one such company, having been highly successful in its domestic market of Wales, with big commissions on both S4C and BBC Wales.

Following the initial sceptical response to the idea, I battled hard to give the company the opportunity to demonstrate the stories that they could access, via the production of a ‘demo tape’, providing a taster of what might be.

Working with Rondo, I helped them come up with a structure and focus for the tape.

When the results were shared with C4 documentaries commissioning editor, Emma Cooper, the ‘green light’ for a 60-minute documentary was given.

The remaining details that matter? It became one of the highest-rating shows of the year for Channel 4, a network triumph for Rondo, and a great example of how the Alpha Fund works at its best.

The example here is from Wales. What may not be common knowledge, but should be, is that Scottish production companies are better placed to pitch and win business with network broadcasters than any of their counterparts in Wales or Northern Ireland.

Why? Largely because of the creative and commercial success, over some years, of several companies in Scotland in television’s features and factual entertainment genre.

What is sometimes forgotten about these pioneering creative companies – such as IWC Media, Tern Television and Raise The Roof – is the hard work and early development of ideas that have been put in before finding the right formula for success. What all of these companies have worked hard to secure in the past, and now, is a focus on high-quality development, on-screen talent and knowledge of network output, whether that be Channel 4 or other UK-wide broadcasters.

As an Alpha Fund manager, you arguably have the best job in television, as it involves true, creative risk-taking at the earliest stage.

There is always a potential downside to early-stage development, but that simply tends to be the vital discovery that an idea is unworkable, not big enough, not visual enough, or, crucially, is editorially ill-fitting for Channel 4. Making that discovery early is somewhat preferable to later in the process.

How I would love to say that every time I walk out of a creative meeting or pitch session I’ve said ‘Yes’. I’m unsure what the percentage is, but it’s not high. However, it might console those who face the far tougher task of pitching, that every time I walk into the room, I’m hoping to say ‘Yes’.

Creative risk-taking, just like any other risk-taking, is not a random process. It is calculated, perhaps not hugely scientific, but calculated, nevertheless. Editorial suitability, originality, talent access, story, the Zeitgeist… all play a part in helping determine the strength of an idea.

Rondo’s success hopefully proved that a solid creative hunch backed up with quality research and championing of the idea in the right areas, can achieve hugely positive creative results. Let’s hope I’ll be writing about a lot more local heroes here in the coming months.

Ian MacKenzie is media project manager at Channel 4’s Creative Diversity department, based in Glasgow. His portfolio responsibility covers independent, creative companies in Scotland and Wales.