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Caroline Thomson


Caroline Thomson

Chief Operating Officer, BBC

Launch of the BBC Connect And Create Partnership – speech given at Huddersfield University

Friday 11 January 2008
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Good afternoon everyone. It's great to see so many of you here representing education and community groups from all over the North of England, especially as this is the first time we've brought us all together. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to tell you about some of the thinking behind our plans to build a BBC fit for the 21st Century.


But first can I say a big thank you to everyone at Huddersfield University who has helped to make this afternoon's event possible. We really appreciate the support you've given us, especially all the students who have come in to lend a hand during their holidays. I hope you will all enjoy taking part.


I must tell you, I immediately feel at home when I visit a university in the North of England as it takes me back to my own student days at York. It was a very happy and fulfilling time for me. And there must be something about York because the Chancellor is of course none other than Greg Dyke, the BBC's former Director-General who was also a student there.


The North of England is a highly appropriate place to be talking about the shape of a BBC fit for the 21st Century. The obvious reason is of course our new media centre rising by the waterfront at Salford Quays, and I've got some important news to announce about our move there, which I'll come to in a moment.


Salford as a model


But first I'd like to fill in some of the background – to explain why that development has an even wider significance for the BBC than may at first be apparent.


Because Salford is actually the start of a process for the way we want to develop the entire BBC in the 21st Century. A BBC that is not just owned by the whole of the United Kingdom but which is more open and accessible, working in partnership with local communities and educational institutions.


I call it the "networked" BBC: one that is built around sustainable centres of creative production expertise linking every part of the country.


It sounds simple but it is actually based on a completely different mind-set about how an organisation like the BBC, which belongs to the whole of the UK, should work.


The best comparison I can give is with what has happened in the computer industry. When I was a student, a computer was a huge, rather frightening beast that hummed away in an air conditioned environment, tended by highly skilled specialists. This mainframe computer, as it was called, was linked to terminals that had no computing power of their own.


The BBC was a bit like that. London, the centre of the universe, throwing out small dependent satellites. But now we are changing – just as computers have done to such dramatic effect.


The concept of networking


Today's students own laptops that are probably more powerful than any mainframe we could have imagined when I was at York. And of course every machine can be networked together. This concept of networking has revolutionised the way we use computers.


Now we are in the process of applying the same principles to the BBC. Instead of the old hub and spoke arrangement, where London is the hub and the regions are the spokes, the BBC of the 21st Century will be based on a fully networked model. A model that will harness the power of human networks, tapping into a pool of creative energy across the country. Key centres like Salford will be catalysts, promoting interaction both on their own site and throughout the region.


In other words, in future London will no longer be the overwhelmingly dominant player, the broadcasting equivalent of the mainframe computer. Instead it will be balanced by and networked with the other major UK centres in Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester/Salford, Birmingham and Bristol. All these bases will in turn be outward-looking, developing in partnership with people throughout their respective nations and regions. All will have the critical mass to become strategically sustainable centres, not just isolated pockets of production expertise.


Crucially important, too, they will find it easier to network with each other – something that being a spoke makes much more difficult! Greater interaction will bring all the benefits of cross-fertilisation of creative ideas, opening up all kinds of interesting possibilities. It's all very different from the old days when the spokes were often in competition with each other, making Glasgow's gain Cardiff's loss.


It's happening already – for instance,the hugely successful Coast, which was made in Birmingham but also drew on the experience of teams throughout the country to develop interactive content and off-air ideas such as coastal walks linked with the series. Where programmes are already leading, BBC policy should clearly follow and a more networked BBC will make it much easier to repeat successes such as these.


Connecting with communities


Just as Salford will connect with communities across the North from the Mersey to the Tyne, so the networked BBC should connect with communities nationwide.


The BBC will open its doors to more people. At the most basic level, this means it will be far easier to come in and see programmes being made. We want to encourage participation – say to people: join the audience, go behind the scenes and take part in programmes on air.


Again, Salford is the blueprint. The new buildings make a virtue of being more open to interaction with audiences. It's all about demystifying the whole process of programme making. There are production areas on the ground floor where people will be able to see what's going on. Television won't just be something that's made in mysterious darkened studios, hidden from public view. People will be able to take a look and feel a sense of ownership – that they belong to the BBC and the BBC belongs to them.


Catalyst for change and regeneration


In Salford, by working with the local community and with the developers of the media city, we hope to create a new powerhouse of media production and innovation for the North of England. The aim is that the BBC's presence is a catalyst for change and regeneration that will bring new opportunities to talented individuals all over the region.


Career opportunities will be significantly enhanced by the presence of the BBC and other media organisations. The BBC is already actively involved in educational outreach programmes: the BBC Manchester Mentor Project and the Apprenticeship Programme, backed by the BBC, North West Vision and Media, Skillset and the Learning and Skills Council are just two examples of activity already underway.


You have only to look at other leading global media cities to see why we are placing such an emphasis on synergies and cross fertilisation. It's a key mechanism to stimulate growth and innovation. At the Seoul Digital Media City in South Korea the actual phrase they use is "to realise centralised synergy effects" – I think I know what they mean! It's interesting to note that the leading international expert Michael Joroff of MIT, who is advising Seoul, is also advising the Salford development team.


A mirror on changing Britain


A networked BBC should hold up a mirror to a changing Britain, one that is increasingly diverse and fragmented. It will make it easier for us to reflect devolution and the impact of an increasingly global environment. At the same time it will help people to rediscover their locality and the value of their roots. The changes taking place in society make our role to unite the nation harder, but more important. A networked BBC should have the ability to show communities across the UK just how much they have in common.


We have long accepted the notion that the BBC was too London-centric and we have already made significant progress in correcting the imbalance. We set a target of achieving 17% of network television production from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2012, and we are well on track to do this. Looking at the whole of the UK, over 30% of Network television production is already produced outside London and the figure will exceed 40% after the move to Salford.


But there is more to do if we are going to give people in every part of the UK the same sense of ownership. Research shows people in the South East still value the BBC much more highly than other parts of the country.


So our vision of a networked BBC for the 21st Century is of a BBC that is equally valued in every part of the UK, and as close to audiences in the North as in the South. A BBC whose roots run deep among all the communities it serves, that will draw on the talents of people throughout the whole of the UK more effectively than ever before. A BBC that will showcase the creativity of the whole UK – the faces we see, the range of stories and voices we hear, the ideas of everyone working behind the scenes.


Making Doctor Who in Wales


The growing diversity of talent available to the BBC is already refreshing our programmes. If anyone needs convincing about the audience appeal of network content produced outside London, one show in particular had millions of people, young and old, glued to their TV screens over Christmas. Some were undoubtedly watching from behind the sofa.


The Doctor Who Special on Christmas Day won a 50% share of the total television audience, averaging over 12 million viewers and peaking at 13.8 million. These are the Doctor's best viewing figures since the Tom Baker days of 1979. Now the interesting thing about Doctor Who, apart from giving you the answer to crucial questions like what happened when the Tardis collided with the Titanic, is that these days it's made in Cardiff and filmed in locations in and around south east Wales. Even the streets of London are shot in Cardiff. And the results speak for themselves. Great network television, appealing to people in every part of the UK, and indeed all over the world.


The decision to produce Doctor Who in Wales opened the door for the spin-off series Torchwood, which is also made there. And there's a difference in terms of cultural representation between the two. While Doctor Who ranges all over the universe, Torchwood is visibly set in Cardiff, and that does something to raise the profile of Wales on national television.


Both series have generated more opportunities for local production talent. They've also forged new partnerships that are benefiting the BBC and local people. Moving production there has stimulated the higher education base, getting a kind of virtuous circle going between the education and production communities. For instance, we've developed close links with higher education institutions such as the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. Several students have had placements with the Doctor Who and Torchwood team, and a number of graduates, particularly in scenic design, have won jobs.


We've established a successful partnership with Cyfle, the Welsh TV training organisation, and introduced additional traineeships in the Doctor Who design team. Again, several trainees have already become permanent. This is in addition to the broader network TV production training schemes we run with Cyfle, and other fruitful partnerships with universities such as Aberystwyth and Newport.


North of England partnerships


And of course the same sort of thing is happening in the North of England. There is certainly a wider range of voices to be heard on network television these days. Series like The Street and Life On Mars have been winners that appeal to audiences in every part of the UK and have won widespread critical acclaim.


It's as part of the BBC's Project North that we've formed our partnerships with you – all universities in the region, further education institutions and around 30 community organisations. By working together we can ensure that student education is more closely aligned with industry requirements. It's good for us – it creates the talent we need; it's good for students – it gives them great opportunities; and it's good for universities.


Many new partnerships are being formed. I recently met people from the University of Central Lancashire [in Preston] which has a big journalism course and is also training journalists in China. We are working with them to encourage greater Asian representation on courses. At Bolton and Edge Hill universities our senior editorial staff have been helping to develop the curriculum. And at York, I've been interested to hear about the brand new school they are developing, which is bringing together computing, engineering and creative skills. They didn't have anything like that in my day!


I'm delighted that the relocation of the BBC Philharmonic to its new home in Salford's media city is going to create new opportunities for young musicians. The partnership between the orchestra and Salford City Council aims to help local children develop their skills and career aspirations. We all hope that some of them could become accomplished musicians for the next generation of the orchestra.


I believe we can help to change attitudes at an early age by opening young people's minds to the opportunities that are about to appear on their own doorstep. It's interesting to hear what the leader of Salford City Council, Cllr John Merry, has had to say recently about the dramatic turn-around in Salford's GCSE results. Over the last two years Salford has registered the biggest improvement in the country when measuring the percentage of pupils achieving five A*-C grades. I'm not saying that's down to the creation of media city, I'm sure it owes most to inspirational teaching and hard work by students – but I know that local experts believe that Salford's regeneration scheme, and in particular media city, is already playing a part in raising aspirations.


News about Salford


Which brings me to the news I mentioned earlier about the move to Salford. As part of the BBC's drive to become less London-centric and more deeply rooted in the whole of the UK, we will be moving a significant number of additional staff to the new media centre in Salford Quays.


Salford is the future of the BBC. So I'm delighted to say that there will now be an even stronger presence for BBC Future Media & Technology in Salford than originally thought.


This will include the central Future Media team that leads the development of the BBC's offering across the internet, digital TV and mobiles, and also the Media Research & Innovation team. These are two of our most important businesses and, together with Future Media colleagues supporting programme-making areas based in Salford, it brings to over 500 the total of FM&T staff who will be based in Salford by 2011. The Director of FM&T, Ashley Highfield, believes this is a chance to reinvent Future Media and how the BBC goes about creating it. He describes it as "the boldest move we can make in helping to shift the centre of gravity of the BBC".


In addition to these changes, we are also moving more journalists to Salford. Radio 5 Live news programmes will now join the rest of the radio station and there will be an increased national newsgathering presence with the creation of a news hub with additional correspondents.


All of this will strengthen Salford's place as a true network centre.


These departments will join those also scheduled to move – namely Children's, BBC Learning and BBC Sport.


And of course we are relocating all the BBC people from our existing Manchester base, together with all the network output they already produce.


The net result of these additional moves is that overall number of BBC posts moving to Salford will increase by nearly 10% from just under 1,500 to over 1,620.


World class centre


With an even stronger BBC presence, there will be even greater potential for Manchester, Salford and the whole of the North of England to become a world class centre of media innovation and technology for the 21st Century.


On my last visit to the site I was tremendously excited to see how much has been achieved in the last year. Walking around you already get a real sense of the scale and ambition of the media city that's taking shape.


The way Salford's new media city is rising from the mud right now symbolises the role we can play for the whole of the UK – not just culturally but economically too. And the economic potential is truly enormous. The creative industries are widely believed to be one of the keys to our future prosperity as a nation, in a global market that's being valued at $1.3trillion.


The networked BBC is one of the keys to unlocking this creative potential. The BBC should never forget that it belongs to the people – licence fee payers from all parts of the UK. And this strategy will retain licence fee payers at its heart.


We hope that many of you and the organisations you represent will share that vision, and join us in our venture, involving your local communities and offering more opportunities to young people to develop their careers.


Together I have no doubt we can make this country the most creative place for media development in the world in the 21st Century.


Thank you all for listening.



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