STATE OF SCRIPTWRWITING IN THE UK – BBC can’t afford scripted drama and AI will be able to write scripts soon – is it all over?

Well, I haven’t written a blogpost on here for nearly a year – I’ve been very busy with directing (and some scriptwriting) work – my feature film ‘Sober’ is nearly complete and will be out next year (and it’s fucking great if I say so myself).  I’ve also got a horror film ‘H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ coming out next year – and that’s pretty good too – we’ve even used some AI driven SFX in the cut, something that wasn’t possible this time last year – when we shot the thing. I’ve got two other feature films lined up next year to direct. But speaking of AI which is moving at an incredible rate, I keep getting asked – IS AI a threat to scriptwriters? The quick answer to that is YES and AI isn’t the only threat to scriptwriters, (esp. in the UK) there’s a lot worse things out there…

As a UK script consultant – I offer services to new writers – I read and report on their scripts – and offer career and business advice – over the last few months the advice section of my reports (which is very in depth) has had four new paragraphs added to it – here are those extra sections

‘…it’s a business – it works in a very regimented way (as the report explains).  You need to write an original that gets attention – to bag an agent – the agent will send you to work on existing shows – because you need to build credits to get anything original made (or even considered).

The unfortunate thing is that all new writers in the UK are working in a much smaller pool of available jobs these days – HOLBY has gone, Doctors*** has been cancelled – which is often where the BBC Writersroom sent their winning writers to – Hollyoaks has been pulled off CH4 and won’t exist at all in 12 months’ time.   

There are only ever around 300 working scriptwriters in the UK and almost all of them (95 percent) make their living writing on existing shows – with Doctors / Holby and Hollyoaks going off air – that’s over 100 experienced writers who will be looking for their next gig  – and those guys will be ahead of new scriptwriters without credits – so starting now – is gonna be very very tough.

** Doctors was cancelled because the BBC said it was too expensive to make scripted drama – and admission of failure alongside Hollyoaks episodes now being uploaded straight to YouTube by Ch4 – who feel Hollyaoks will get a bigger audience on YouTube than on its own channel – also, a massive admission of failure on broadcast TV versus YouTube (whether CH4 realise this or not – they’re signalling to advertisers than YouTube has more eyes on it than their own channels).

So yeah, the news isn’t good for UK TV scriptwriters and that’s across the board – the viewing figures for nearly everything on domestic broadcast TV is at historic lows – shows like Emmerdale and Eastenders and even Corrie are very low – when I worked on Emmerdale in 2001/2002 – they were getting 11 million viewers per ep – it’s about 4 million at best now – that means the ad spend will be much much lower – and all it takes is a bad run of shows and viewing figures for Emmerdale and all the others to disappear promptly off the screens the way Hollyoaks has.    It’s a business – and the advertising spend gets better ROI online – on YouTube (don’t take my word for it – just ask Channel Four).

The BBC saying scripted drama is too expensive to make – is the first proper admission that what the broadcasters want – is Gogglebox – not good drama or comedy – they want the next Gogglebox because it costs almost nothing to make and it gets good viewing figures. Its profitable. In the way that scripted isn’t.

On top of all this – the BBC Licence fee – must be close to being unenforceable at this stage – a licence to own a TV? Its like something from the dark ages – and most teenagers now – watch everything on their phone – when they get to adult hood and have a place of their own – they won’t buy a licence – and they probably won’t even own a TV. Licence fee revenue is plummeting already – and the BBC ain’t seen nothing yet.

So, I’m sure that’s depressing reading for some new scriptwriters and for a lot of existing scriptwriters as well.

I also got asked the other day – WHO WILL WIN THE STREAMING WARS?

If I could answer that I’d be playing the stock market but my feeling is Google win the streaming wars. Do Google have a channel? People ask, let me explain…

Netflix have mostly commissioned and made rubbish on the whole and actually ruined their own channel, but they’re not film or TV makers they’re a tech company and they have shown they’re not a good judge of what works or doesn’t because they have no experience. 

The US film studios should never have sold all their old films to Netflix, and going forward they won’t do it again, and if possible they’ll not relicense any old films so gradually Netflix will only have content is has made, which is largely substandard. 

Amazon will exist as long as people buy other things from them.  They’re not dependent on film or TV as a business, it’s a useful side-line. They don’t need to make profits from it.  The way Netflix do. Same with Apple – the film and TV side is an add on to an already well established brand…

SKY in the UK will always do well as long as they have the football – if Amazon or someone else gets the premier league – SKY will struggle and potentially fold.

Both Netflix and Amazon are US companies, they don’t work much with UK scriptwriters either – and I get asked that a lot as well.

So, the winner in my honest opinion will be YouTube.

YouTube makes nothing at all. But allows anyone to upload their own content and share the revenue YouTube generates.  YouTube is Google, they own it. And like Google YouTube is a search engine, but just for video.  YouTube will wipe the floor with everything eventually – CH4 are giving Hollyoaks episodes to YouTube for FREE – that’s how badly run UK TV is – and how well run, and well placed YouTube is.

All this happened to the music business about 15 years ago.  Suddenly the music business tipped over with music streaming and no musicians could make a living at it, even the big boys.  Eventually it evens out, but everyone will make less.  Whatever you do as artists you need very loyal fans now, 50 or 5000 fans whatever that is. And you work out how to live from there.

So none of that is good news for UK scriptwriter’s (esp. new starters)

WHAT IS THE REAL THREAT OF AI to scriptwriters?

AI is brilliant for film and TV in many ways and the death of loads of jobs at exactly the same time. 

Especially VFX.  Stuff like Runway is very cheap (AI generated text to video) you can make an entire film using Runway, I’m doing that next year.  Games companies like Rockstar games who are very successful laid off 1000s of people in the last few weeks, cos they realised AI can programme better than people can. 

WILL AI be able to write scripts?

YES.

In about six months AI will be able to write Emmerdale and Corrie and EastEnders, the scripts will still need to be edited by a real writer, and will need human storyline writers in some cases, but the donkey work AI will be able to do.  But that’s part of the problem of those shows, they’re formulaic by nature, and that’s manna from heaven for AI – if soap scripts are formulaic by nature – AI will be able to generate a first draft in seconds – the draft might need a human editor – but it won’t be far off.    So, yeah, a lot of scriptwriters will be easily replaced by a machine – a scriptwriting engine built for whatever soap its assigned to (and these bots will be carefully refined for the individual shows and will get better and better).

I’m not saying an AI could be Dennis Potter – what I’m saying is that an AI will be able to write a bog standard soap mid-week soap ep, the sort of episode where not much happens – without a problem.

Speaking of Engines…

Unreal Engine (also free to use) which was the software Disney used to make the Mandalorian and was used in The Creator in cinemas now is good enough NOW to make an entire film with, without the need for actors, cameras, lights, locations, a person good at Unreal Engine can create a Hollywood level blockbuster using nothing more than a good gaming PC and plenty of storage.  And of course a good script. The actors, and cameras and everything else are provided within the software and you can create an entire universe for a set. 

The city used in the recent Matrix film is free to download for anyone to use in Unreal. All that is free to use. 

So, the whole thing is tied up in tech.  Making a film or a TV show will be like writing a novel.  One person will do everything eventually.  Often without the need to leave their PC.  If it’s good enough, and enough people watch it (on YouTube say) it will make the person wealthy.  

Actors overall will be worse affected. Musicians started to tour again as this was the only way to make money. Actors may do likewise and return to the stage.  The reason the actors strike (which ended today and it looks like they did get a good deal) is so desperate is that tech is good enough now to replace actors entirely. 

Some young Star Wars fans have no idea that Peter Cushing in Rouge One was entirely CGI (the actor died in 1971) and he gives a great performance (or the software does).  And it’s moved on hugely since then.  You don’t need to spend millions on Tom Hardy say, when you can create a CGI actor who looks slightly like Tom Hardy, with a similar acting style, and doing that costs nothing (except maybe to Tom Hardy). I’m not saying this meta human will win an Oscar (at least not yet) – but who cares about the Oscar’s anyway – all that nonsense is over.

So, where we are now, and where we will be in ten years is very different.  In 2005 there was no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, no bloggers, no social media, no social media content creators, no tik-tok and no online celebs.  The best phone was a blackberry because you could email on it.  Where we go next will be like web2 on steroids – and it’s going to be bloody and whole swathes of the film and TV business will change almost overnight.

Is this good or bad? For the art of film or TV (I’m not talking about the soaps or Gogglebox) I’m asking about the future of medium – a medium (both of which) have given the world some great art? Is this change good or bad? Will the next Scorsese or Kubrick or Jimmy McGovern or Dennis Potter be able to break out and create great work with all these changes? We don’t know yet – its change – you have two choices with change – you embrace it – or you start to run and worry and panic. Either way – Fasten your seatbelts.

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021 and his third horror feature film (and final part of The Sekurig Trilogy) When The Earth Gives Up The Dead (2022) was released on Halloween 2022.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.