BBC in Birmingham is back on the agenda

Head of Business Development, BBC Birmingham

BBC One's Father Brown

It’s great to have started my new role back at the BBC in Birmingham after five years away from the city.

I’ve had a busy first week re-acquainting myself with colleagues old and new, as well as the city of Birmingham itself. It’s been illuminating hearing from staff, colleagues and partners about the impact of the move of production teams from the Mailbox – the BBC’s Birmingham base. These have been difficult times.

I’ve also read with interest various blogs, tweets, letters and articles from local programme makers, former staff, concerned audiences and critical friends – people who love the BBC but have felt neglected by the lack of action and a plan to address the apparent disinterest in the region.

The move of network factual TV programmes out of the Mailbox to Bristol has had an impact on the building and the morale of our staff. It’s no surprise that so many have questioned the BBC’s commitment to what was once a thriving hub. The days of Pebble Mill, where I started my career, are long gone and we clearly have a job to do in reviving our activity and scoping a new vision for BBC Birmingham and indeed the wider Midlands.

Despite the dark clouds, we continue to make programmes that we know our audiences cherish. BBC Birmingham still produces great content in the form of The Archers, Doctors, the re-born Asian Network and our local services like BBC WM and BBC Midlands Today.

Today we announced the re-commission of Father Brown for BBC One (pictured) from our pioneering Drama Village There’s much the wider BBC can benefit from in terms of the entrepreneurial and craft opportunities that Will Trotter’s team in Selly Oak are consistently delivering.

Peaky Blinders, created by local writer Steven Knight, has also been commissioned for a second series on BBC Two. I’m aware that much of this incredible piece of television has been filmed outside of the region. However, its impact with Birmingham audiences is un-deniable – over 28% of the audience for the programme were from the Midlands – this is almost double the national average. Having Birmingham and the wider region represented on screen is essential to audiences and vital in terms of the BBC’s contribution to the local economy.

Last week’s Peaky Blinders open casting auditions in Digbeth shows the level of appetite and connection with Brummie viewers. Thousands of local young people queued at auditions for parts in the second series.  

Tony Hall’s announcements at the end of last year have given hope that there is indeed a future – and a new one at that. The BBC in Birmingham is back on the agenda. Led by Peter Salmon, a team of us have spent several months exploring how we can become a key base for the whole of the BBC – not just in the short term - but for years to come.

The pace of change is astounding - the seismic shift in how audiences are consuming content means we can’t afford to stand still and reflect on the bygone golden age of broadcasting in the Midlands – the risk is a real danger of being left behind and caught in a perpetual cycle of disappointment.

It means making brave choices - taking a path that will place us in the midst of innovation, opportunity, and create a future legacy for new entrants into the industry. Birmingham’s young demographic, diversity and sizeable population gives us a head-start. Our rich mix and fast changing, youthful population today reflects the diversity of the UK tomorrow.

This rapid pace of change means that by the time the BBC reaches its anniversary year in 2022, the broadcasting landscape will have changed irrevocably. It’s imperative that Birmingham plays an integral part of the BBC’s long term future and the plans the Director-General announced are very much a first step towards that.

With the continued shift of programmes and services outside of London I strongly believe that Birmingham is ripe for creative renewal and there is a real opportunity to rebuild a base with a new story that cements and grows our presence in the Midlands. We want to amplify the strengths of our output and become an intrinsic part of the BBC’s offer to audiences – locally, nationally and globally.

I’m under no illusions about the task ahead – but am relishing the challenge to re-invigorate our place in a city that has much to shout about and celebrate.

One of the highlights of my first week back in Birmingham was the afternoon I spent at the University of Birmingham’s Digital Humanities Hub. The BBC Fusion Lab, in conjunction with the University, set up a two-day workshop to explore the world of interactive touch tables as a potential platform of putting the riches of the BBC archive at the fingertips of the general public. 

A group of students, small and medium-sized enterprises, programme makers and academics were brought together in this innovative lab. The aim was to de-mystify the word ‘Digital’ and open up the potential crossover of skills between content producers, media managers and technologists.

Sitting with a panel of judges, I was blown away by the powerful potential of the emerging ideas and the incredible opportunities this fusion of disciplines could bring to open up our content for audiences. It was inspiring stuff.

Tony Hall emphasized in his speech outlining the future of the BBC that this is potentially a new golden age of media. The BBC embraced television; we embraced the internet; created Freeview and BBC iPlayer. Now, we want to harness the energy and ideas of the ‘YouTube generation’ and that will mean creating content in fresh and exciting ways with new teams that tell stories differently on all sorts of devices.

A team of BBC innovators will be based here in Birmingham, soaking up our rich and diverse culture – who knows what such a team could bring to not only Birmingham, but indeed the creative sector in Britain?

Historically, Birmingham was known as the ‘city of a thousand trades’ – everything  from guns to jewellery, steam engines to cars were mass produced here; James Brindley, the engineer, even built more canals here than Venice, to get much of this stuff out to the world.

Think of the skills it must have required to design the world’s first purpose-built factory or to invent gas lighting. Even today, hundreds of craftsmen and women make clocks and watches here in the Jewellery Quarter. This city was built – more than most – on skills.

We now need new skills in the UK, in Birmingham, to fire up a different production sector – digital skills. No less creative, no less enterprising, but skills that apply themselves to small portable devices and fast moving technology, clouds, games and telephony.

We can’t do it alone. The BBC, like many of our public institutions, is facing an unprecedented period of financial challenges. Our case for re-investment has to provide value for money to our most important stakeholder – the audiences who consume the myriad of content we make.

We want to work with partners in the city to truly achieve our aspirations. Our plans for the first phase of our activity for the BBC in Birmingham are aligned to the ambitions of the region and these partners as a whole. They understand the absolute need to create and implement a new story and vision that ensures their emerging plans, and ours, are compatible and sustainable.

In Birmingham ‘Digital’ is a word we need to embrace and not be fearful of. Content will always be the driver – regardless of the platform. The heart of BBC Birmingham remains in the great content we make here and will continue to make, grow and deliver – but in new ways.

As well as creating new content, we also want to become more of a catalyst for creativity in Birmingham and the wider region – where people meet and spark off each other. A hub, an inspirer, a stimulator.

There are no quick fixes and things won’t happen overnight, but I’m very much looking forward to working with teams in BBC Birmingham and partners in the city to help sow the seeds for a new path in Birmingham.

It promises to be a busy, disruptive, challenging and exciting year ahead and I hope to keep you posted on progress and developments over the coming months.

Tommy Nagra is Head of Business Development, BBC Birmingham

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