07 Jun 2023
The managing director of television reveals how, in her 18 months in charge, she has turned what many perceived as a confusing array of indie labels into a cohesive and profitable business. “My first impression was that there was a lack of clarity – both externally and internally – as to who we were, what we were doing and what we were trying to do in the future,” says Zinc Media managing director of television Tanya Shaw.
The former Shine TV managing director admits she knew very little about the AIM-listed super- indie before arriving 18 months ago. When she was approached about filling the job left vacant by Greg Sanderson’s departure in September 2021, she did some speedy research into the company – which also houses branded content division Zinc Communicate and post-production arm Bumblebee – to figure out exactly what the job entailed.
The answer, it transpired, was overseeing Zinc’s portfolio of English labels: current affairs and investigations outfit Brook Lapping, specialist factual-focused Blakeway, access docs producer Films of Record, popular factual and formats indie Red Sauce, and multi-genre producer Supercollider. Tern TV, which has bases in Glasgow and Belfast, is managed separately by Harry Bell.
It’s a job that has only got bigger, with popular factual specialist Rex and premium factual label Atomic Television launched under her tenure.
Changing perceptions Shaw’s first order of business was to survey commissioners and industry peers to discern Zinc’s perceived place in the market. As well as confirming her impressions about the lack of clarity around the labels and their output, the feedback revealed “a sense that the labels perhaps felt a little bit old-fashioned”, she says.
“That’s not a criticism of the content that was made – but there was a perception in the market that we were solid but not always exciting,” she says, noting that premium factual rivals that have emerged in the past decade, such as 72 Films, have overtaken Zinc’s heritage brands.
“One of the challenges for me was to figure out how to maintain our reputation for being trustworthy, credible programme-makers, but also present an exciting option." Internally, there was also a lot of “confusion” among the labels – most of which are based in Zinc’s London HQ, with Red Sauce based in Manchester. Multiple people worked across different arms, but with no collaboration among the teams, and little external understanding of who was leading each indie.
Shaw says: “There didn’t appear to be much strategic thought as to which content should come under which creative or label; you can’t have five labels in a group that are all making the same type of programmes and pitching to the same people – that is going to result in getting less work.”
Shaw started her rejuvenation strategy with development, breaking up a centralised team in favour of each label and creative leader having their own development department.
Shaw also formulated a strategy with each creative lead about their ambitions, how to achieve them and how she and Zinc management could help.
“Each one needs different support. With Mike Christie from Supercollider, the challenge is about building the label around a director and we’re here to grow that indie beyond the number of films that he can personally direct each year,” she says.
“That is a different business challenge to Tom Edwards, who runs Red Sauce. When I arrived, he had just won the first volume commission for Bargain Loving Brits Abroad, but how does he avoid being pigeon-holed into high-volume, low-cost TV?”
The death of Films of Record founder Roger Graef last year prompted Shaw to keep the label as a heritage brand in the Zinc portfolio, as she felt it would be “inappropriate” to assign a creative team to the label for the present, she says.
The final piece of the reorganisation jigsaw was setting up Bristol-based premium factual indie Atomic Television, headed by Stephen McQuillan, in January. Shaw argues that the delineation between labels shouldn’t prevent collaboration. She set about fostering relationships by implementing regular meetings between the development teams (including Tern), allowing them to share intel on briefings and what commissioners are looking for.
She also puts on a lunch every three weeks where staff come together to pick their colleagues’ brains, as well as screenings of upcoming productions in the London office, followed by a Q&A session with key personnel. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing [Brook Lapping exec producer] Norma Percy watch Bargain Loving Brits,” laughs Shaw. “She had interesting questions about it, and seeing those conversations between teams who wouldn’t normally speak to each other is very important to building morale and culture.”
This relationship building extends beyond inter-label collaboration, with Shaw establishing a weekly meeting between Zinc head of production Nick Todd and head of finance for TV Arti Morton to ensure that projects can be delivered on budget. There is also greater collaboration with in- house post facility Bumblebee, which allows the indies to keep their costs down and remain competitive.
“Workloads and responsibilities are now more clearly delineated than they were before,” she says. These changes have resulted in a noticeable upswing in business being won and recognition from the market as to what each Zinc label specialises in, according to Shaw.
“Workloads and responsibilities are now more clearly delineated than they were before,” she says. These changes have resulted in a noticeable upswing in business being won and recognition from the market as to what each Zinc label specialises in, according to Shaw. The impact of Shaw’s efforts can be seen in Zinc’s recent full-year results for 2022: it recorded its highest revenues in a decade. Zinc reported turnover of £30.1m for the year ending 31 December, marking a 72% year-on-year increase, and delivered adjusted EBITDA of £100,000 against a loss of £600,000 in 2021. It already has £26m booked and expected to be recognised in 2023, with a further £6m in the pipeline.
The London and Manchester labels that Shaw oversees increased their combined revenues by 61% year on year to £12.7m.
“Historically, Zinc’s labels have won lots of business, made good programmes and still made a loss,” Shaw says. “My challenge is to still make great shows, ensure everyone is enjoying the process of doing so and make a profit for the business.”
She is confident turnover will continue to grow in 2023. Rex – which was set up in April 2022 under her former Shine TV colleague Lana Salah and has already produced Naughty Tories for Channel 5 and Get Your Eurovision On for BBC2 – won a yet-to-be-announced three-part series with the BBC and is in funded development with a global platform, while Atomic is in funded development with a streamer.
Elsewhere, Red Sauce is teaming up with Douglas Road to co-produce four-part primetime series Legends Of Comedy with Lenny Henry for C4, and Supercollider is working with Green Door Productions and Idris and Sabrina Elba on a top-secret unscripted project, with the couple involved in an off-screen capacity. Zinc is also celebrating C5’s massive 136-hour order of the Bargain Loving Brits franchise from Red Sauce.
The two-year deal is valued at £7.3m (£54,000 per ep by a rough calculation) and sets the record for highest volume order for any Zinc label.
“Everybody has exciting things bubbling and all within the strategies that they set out for themselves,” Shaw notes.
TACKLING THE GENDER WARS CONTROVERSY
The announcement of Brook Lapping single Gender Wars as part of Channel 4’s content showcase in April sparked an instantaneous backlash. High-profile trans people, such as presenter India Willoughby and comedian Jen Ives, criticised the name of the programme, as well as the centring of gender-critical campaigner Kathleen Stock in the press release. Shaw is under no illusion that the doc will cause controversy when it TXs this year.
“I went into this with my eyes open; I didn’t think, ‘this will be easy and uncontroversial’,” says Shaw.
“This is a subject that is going to get criticism, whatever happens. A lot of the criticism is that it can’t be balanced, that it’s going to be from Kathleen Stock’s point of view, etc, but none of those accusations is true. We’ve made a balanced programme that has voices from both sides.”
Critics complained that C4’s press release named Stock but failed to identify any of the promised trans contributors. Shaw is quick to point out that the production company does not have full control of the press release, adding that trans activist and legal researcher Stephen Whittle and writer Katy Jon Went are among the trans people featuring in the show. She is “confident and comfortable” with the doc that has been produced. “I do think we’re going to have huge numbers of complaints and Twitter will be alive when it goes out, but a lot of the criticism I’ve read so far is not reflected in the programme that we’ve made,” she says. She is also proud that in her tenure, the company has met industry targets on diversity stats, including LGBTQ+ and people from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with a disability; has signed the We Are Doc Women pledge; and last year joined the C4 Disability Training scheme, where it took on a person in a junior role for a year, funded by Zinc and C4. Shaw hopes to find another role for that person in the company, while signing up for the scheme again this year. And she is optimistic that Zinc’s labels can thrive through the industry’s economic challenges by continuing to innovate. “It is tough out there – budgets are being cut and it is really challenging, but I’m nearly 50 and I have never worked on a production where I thought, ‘there’s just so much money, it’s amazing!’” she says.
“It is hard, acknowledge it, move on. Let’s look at where the opportunities are, where the relationships are and what we need to do – we have to come up with the ideas that commissioners can’t afford to refuse.” She believes the reforms she has brought about so far have made her unit more efficient, more fun and, most importantly, more profitable, and she attributes the improved performance of Zinc’s TV division to the creatives and the labels, with whom she is “privileged” to work. “When I arrived at the Zinc office, it was kind of quiet, everyone was siloed into what they were doing and there wasn’t enough fun – and television should be fun,” she says.