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24 September 2014
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Jana Bennett


Jana Bennett

Director of Television

Championing sustainable TV production in the nations and regions - speech given at the Broadcast Commissioning Conference

Wednesday 23 November 2005
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[Run VT: TV drama clips from the North – Clocking Off, Cutting It, Conviction etc.]


Good morning everyone.


At the risk of sounding like I'm auditioning for Have I Got News For You, all the clips we've just seen have got something in common. Of course they are all great shows – well I would say that, wouldn't I? – many have won awards, and they've all been a big hit with audiences.


But the vital characteristic they share is that they were all produced out of London.


I chose them to illustrate my theme for this morning's session: how the BBC is championing the production of more shows like these, made outside the M25; how that is enabling us to reflect our audiences better in every part of the UK; and how we need to work with the production community – including many of those attending this conference – in order to do it.


It's great to be able to tell you about the progress we're making at this, the first Broadcast Commissioning Conference to be held outside London.


I'm delighted that the venue Broadcast have chosen is here in Manchester, where, as you will know, the BBC proposes to move whole departments and digital channels as a key part of our wider 'Out of London' strategy.


Manchester has a truly venerable place in BBC history books: from the first daily radio broadcast from Trafford Park in November 1922 right through to the new era that dawned when New Broadcasting House in Oxford Road was opened 30 years ago.


As well as being the home of some of the UK's greatest television programmes, from Coronation Street to the Royle Family, Manchester makes some of the BBC's best-loved shows, such as Mastermind, Songs of Praise and A Question of Sport.


Manchester has nurtured comedy legends, from Les Dawson and Victoria Wood to Caroline Aherne, Steve Coogan and the League of Gentlemen.


We want to build on that record, and I'll tell you more about the progress of the BBC's Manchester plans in a moment.


Network TV commitment


But first I'd like to give you a broader view about the BBC's commitment to network television production outside London – not just here in Manchester, not just in the North of England, but throughout all the nations and regions of the UK.


It's not a commitment we've just dreamed up at a time when the BBC Charter happens to be up for renewal.


Nor does it amount, as cynics may suggest, to a small matter of loading a few production offices and desks on to the back of a lorry and dropping them off somewhere north of Watford Gap.


It's a commitment that we happen to believe in, not something we're doing under sufferance.


We are committed to making programmes that audiences around the country can relate to more closely, that deal with issues and places they recognise more vividly.


We're committed to generating creative excellence by tapping the wealth of expertise and potential that exists around the country, and building a critical mass that's going to be sustainable for the future.


And it's a commitment that I share on a personal level. Like many of you, no doubt, I began my broadcasting career outside London – not on the other side of the Atlantic, as you might think from my accent, but, thanks to the BBC Journalist Training Scheme, at Look North in Newcastle and later across the Pennines from here at Radio Sheffield.


Then just like so many others with their sights set on network TV, my career path pointed me inexorably down the M1, drawn by the irresistible lure of London's White City, complete with the capital's sky-high property prices and cost of living.


Over the years, I've worked with countless talented people who've made the same decision, and swapped the places they'd really like to be for places like Shepherds Bush, purely in order to further their careers.


So I do understand the Catch 22 situation that so many people who have started in the regions find themselves in.


And the inevitable impact that has had on audiences, who can feel pretty remote from the programme-making culture of the south east.


Breaking the cycle


What the BBC is attempting to do now is to break the cycle whereby generations of talent have had to leave their regional homes just at the time when they've become sufficiently skilled to make a difference.


Our aim is to enable future generations to choose to stay and develop their careers in the regions if they so wish, building sustainable production communities with the range and depth of skills to match those in London.


Attitudes must change on both sides because there's still a massive disconnect to overcome.


Some parts of the production community in London believe that there simply isn't enough talent outside London – and that it can't be trusted to deliver. I don't subscribe to that view at all.


They also fail to acknowledge that some of our past editorial policies have contributed to the 'problem' in the first place.


Conversely, people who are making network programmes in the nations and regions often complain they aren't given enough opportunities, they can't develop their talent without coming to London.


The key challenge is how to support the talent we need to ensure that it's available in the right volume, in the right place and at the right time.


This is where the BBC now has a historic opportunity to make a difference and it will mean working in partnership with other broadcasters, the independent sector and regional development agencies.


We need Channel 4 and ITV to back talent in the nations and regions to help create and sustain critical centres of production.


Historically, their support for regional indies has been fundamentally important; we want them to maintain that support so that we can all contribute to a growing production base.


Increasing regional spend


The headline figures give you an idea of the scale of investment we are talking about right now at the BBC.


Just to put the plans in context, it's worth noting that the overall programme spend in the nations and regions already accounts for over £600m of the BBC's total expenditure.


We've already made substantial progress in switching jobs and investment away from the south east.


In fact, the BBC's network TV production spend outside London now exceeds that of ITV1 – the total has gone up by 76 per cent, that's £130m, since 1998.


From 2001 to 2004, network production from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has increased by over 80 per cent. But now we plan to take those figures a lot further.


In Building Public Value, the BBC undertook to increase its total spending in the nations and regions to more than £1bn a year in the next Charter period, and that's an increase of more than 35 per cent.


We are planning for half of our public service staff to be located outside London, and 20 per cent of commissioning decisions by value to be moved outside London.


The overall figure for network production in the Nations – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – is set to rise by a further 50 per cent through the next charter period.


These proposals represent a major shift across the whole of the UK, increasing network production and commissioning in every BBC centre outside London by 2012.


The impact on Network drama will be particularly significant. Last December the BBC Board of Governors approved plans to increase spend on TV drama produced outside London to 50 per cent of the total by 2012.


Why drama?


'Why drama?', some people may ask. You don't have to be a Shakespeare scholar to know the answer to that.


Through drama, all kinds of different stories can be told and different voices can be heard – and that is what reflecting diversity is all about.


Perhaps more than any other genre, drama offers an opportunity to explore the rich tapestry of different communities across our small island, with all their idiosyncrasies.


The BBC already commissions more than 40 per cent of its TV drama spend from producers outside London. We've been making up ground – but then we had a fair bit of ground to make up.


In the north of England, for example, audiences had felt progressively disenfranchised and were becoming alienated from the programmes that Network television had to offer.


Viewers felt that southern voices had come to dominate the Network schedules, and they had a point.


Through the Northern Drama Initiative, launched a couple of years ago, the BBC began increasing the amount of drama it commissioned in the region.


Not just talking about it – doing it. We're very proud of the shows that we've already got into production and the impact they are having.


Shows like Clocking Off, Cutting It, Conviction, Casanova, Burn It, 55 Degrees North and Bodies have all been produced in the North.


That's begun to have a measurable impact on approval ratings among northern audiences, which rose by 3 per cent between 2002 and March this year.


We didn't just want to use the north of England as a location, but to build a sustainable infrastructure, and we are doing that in a number of ways.


The first is to create pre-watershed returnable series set in the North so that crews can have year-round work – and that specifically benefits indies.


Shows in production for BBC ONE include Waterloo Road, made by Shed Productions and shooting now in Rochdale, which follows the changing fortunes of a comprehensive school.


The new legal drama, New Street Law, by Red Productions, is shooting here in Manchester.


Tightrope North's The Innocence Project, about student lawyers, is now in pre-pre production in the Manchester area.


And Kay Mellor's new series about vets, The Chase, is being produced out of Leeds.


Kay told the BBC there recently how the city fed her creativity as a writer – and she said that's why she doesn't live in London where she would 'feel like a fish out of water'.


We want more creative people like her to be able to make that kind of personal choice.


The second way we are building a sustainable infrastructure is to create big prime-time projects that demonstrate our commitment to making our best work regionally, as well as in London.


Again, there are some major new series in production right now, written by some great northern writers.


Sorted, Danny Brocklehurst's new postal drama, will go out on BBC ONE at 9.00pm.


The Street, written by Jimmy McGovern and with a fantastic cast including Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, Sue Johnston and Timothy Spall, is being made by Granada.


Kudos have just finished shooting their new BBC ONE series Life on Mars, which is set and filmed in Manchester.


And Lilies, by World Productions, will be made in Liverpool where its tale of three sisters is based.


Overall, output from BBC independent drama commissioning in the north is going up from 16 hours in this financial year to 59½ hours in 2006/07, and that's a huge increase.


We are actively talking to producers and indies who have set up here, and supporting them with commissions.


In addition, we are supporting training that will make it easier to find people key production grades.


Our drama people are working with the Out of London training team and Media Training North West to set up a new training scheme in Manchester.


We'd like to see every drama made for the BBC in the North of England next year take between two and six production trainees, and that could add up to 50 trainees during the year.


Regional Development Fund


Across the UK as a whole, we are supporting independent drama suppliers through the BBC's Regional Development Fund.


The scheme was launched earlier this year with £500,000 earmarked to support and develop indies based outside the M25.


In June, we announced the first 11 companies to receive this support, which includes fast-track access to BBC commissioners.


The successful ones are based not just in the north west but also in Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.


Two of this year's awards will enable factual companies to extend into drama (those awards went to Tern in Scotland and Maverick in Birmingham).


We're very pleased with the way the regional development fund is working, and I can announce today that we'll be making £1 million available through the fund in 2006/07 to help indies set up new initiatives.


Three quarters, that's £750,000, is likely to be available for company development, and the total also includes a training budget.


This new investment will play an important part in developing mid-range suppliers so they can compete.


Working together with other organisations could help us to achieve even greater impact. We'd like to work more closely with the regional development agencies and screen agencies who are investing heavily in both company and project development.


It's these links and partnerships that will really make the difference.


Update on Manchester


And of course Manchester occupies a strategic place in the new network TV landscape.


It will be a hub, looking for talent and helping us to achieve strong production throughout the north, whether it's in Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool or Hull, as well as the Manchester region itself.


The new comedy department, BBC Comedy North, already has the brief of developing new northern writers and building a production base for performing talent.


It's quite simply because the north west is the home of world- beating comedy talent, and it's where they live and want to work. We're unlikely to find the next Peter Kay propping up the bar at the Groucho Club.


Comedy North is already bearing fruit – in the dark, comedy thriller Funland, for example, located in and around Blackpool; in I'm With Stupid, commissioned from a hitherto unknown 21-year-old, Peter Keely; and in the BBC THREE comedy Ideal, starring Johnny Vegas, which is shooting its second series as I speak at BBC Oxford Road.


But there's more to do if we are going to bring back some of the broadcasting talent that made Manchester so great.


Much of that talent has been dispersed over recent years but it has not been lost to the industry and I have no doubt that some of those who have left for London will want to return.


The BBC's proposed move to a new state-of-the-art broadcasting centre here is scheduled to take place in 2010, subject to the BBC Governors' final agreement next year.


The move should play a key part in attracting and retaining the best talent in the region by moving five major London departments.


It brings with it everything to do with kids – the CBBC department, including the CBBC and CBeebies channels; and Children's Learning.


Add to that BBC Sport, BBC Radio Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra; and BBC New Media and R&D.


We're currently looking at plans that would create a new Media Zone in either Manchester or Salford, bringing together the BBC, independent producers, facilities suppliers and possibly even other broadcasters on the same site.


In looking outward, we aim to foster closer relationships between the BBC and other programme makers and suppliers, large and small, and in that way to stimulate the whole of the independent sector.


Among those we'd like to work with are experts in academic and applied research, creating what's being called a new media lab for the north.


The vision is to build the synergy and the strength in depth of the talent base upon which sustainability depends.


We've shortlisted four possible sites – two in Manchester and two in Salford.


The Board of Governors fully support the strategy and have green-lit the next stage of the project – while stressing that they will take into account affordability and value for money for licence fee payers in making the final decision on the move by next spring.


Location, location


Network programmes don't have to relate to the region in which they are made to make a valuable contribution to building up the skills base and involving regional audiences.


Welsh fans of Dr Who, for instance, will have noticed that many of the locations in the latest series were strangely familiar, even when they appeared to be set in London.


For example, a London Underground station that featured prominently in one episode was actually filmed at part of Queen's Arcade in the heart of Cardiff city centre.


Now Cardiff shoppers can also remember the spot as the place where the Doctor defeated the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons laid down and died.


Numerous scenes were filmed in locations across south east Wales. That may not have done much to raise the profile of Welsh issues but to anyone living in and around Cardiff it was all rather fun, rather weird – and it turned into a bit of an in-joke.


That's got to be more interesting than filming the whole thing in London – but of course that wasn't our motivation; the true question people should ask is: why shouldn't Doctor Who be filmed in Cardiff?


How not to do it


Until now, it has occasionally seemed as though great programmes from the nations and regions have made it on to Network TV almost by accident, and we are determined to change that too.


We've learned a lesson from our experience with a very individual Scottish comedy called Still Game, which you may have seen over the summer.


It was part of the big, rich comedy season we ran on BBC TWO and it became quite a hit, with about two million people watching.


The programme was brought to my attention when a cassette was literally thrust into my hand after the tea and biscuits during one of the visits that the Director of BBC Television makes to BBC Scotland.


After taking a look, we agreed the show had potential to break through to a pan British audience – and clearly it did.


The most recent series in the summer garnered an average 36 per cent share in BBC Scotland and a ten per cent share in the Network – so we must be doing something right.


We've now recommissioned the series as a network origination for BBC TWO.


That experience brought it home to me why a new approach is so important if we are going to increase the amount of diversity on the screen.


Future commissioning of new programmes and new talent from out of London will be much more focussed, with the appointment of a new commissioner for comedy for out of London, Cheryl Taylor; and now, a further new commissioning role – Out of London entertainment commissioner to be based in Glasgow.


Both of these commissioners will 'work the north' – in particular Scotland and Manchester centres - and they are in addition to a new commissioner for documentaries in Bristol, Richard Klein; and for daytime in Birmingham, Karen Brown.


We plan to spend around £26m outside of London in the area of Comedy and Entertainment.


Creative clusters


All our Network television centres are now going to specialise in particular genres and production areas.


But they will also be looking at existing or new, complementary indie production in their city, region or nation - to form creative clusters.


Details are currently being finalised for the English regions but those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been agreed.


As well as comedy and entertainment, Scotland will specialise in drama, arts, factual and children's genres.


Wales will specialise in drama, music/performance and features & documentaries; and Northern Ireland will specialise in drama and current affairs.


These strong creative clusters will help us to work collaboratively across companies and channels to build up the critical mass that's needed for sustainable growth.


But it's important to appreciate that the specialisms won't apply to indies.


Also, the regional map isn't going to be rigid and inflexible, so it won't prevent commissioning from other genres.


In fact, the moment we thought drama and current affairs would be Northern Ireland's main focus, we got two great entertainment ideas that were commissioned.


So you can rest assured that good ideas will still break through and serendipity is allowed!


Creative clusters will improve access for regional producers and make it easier for them to obtain information about how programmes are working and being consumed.


As regional production is scaled up, there will need to be significant investment in post-production facilities and expertise.


Even now, all too often projects get hauled back to London for completion and dubbing – and this can actually disqualify them from counting as regional under the terms of existing Ofcom definitions.


So creative clusters will open up new opportunities because they are not just about people making programmes, they are a catalyst for the entire supporting business upon which the industry depends.


This raises key issues about training and investment which we're determined to address – and our vision of creating a Media Zone in Manchester will be a critical part of this development, working with many of you.


Championing audiences


In summing up, I recognise that business opportunities are the crucial thing for lots of people at this conference – but let's not lose sight of the whole reason for championing TV production outside London.


It's not just to give indies the chance to grab a bigger share of the BBC cake – it is first and foremost to serve our audiences better.


It's about distributing resources more evenly and it's about working in partnership to build the sustainable production communities that we all want to see.


Above all, it's about deepening our relationships with licence fee payers.


If I could give one tip to all those preparing their pitches, it would be to factor that guiding principle into your planning.


Together, we can make great programmes that are more engaging and relevant to viewers, not just in London, not just in Belfast, Cardiff or Glasgow – not just in Manchester even – but all over the UK.


Thank you.


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