Peter Salmon, Director, BBC North

Date: 16.11.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.13
Category: Corporate

What is on the UK broadcast horizon? - Speech given at the Manchester Media Festival
Wednesday 16 November 2011

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak today. I am in fact honouring an invitation that was made last year by the organizers. At the time it seemed a little premature to talk about a new base that wasn't yet open.

But we're very much open for business now and are over half way through what we are now grandly calling Phase One of our migration to Salford Quays.

Over and above the incredibly complex task of getting the buildings ready for use, we have been supporting staff as they prepared to move as well as helping those who decided, for whatever personal reasons, not to embark on this great adventure with the rest of us, to find alternatives.

Only a few weeks back I was reminded of "the complexity" of making that decision when I recalled some of the reasons staff had allegedly given for not moving.

For one person it was simply because there weren't enough specialist cheese shops in Didsbury. For another it was the fact that their partner wouldn't be able to find a job. He was a hairdresser by the way. Someone else wondered if Manchester was just plain... full.

And of course the media haven't been shy in taking the odd shot at the project. I am sure you have all read the stories – fictitious I might add – of our plans to train staff to use the local trams to get to work; how to use the office chairs – chair champions no less – and of hand lotion in the men's toilets. By the way, they are actually soap dispensers.

Maybe I should open that cheese shop. I'm sure the media wouldn't be interested in that story at all.

But the reality is that there are now 1,600 people on site making and delivering content on television, radio and online. In fact, only this weekend 6Music arrived and – if I am honest – they have added a new sense of "cool chic". Marc Riley's show on Monday had the first ever live music act performing in our Dock House studios – The Antlers, from Brooklyn. I believe the place Brooklyn is named after a former Manchester United player's son.

And the priority remains on keeping the project on time and on budget and ensuring that our weekly new arrivals have a 'safe landing'. That means getting them settled in their new buildings, making sure that their technology – from their laptops to the studios they work in – is fully functional, that they know where the canteen is, and most importantly what the opening hours of the new Booths supermarket is. And if you read the Observer Magazine feature this Sunday you'd know that Booths isn't just a shop, it's almost a religious experience here in the North.

And since May, when the BBC Philharmonic moved in to their purpose-built studio after their safe return from earthquake-hit Japan, each week has seen a series of victories – landmarks in fact – in our journey towards being fully operational next year. The Children's channels, Radio Manchester, two thirds of R5L, Blue Peter, File on 4, Football Focus, BBC Sport website and the rest have all settled in. Only last week Match Of The Day started broadcasting from the site, and as I said 6Music joined us on Monday.

Later this month begins the next challenge around the arrival of BBC Sport and the first of our daily television news programmes, Newsround and North West Tonight.

And in the midst of all this are our own staff. Whether they are moving into the region, some with the added stresses of finding new schools and jobs, or simply moving from Oxford Road, it is a challenging time for them all.

I would like to pay tribute to them for their spirit, enthusiasm and willingness to try the new and their ability to meet every challenge and – at the end of the day – getting on with the job of making programmes and content in the face of much scepticism and speculation. Talk about Just Do It. They are.

If you get time to listen or view again this week, I strongly recommend two shows. First, Victoria Derbyshire's live show from Tottenham yesterday. One hundred days after the the riots took place in North London, it looked at how that community is coping with the aftermath. Joined by Tottenham MP David Lammy, James Brokenshire, Minister for Crime and Security and Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, it also included some heated exchanges with the audience. It is quite simply a broadcast that punches through your radio and typical of how Victoria and her team constantly challenge their listeners. And last night Jeremy Vine and the Panorama team specifically looked at the Salford and Manchester riots.

But we do need to start looking beyond April 2012.

We need to think about how we are going to build on the foundations we are creating here in Salford Quays, continue to find ways to unlock the potential within our own staff as well as unlocking further potential with our partners and the rest of the industry and how this will help to reinvent the BBC for the future. When Mark Thompson was asked what the BBC of the future would look like he said – "Go and look at Salford".

This isn't only about developing new ways of working – being more flexible, more efficient and more focused – but about forging a new relationship with our audiences every time they access the BBC – be it television, radio, online or at live events.

So as we move beyond migration, beyond the idea of being digital settlers and pioneers, we need to evolve and become the future innovators, future thinkers and future leaders.

And as importantly we need to continue to spread our wings beyond Greater Manchester and reach right across the "Greater" North as a whole. By March 2012 we will have invested over three million pounds in a range of projects. From supporting the local independent radio sector in Tyneside and Yorkshire through Radio 5 live's Creative Kicker Fund, to large-scale events such as Frankenstein's Wedding Live In Leeds with some great partners, we have already helped to foster innovation, seed creativity and in some cases create jobs across the North.

At the same time we have invested and supported some of the BBC's most memorable dramas including United, South Riding, and Eric & Ernie. And I am glad that there are a number of forthcoming dramas in production in the region with just as much promise, because our audiences tell us Northern-based peak time BBC drama is crucial to them.

Only last week Kay Mellor's Rollem Productions started filming The Syndicate in Leeds and we can look forward to Bill Gallagher's psychological thriller The Fuse, set in Manchester and starring Christopher Eccleston and BBC Writersroom alumnus Stephen Buchard – the writer behind Five Daughters, House Of Saddam and Vincent – brings us Liverpool-based serial Savage. Never mind the second series of Jimmy McGovern's Accused.

More recently I was very proud that BBC North supported three initiatives – two in Salford and one in Newcastle – around comedy. Our commitment in this genre is the latest piece in our investment jigsaw for the entire region.

Some of the greatest names in comedy folklore hail from this region, and the North continues to produce some of the most talented comedic talent of today like John Bishop and Sarah Millican, two artists that the BBC is currently working with.

For the wider BBC, alongside great drama, world-class news, ground-breaking children's programmes and large-scale, impressive coverage of events – sporting or otherwise – that bring people together, comedy is a priority. This is because this genre is a major way to reach some parts of the UK and licence-fee payers that we can sometimes struggle to reach.

Last month we supported BBC Comedy's Salford Sitcom Showcase and the Comedy Festival. The festival brought together UK broadcasters and indies for a day of frank and open discussions about the future of comedy in terms of formats, finding and developing new talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Cheryl Taylor and her excellent BBC Comedy team then hosted the BBC's first Sitcom Showcase. Six comedy pilots, potentially for BBC One and BBC Three, were performed in front of a studio audience over three nights. The quality and originality of them all was incredibly high and judging from their reaction, the audience loved them.

Here is a short film, which shows some of the energy and passion of everyone who attended.

It's interesting to note the comment made by the member of the public at the end – that there was a lack of diversity at the event. Clearly, like our colleagues across the industry, that challenge is something we take very seriously both in terms of portrayal and employment. Citizen Khan was commissioned by BBC One after the showcase and as being a brilliantly observed and witty comedy, is another small step in the right direction. We need to do much more though.

And alongside Citizen Khan, In With The Flynns with Will Mellor and Sarah Millican's new show for BBC Two will be recorded at the studios at Salford Quays next year.

And only a fortnight ago I was in Newcastle for the second year of Jesting About. Since we launched this search for new comedy actors, writers and producers we have already begun to see some promising outcomes.

Bob Mortimer was at the initial launch last year and spotted the potential of two of the earliest participants – Owen Cooper and Will Saunders – and gave them the opportunity to write for Shooting Stars. Additionally Carl Cooper has been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to make "Geordinary People" with some of those who participated last year and Keith Brumpton is taking one of his comedy projects to treatment stage.

We were blessed that Bob returned this year and together with the likes of Ross Noble and Ian Le Frenais was incredibly generous with his time and support. This next season the focus is on comedy entertainment and sitcom ideas for radio and television. If there are any budding comedy writers in the audience the deadline for entries is November 28.

I hope that we can repeat the success of the Comedy Festival and Sitcom Showcase at Salford Quays next year as well as maintain our support and commitment to Jesting About. If they continue to deliver outstanding talent and fresh ideas that they have to date, then it's a small dream of mine that BBC North can become a future home of comedy at the BBC and that the North of England might retain its comedy crown.

One area that I am particularly keen that we focus real attention is digital. The technology that has been installed at MediaCityUK gives our staff on campus a unique opportunity to experiment and take creative digital risks. We are leading the way on the integration of DMI and Fabric into the BBC production workflow – introducing end to end tapeless working that will then be rolled out across the entire organisation.

So far we have delivered over 4,000 hours of bespoke training that has been designed around our increased digital production focus. That makes our workforce a highly skilled army of digital workers.

And we have actively sought out partnerships with companies across the North of England who share our appetite and vision to make the North of England a destination for digital investment and innovation.

Our half a million investment in @North is an example of our commitment. Working with five companies from Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, we are already seeing the fruits of their labours. Visit Mr Bloom's Nursery on the CBeebies website or the Crack-A-Joke site on CBBC. Trust me, the jokes you find there are better than any of mine.

This early investment, even before we had landed, recognized the importance of BBC Children in our digital offer. Theirs is an audience of incredibly early adopters – everyone has heard the iPad anecdote about Nick Clegg's youngest child – and I am glad to see that the Children's department will now benefit from an additional three million pound investment from the Digital Innovation fund under Delivering Quality First.

Also, last year we signed a deal with Conker Media from Liverpool who have done some amazing work already for the BBC including The Well and Shelfstackers. Together we have created the Digital Fiction Factory that is based alongside the BBC at MediaCityUK.

Led by Lee Hardman, the team is developing new content models for the online space in entertainment, drama and factual fiction. They're looking at new ways to bring together different media to create immersive experiences and are working with BBC Children's and BBC Three on some ideas that I hope we will be able to share in greater detail at the beginning of next year.

But what makes this more than a simple commissioning partnership are two basic principles that underpin the whole project. First that Digital Fiction Factory is actively engaging with the digital media industry right across the North of England through workshops and knowledge sharing sessions and secondly, that we fully intend to share the prototype models with the rest of the industry once they have been developed.

As I have said before, filter as opposed to fortress.

As we move forward and begin the process of evolving from settlers to homesteaders, BBC North is committed to further investment and partnerships that will embed us deeper still into the regional creative economy and our Northern community.

For example, we are taking a fresh look at how we work with universities and colleges across the region. In the past two years over 200 students have completed work placements with us but now we want to look at establishing longer term, more focused relationships with key universities across the region.

These days people can use a single device to talk to friends, watch video clips or whole programmes, listen to music, surf the web and, most importantly, share everything at the press of a button.

While it's brilliant that accessing and sharing content is so easy, we need to ensure that the engine room can keep running.

I was reminded of this by an anecdote I heard at a recent panel discussion in Manchester. Currently in Hoxton's Silicon Roundabout there is such an acute lack of coders and programmers that they are being recruited from Eastern Europe. Now, I am not saying that this is wrong – mixing people together from across countries and even continents always results in new ways of thinking, working and ultimately solutions – but moving forward shouldn't we be addressing this knowledge deficit within our own colleges?

I think we have to look hard at our growing digital needs in the north of England and create a pipeline of new talent – from coding and programming, to engineering and software design. We can learn from some of the excellent work that our own Research & Development team here in Salford are already doing in terms of work placements and supporting postgraduate students – and think about some bespoke relationships with academic providers across the North of England to develop some practical solutions.

This initiative shouldn't be restricted to the classroom or lecture theatre. I would like us to give potential new recruits the opportunity to spend time with us at MediaCityUK – to receive training, have the time to think and do research, and most importantly be able to experiment and take risks. The BBC and Britain needs them as much as they need us.

This would be the third part of our commitment to training the workforce of the future. Alongside our Apprentices and Young Ambassadors, it will strengthen the North's employment workforce not only for our benefit but for the benefit of the region's creative industries as a whole.

So while we remain in migration mode, our eyes are fixed firmly on the horizon.

Over a ten-year period, the number of people working for the BBC in the North of England will have trebled. Joining the hundreds that have been working and continue to work in cities across the North – Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Hull to name a few – with their roots deeply embedded in those areas – are another three thousand, who will be based Salford Quays.

Over time and by working together, I know that we can make a bigger impact across the whole of the North of England with our highly motivated and highly trained teams of BBC staff.

The challenges we have all been asked to meet by Delivering Quality First – of finding the savings and efficiencies that we need to make in order to reinvest in the areas that our audiences tell us they want the BBC to deliver – are balanced by opportunity.

To find new ways to work more collaboratively – internally – to create One BBC Production for example.

To challenge preconceptions and find new solutions to creative problems both within our own business but also with the rest of the creative industry.

To forge a new relationship with our audiences based on our continuing commitment to quality, originality and innovation.

Any change involves short-term and in some cases deep-felt pain. But we should focus on the long-term benefits that these changes will bring us.

By rising to these challenges I think we can discover and unlock the full potential in our own staff and in the rest of the industry for the benefit of audiences.

I am determined that BBC North will not squander this opportunity.