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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

Director-General


Keynote opening address at Television From The Nations And Regions conference in Salford Quays


Tuesday 22 January 2008
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At the start of 2008, you can read the future of regional broadcasting two ways. From Messiah to Torchwood to the amazing range of regional features played out on The One Show each weekday evening, the BBC has probably never been so reliant on regional talent, not just to fill its networks, but to produce its hits. Not far from here, we're building what will be the most advanced broadcasting and production centre in the world.

 

And yet, look at some of the numbers, look at some of the trends in investment within the industry [and some of the numbers we've just heard] as a whole, and January 2008 can feel in the midst of a winter of discontent. Perhaps not surprisingly, suspicion and scepticism about the intentions of all the broadcasters is running high.

 

I'm going to talk about the BBC's plans this morning. They represent the biggest injection of regional investment we've ever made as well as a historic shift in the shape of the BBC.

 

But I know that they too provoke questions – not least because of a sometimes chequered history of regional policy at the BBC. A history of promises sometimes met, sometimes broken. I'm going to try to address some of these questions this morning.

 

Old wounds

 

None of them are new of course. In 1932, the BBC was less than ten years old as an organisation and less than five as a public corporation. But it was already on the back foot when it came to regional broadcasting.

 

Externally, it faced public protests and write-in campaigns. But internally too, there was a growing sense that the BBC's then strategy – which was to combine a massive thrust towards centralisation of programme-making and operations in London with, at least in theory, a continued commitment towards greater regionalisation – that this strategy was throwing up one contradiction after another. Here's a BBC memo from July 1932:

 

"For some time all has not been well in the matter of programme activities at Head Office and in the Regions. Neither has been sufficiently informed as to the other. There has not been enough collaboration, and misunderstandings have in consequence arisen. This is bad for programme work. Both Metropolitan and Regional prejudices and bias must be eliminated, and ignorance on both sides lessened." [1]

 

Well amen to that, but behind the scenes as this memo was being written, all the classic arguments were raging. Doesn't all real commissioning power reside in London? How can regional producers possibly compete on equal terms? But on the other hand: is there really enough top-class talent in Wales, say, or in Northern England, or will regional programming really just mean second-rate programming? Doesn't value for money and efficiency argue for consolidation of all broadcasting and production in one convenient location? And where could be more convenient, for goodness' sake, than central London?

 

So what could John Reith and the BBC do to sort out this mess? Well, it's obvious really (this is the BBC after all): appoint a new regional coordinator. But how much actual power should this coordinator have? Well, I think that the answer is one that echoes down the years. The coordinator must of course be "junior to the Director of Programmes and the Director of Talks" though – here's a small sop – "somewhat advanced in relation to them", in other words, not too junior. And yes of course he'll have power:

 

"By virtue of the special charge to him in regard to matters affecting Regional Policy, DP and DT will in general be guided by his advice but [will] retain over-riding powers upon consideration of major policy." [2]

 

An awful lot has happened to broadcasting in this country since 1932. The debate about commissioning power is exactly the same.

 

And there's another similarity between then and now. In 1932, the spotlight of the argument was on the BBC because we were the only broadcaster. Now, of course that's not true today. But what is true is that many of the pieces of broadcasting policy which were put in place in the latter part of the 20th century, specifically to strengthen broadcasting and production from the UK's nations and regions, no longer look as effective as they once did.

 

Rationalisation, competitive pressure, structural change in the broadcasting industry as a whole and in the independent production sector, have all taken their toll on the ability of ITV and commercial local radio to play the part in stimulating local and regional production across the whole of the UK in the way that was once envisaged. This is not meant as a criticism – ITV and ILR remain vital and valued investors in the creative industries across the country – but as a statement of fact.

 

And because of that, and because this is a moment when for both economic and cultural reasons, the question of national and regional broadcasting is once again alive and active, it's no surprise that the spotlight should fall once again – yes, on Channel 4 – but in particular and at its most intense on the BBC.

 

but new solutions?

 

And the question which I believe that everyone is entitled to ask is: why should it be different this time? What reason do we have to believe that the BBC's current Out of London strategy really will break free from all those institutional tendrils that have snared and slowed previous efforts – and really will mark a new beginning?

 

Of course what's really convincing is not words, but actions. We banged on for years about our commitment to network television drama from Wales. Now everyone believes us. But it wasn't our words, it was Doctor Who and Life On Mars that convinced them.

 

So: you win the argument by acting. And, though I'm going to have to use words to describe them, what I am going to lay out before you this morning is a series of concrete, measurable actions.

 

The first is a major and, in my view, irreversible shift in the physical centre of gravity of the BBC.

 

As I'm sure everyone here knows, we opened a brand new digital broadcast centre at Pacific Quay in Glasgow last autumn. And, as I said at the start, the diggers and cranes are already hard at work on our new Salford broadcast centre which will open in three years' time.

 

PQ and Salford are critical to our future. They are a model – and a test-bed – of the way we want the whole of the BBC to work in a few years.

 

But they're also evidence of the shift I'm talking about. As production flows to them – and to our other national and regional centres – it will inevitably flow from London. In anticipation of that, we have already taken the decision to sell Television Centre.

 

A few years ago, three-quarters of the BBC's UK estate by area was in London, only a quarter in the rest of the country. By the time our plans are complete, more than half the estate will be outside London.

 

There will be a similar shift in people. By the end of the current charter, we expect more than half the people working on the BBC's UK public services will be based outside London.

 

None of this is easy to achieve. Moving work and moving jobs means a lot of uncertainty and disruption for many of my colleagues. The last time, in the early Nineties, that the BBC planned a big move to Greater Manchester, internal opposition and friction was so great that in the end only two production departments made the move – the two with the least clout inside the Corporation.

 

When I became Director-General, plenty of people told me I should either abandon the Manchester vision altogether, or at any rate water it down. In fact, the plan has grown in scope over the past three years, not diminished.

 

That's not because of political pressure, big-P or otherwise, but because I believe the Salford move and the building of PQ and our broader strategy will be good for programmes, good for audiences and good for the creative talent on which everything depends.

 

Modern media may be globalising, but paradoxically there's probably never been a time when the relevance and immediacy of tone and content mattered more. I believe the public want a BBC which feels close rather than distant. Which feels part of their world. Which offers them perspectives and voices which sometimes feel recognisably like their own.

 

They want us to come to them. And I think that, in many ways, creative talent feels much the same.

 

Out of this has come the idea of powerful creative clusters in key cities across the UK where the BBC operates not in isolation but as a kind of lead investor, an anchor-tenant around which, we hope, the rest of the creative industries can develop and thrive. This is why in recent years, we've been keen to develop partnerships with PACT and the indie sector and with other broadcasters and media-players.

 

Even in the case of projects where we have the resources to go it alone, we know we'll deliver more for the sector – and ultimately achieve more for the public – if we develop our plans with others.

 

Where the power lies

 

Now while many of those who are interested in the defence and development of regional broadcasting have broadly welcomed these plans, two anxieties are often raised.

 

The first takes us back to the poor old regional coordinator. It is very simply that real power is about commissioning – that's where the money and airtime resides. Even if you move thousands of programme-makers out of London, won't they still have to cow-tow to a handful of commissioners in the capital?

 

Salford, of course, will be a little different. Sport is a strategic commitment for the BBC and very little of the output of BBC Sport is commissioned in the conventional way. We're also moving our news and sport radio network, Radio 5 Live to Salford. Children's BBC have their own networks, CBeebies and CBBC, and their own websites and the commissioners will be moving here alongside the producers.

 

That's three UK networks based in the North-West, the first three major UK networks to be based outside London in the BBC's history.

 

Not enough, say the critics. What about one of the main television networks – BBC Three, say, or BBC Two? That's not part of our plans at the moment, though I'll keep under review whether another UK radio or TV network should move outside London at some point during the present Charter.

 

But it's also worth saying that, in common with all our television channels, BBC Two and BBC Three have to pull their weight in hitting some ambitious targets for commissions from the nations and regions: for instance, our pledge to grow network commissions from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to 17 per cent of the total of relevant spend.

 

We know we can only hit targets like that by finding and developing the best talent wherever it is. One of the ways of doing that is to broaden and diversify the cast of commissioners.

 

When I was the Controller of BBC Two in the mid-Nineties, every single commissioning decision was made by the controller. Every one.

 

But not anymore. In 2000, we created a system of genre commissioning in television which, I believe, has overall been a striking success. There's more creative plurality and debate and responsibility has been spread among many more people. There's far more collegiality, for instance, in drama and the heads of drama in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are more plugged in to genre and channel strategies, and have far more creative initiative than they used to have.

 

And, though this is in its infancy, we've started to base key commissioners outside London. Cheryl Taylor, who is now based here in Manchester and Salford, is going to commission comedy from talent across the UK. Over time, I'd like to see more genre commissioners based outside the South-East.

 

We also aim to base more of our existing strand programmes out of London. This has a number of benefits. Strand editors are themselves commissioners and basing them in national and regional hubs should help local programme-makers, whether in-house or indie, get more opportunities for work. Second, returning strands can be key in sustaining a critical mass of network-ready talent. And third, a geographical spread tends to add, in my experience, to editorial diversity and range – something that we know our audiences want.

 

Now of course you can ask that the BBC move further and faster. On the other hand, at a time when elsewhere in the industry we see retrenchment and a good deal of pessimism about the broadcasters' commitment, not just to regional investment but to distributed creative decision-making, the BBC is manifestly moving in the opposite direction.

 

By the end of this charter period in 2016, I believe that nearly half of all TV network commissions will be produced outside the M25 – that compares with broadly a fifth in the early 1990s.

 

A tale of three cities?

 

But some people look at the BBC's plans and raise a second question-mark. The investment in Salford and PQ is fine and to be welcomed, but what will happen to investment, and in particular to network television and radio investment, in other cities across the UK? Will a London-bias be replaced, not with an even playing-field across the whole country, but a new London-Salford-Glasgow axis?

 

Well, I believe that we did need to create two new very large broadcasting bases outside London. You need scale if you want to offer careers that can move from one genre to another, or from TV to radio to the web. The advantage of sprinkling investment evenly but thinly everywhere is that you have the minimum number of arguments. The danger is that you don't really make a difference anywhere.

 

The second caveat I want to offer is that we're not trying to run Gosplan here. In other words, we are not trying to micro-manage every part of our editorial supply-chain without regard to creative success and failure or changes in audience taste.

 

One person, a single outstanding creative leader, can transform a company, a department, the supply of an entire genre from a given creative centre. One programme – Dragon's Den, made here in Manchester by our in-house entertainment team, Raven by our Scottish Children's team, The Day India Burned from our documentary team in Birmingham – one programme can transform the reputation of an entire centre.

 

And, by the same token, sometimes programmes or even entire genres go off the boil creatively. It's important that any commissioning system is responsive and in particular that commissioning from the nations and regions doesn't feel like a zero-sum game.

 

We know we need to boost network deliveries from Scotland, for instance, but that shouldn't be at the expense of the brilliant recent network success of BBC Wales. This is why the 17 per cent target for the nations is a floor rather than a ceiling.

 

Within the context of a commitment to fully measurable medium-term aggregate growth, there will be variations for individual national and regional centres year on year.

 

But, having said that, I believe that we need sustainable programme supply strategies for all our network production centres: Cardiff, Be lfast, Birmingham and Bristol as well as Glasgow and Salford. We also need, in some cases working with others, to create more opportunities for network production in other parts of England. Sustainability will depend to some extent on further specialisation – concentration on a smaller number of genres, with their own cadres of specialist creative talent and their own reputation for excellence with commissioners and with the audience.

 

It's also important that we dovetail our commitment to increased network production to other parts of our national and regional strategy. To our plans to invest in and improve our local services on broadband – services which among other objectives should add a new regional dimension to our commitment to the nations. To our continued commitment to local radio and regional television. To our plans to site much of our research and development operations here in Salford.

 

Conclusion

 

Broadcasting's history and the pull of London has meant that building a complete broadcasting career in one of the UK's other great cities has never felt easy – though for many years when Granada's commitment to local production was total and the BBC was pulling its weight as well, it was more than possible here in the North-West.

 

We know that our plans for Salford will work creatively because for decades Greater Manchester was a beacon for talent and produced some of the best television and radio ever made. Often it still does. That's the heritage we want to build on.

 

Looking more widely though, I recognise that the future commitment of Britain's other broadcasters to regional investment looks uncertain. Some of the numbers do look pretty bleak.

 

But, while I don't believe the BBC has the resources to be able to guarantee fully to replace investment from others, I do believe we can make a big difference. And over the coming years, the public – and this conference – will be able to track and validate that difference.

 

And in conclusion it's worth noting that this increased commitment is a voluntary one. We have not made it in response to some new external quota, but because we believe it's the right thing for the creative industries as a whole – and, more importantly than that, the right thing for our audiences. Thank you.

 

Notes to Editors

 

[1] Briggs p. 301

[2] Briggs p. 302.

 



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