TV PhD: Composing for the small screen

In this blog post, we talk to Toby Huelin, a PhD student at the University of Leeds and a media composer (BBC, ITV, Channel 4), whose involvement in the 2020 TV PhD scheme resulted in his tv show pitch being optioned by Nutopia. The TV PhD scheme is a joint partnership between the AHRC and Edinburgh TV Festival which helps early career researchers to work with the television industry.

Can you tell us about your area of research and what drew you to this work?

My research examines the use of library music in contemporary television production. Library music (also known as “production” or “stock” music) occupies a liminal space in the world of music for media, extensively used in television, film and trailer production across the world, but seldom analysed or discussed in academia. Instead of hiring a composer to craft a bespoke score, many production companies turn to pre-existing catalogues of cues to furnish their shows with music, often for financial reasons. Television, in particular, is saturated with library music; one recent industry estimate suggests that an audience could hear up to four hundred library tracks on TV per day, yet these contributions are rarely credited on-screen and are neglected by scholars and viewers alike. My PhD aims bring to the fore the role of library music in contemporary TV – a vital, yet overlooked, component of our viewing experiences.

You are a composer as well as a researcher, are there any synergies between these modes of working?

Alongside my PhD, I work as a composer for television and other media. My composing work was the initial catalyst for my PhD project and the aims and objectives of the project have been shaped by my first-hand industry experiences. For example, my research focuses on the UK TV industry because this is primarily where my practical knowledge lies, and my academic interest in specific genres and programmes stems from my own composing work in these areas.

Having said this, the two modes of working are very different! My media composition work frequently involves extreme time-pressure and externally imposed deadlines, whereas my academic work relies primarily on internal structures and goals, with a longer span of time spent on each individual project. It’s great to be a part of both “worlds” and I hope that my research can function as a bridge between the two.

Can you tell us a bit more about the creative process of composing music for television?

My composition process usually begins with a conversation about what the overall “sound world” of the music should be with a director/producer. Then, I’ll go to my studio and come up with lots of short ideas, using virtual instruments (at this stage) to create the required sonic palette depending on the intended use of the music. There’s a lot of back and forth between me and my collaborators. Once the music is written, I frequently create “stems” – different versions of the track with various instruments removed, so that editors have the ability to change the track on the fly – for example, taking out the drums, layering additional elements, cutting out sections and so forth. This means that even when a track is “finished”, you’re still not entirely sure how it’s going to sound in the final TV show!

I’m very fortunate to say that my music has been broadcast widely: it has been heard on Emmy Award-winning television (United Shades of America, CNN) and is regularly found on national primetime television (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5), across the spectrum of factual entertainment TV. Recent shows include Masterchef, The One Show, Panorama and even Don’t Tell The Bride…!

Nutopia television production company where Toby Huelin spent his industry placement

Can you tell us about your experience working in industry and with TV professionals?

After the TV PhD scheme, I was delighted that my TV show pitch was optioned by Nutopia, with a view to develop it into a full treatment to be pitched to broadcasters. Nutopia also offered me the opportunity to complete a work placement with them, so I spent a month working (virtually) as part of the company’s development team. My Doctoral Training Partnership – the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH) – offer researchers the opportunity to complete a “Researcher Employability Project” (REP) during the course of the PhD, so this was a perfect way for the PhD and the industry experience to come together.

My main task during the month of my industry placement with Nutopia was to work with other members of the development team on my own project, turning it from a single line description into a full treatment that they could then pitch to broadcasters. This was a really fascinating experience, thinking about how to flesh out and expand my initial idea into something which (hopefully!) will have mainstream (and worldwide) appeal.

What does it mean to you to have been accepted onto the Edinburgh TV Festival’s TV PhD scheme?

The TV PhD scheme was brilliant! Even though the entire scheme was completed virtually, we had a jam-packed schedule of bespoke and interactive sessions. We started with a crash course introduction to the TV industry with “TV Jobs 101”, and this was followed by a wide range of other sessions, including a Controller Q&A with Patrick Holland (BBC2), advice for academics working with TV production companies (Bill Locke, Lion Television), CV clinics with TV Talent Managers and much more.

A real highlight was an extended “Development Workshop” with Nutopia over two days. This gave us all the opportunity to understand the different stages that go into the development of a TV show and to work on our own ideas for pitching. The TV PhD scheme has already opened up other doors for me, too: for example, I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the Edinburgh TV Festival’s AHTV: Exploring Research in Television event (February 2021), and I’m continuing to work with Nutopia to develop my show idea.  

The 2020 TV PhD scheme cohort

Could you tell us more about the process of applying to the TV PhD scheme and pitching your TV idea?  

I was so pleased to hear that the TV PhD scheme (and the Edinburgh TV Festival itself) would both be going ahead in a virtual format. The application process comprised two rounds, with a written application form detailing my interest in the TV industry followed by a short Zoom interview which unpacked my aspirations and interests in more detail. It was really useful to be forced to think about my specific interests in the TV industry and what I could bring to it. The application process made me even more certain about how I could benefit from the experience – and I was delighted to be accepted onto the scheme!

       The pitching experience itself was quite surreal! It wasn’t until the final day of the PhD scheme that we were told that some of us would receive the opportunity to pitch – which certainly upped the stakes somewhat… and it was very strange to be talking to commissioners from the BBC and Discovery on a Zoom call! It has been great to hear that the Live Pitch session was one of the most popular of the whole Festival, and there were so many creative and inspiring ideas from my fellow TV PhD delegates. The feedback from Nasfim Haque (BBC Three) and Rob Holloway (Discovery) was very perceptive and has certainly shaped the way my idea has developed subsequently.

Do you have any top tips for prospective applicants to the TV PhD scheme who may be pitching?

It sounds obvious, but my main advice would be… keep it simple! You only have 90 seconds to “sell” your idea to TV execs, so work out what the most important parts of your idea are, and what you can leave out. Be specific too – use examples and explain to the commissioners what is actually going to happen in the programme – rather than talking about vague and abstract concepts! For example, perhaps it is about suggesting certain celebrity talent which immediately gives the tone of the show, or certain scenes which tell you what the show is about.

Make sure you answer the questions of “Why now?” – why is it the right time for this idea? And “Why you”?” – why you are the person to bring this idea to life?

Do you have any advice for researchers wanting to gain industry experience?

As a PhD researcher, you already have a lot of transferable skills which can be very useful to the TV industry (e.g. locating, filtering and disseminating information), so feel confident to put together a CV which highlights these aspects of your skillset – your specific research field is less important that the skills you can offer. For example, in my work at Nutopia, I ended up working on science and nature programmes – subjects I hadn’t encountered since my GCSEs!

Start researching TV production companies that make programmes you enjoy or admire – look at who is making those programmes and how they got started. Send some emails and see what happens… and of course – apply for the TV PhD scheme!

Toby Huelin is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Leeds, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). He is also a media composer (BBC, ITV, Channel 4) and his work can be found at www.tobyhuelin.com.

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