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Caroline Thomson


Caroline Thomson

Chief Operating Officer, BBC

Speech to Television From The Nations And Regions Conference, Salford

Thursday 11 January 2007
Printable version

Creating new opportunities for the nations and regions in the digital world


Good morning everyone and let me start by saying how delighted I am to be giving the keynote speech for this year's conference. I don't think it's any secret that the person who was originally invited to be standing here was Michael Grade, as Chairman of the BBC Governors. In fact he had agreed to speak provided the Licence Fee settlement was known by today. So he could literally have been standing in the wings, ready to come on!


But he isn't. As things have turned out, Michael's gone, and the Licence Fee hasn't yet arrived. All of which goes to highlight one theme that's certainly relevant to this conference. And that's money! Indeed I was tempted to argue that making this speech was clearly above my pay grade – but then I thought – better not!


Anyway, I'm very happy that I'm here to talk about the opportunities that digital technology is opening up for the nations and regions of the UK, particularly here in the North of England. About the role the BBC is playing. And about how we hope the industry as a whole will work together to ensure that the economic and cultural benefits are distributed more fairly.


Building Public Value


Let me start with the BBC. In our contribution to the debate over Charter Renewal, called Building Public Value, we explained how a deep commitment to the UK's nations, regions and localities should be at the heart of the BBC's public value, the way we connect and unite communities from every corner of the country.


This isn't something we just dreamed up this year, or last year, or even the year before. It's something we've been doing for quite a while. But it was something we felt we could do better. And our pledge to move people, resources and creative investment from the M25 area and into the nations and regions is a fundamental part of the renewal of the BBC that's now underway.


We may not have got the whole way yet but I'm proud of the fact that more voices reflecting the whole of the country can already be heard on national channels. BBC Network television production from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – both in-house and indie – has risen from 11% of the total to around 15% within the past three years and we are firmly on track to achieve our target of 17% by 2012, bringing the figure into line with the share of the total UK population. Output of Drama (like Children's) is actually ahead of target, and the results make the point. Anyone who has seen Torchwood and the shots of Cardiff Bay will surely agree the show is even better made in Wales than in White City. And the same goes for Sea of Souls, made in Scotland.


Network drama from the North


In the English regions, both indies and in-house productions have had some catching up to do but we have made significant progress. For instance there's now more network TV drama based in the North of England than there has been for many years, and it's been winning critical and popular acclaim nationally. Major dramas like New Street Law, Life on Mars, Waterloo Road, The Street and The Chase are all coming back for second series. And watch out for Lilies, set in Liverpool, starting on BBC One tomorrow.


One of the problems we still have is that particular regional centres can be too dependent on one production. This is true in the North East, where the ending of the long running children's series Byker Grove left a gap which we've been committed to fill. I'm delighted to be able to announce today that a new children's series, Alistair Fury, will start shooting there this summer. It's based on the very funny books by Jamie Rix about the escapades of an 11-year-old boy who pits himself against parents, teachers, older siblings and the basic unfairness of life in general. Sounds like excellent training for a media career! With a budget of around £2.5 million for 13 episodes, it's an important series for the North East, where it will be made by an indie, Elephant Productions.


So a lot of progress has been made. But it's become increasingly clear that we must do more; more to make production sustainable; more to ensure it has long lasting benefits for the region; and more to ensure it delivers real creative value to the nation as a whole. And there could hardly be a better place to talk about this than Salford.


The strategic importance of Salford


As you all know, Salford is hugely significant because of the media city that's planned to take shape just across the water from where we are today. We hope to base several strategically important BBC services right here – and they are Children's, Sport, Future Media, Five Live and Research and Development. That will establish the UK's largest production centre outside London in 4 years time.


Clearly there are compelling reasons to build here. Not least Greater Manchester's terrific broadcasting heritage, dating right back to the first radio transmissions from Trafford Park in the 1920s. You only have to walk around these streets to be reminded of all the hugely successful network programmes made by Granada as well as BBC Manchester. And of course there are all the high quality services on local radio and television.


Naturally everyone wants to know whether our Salford plans are definitely going ahead. So let me say a few words about where they stand at the moment. The final decision is up to the BBC Trust, who've now taken over from the Board of Governors as the body charged with representing the public interest in the BBC. They must take account of the Licence Fee settlement, which the Government is due to confirm any day now.


Backing of the BBC Governors


Obviously I don't know what the Trust's decision is going to be but the advice they received from the outgoing Board of Governors was very positive. At the final meeting of the Governors last month, they recommended in principle the move to establish a major production base in the North of England. Anthony Salz, Michael Grade's replacement as Acting Chairman, put it this way: "The BBC has been too London centric for too long".


The Governors had made their support conditional on obtaining satisfactory answers to two key issues for licence fee payers – value for money and affordability. Having weighed up the potential costs and savings, and with independent advice from the business advisory firm Deloitte, they concluded in December that the Salford move would represent value for money for all licence fee payers, subject to agreeing outstanding contractual issues with the developer.


It's important to remember the move to Salford was the BBC's idea, stemming from the Building Public Value vision of a BBC which was more diverse, less London-centric, better represented the country and clearly embraced its role as a creative catalyst in the nation's economy. It is not something we have to be forced into. It's something we want to do because we think it's the right thing to do to serve audiences better. But just like any business, the harsh reality is we need to know how we can finance it.


For us, a future without Salford is now almost unthinkable. For the BBC it represents a hugely symbolic and significant shift of emphasis from the capital to the regions. We are grateful for the tremendous backing we've received from local organisations like Salford City Council and the North West Regional Development Agency.


We hope the media city will not just be about television or even digital but that it will embrace many different kinds of creative talent, including traditional ones. The live performance and broadcasting of classical music, for example, traces its regional roots right back to the early days of radio in the 1920s and '30s. Our plans include a new home for the BBC Philharmonic, which is such an important part of the cultural life of the region today.


Assembling so much talent together on one site should bring about a renaissance of the creative industries that is both wide ranging and deep rooted.


Jobs and the economy


But the significance of developments like Salford is about more than giving the regions better national representation, more than fulfilling their creative potential, more even than giving opportunities to their best talent. It is also about creating jobs. It's about being a catalyst for renewal.


Many experts believe the creative industries are one of the keys to the future prosperity of the whole UK economy. Gordon Brown has identified them as one of the fastest growing and highest value-added sectors where, with the right long-term decisions, Britain can lead the world.


The statistics speak for themselves. Between 1997 and 2004 the creative industries grew twice as fast as the economy as a whole, averaging 6%. They account for more of the value added in the UK economy than even the financial services sector. The employment they provide has risen from 1.5 million to 1.8 million people, growing three times as fast as the economy as a whole. In London alone they already generate over £21 billion each year and employ over half a million people.


That's great for London. What we want to encourage now is the opportunity for other parts of the UK become just as successful.


Generating jobs in the North


The figures for Salford show how big the impact could be on employment and the economy in the North of England. According to research by AMION Consulting, the BBC's move will create an additional 15,000 jobs in the region and boost the economy by £200 million (Gross Value Added) a year.


As the centrepiece of the new media city, we hope the BBC complex will act as a magnet for new media and creative industries. Salford City Council estimate the media city would deliver an eventual total of £1.5 billion to the regional economy. Salford has the chance to secure a national, and indeed a global, presence in this vital sector of the economy, providing opportunities not just for the next few years but for the long term, looking 10 or 20 years ahead. Building in such a future-proof way is possible because many of the services the BBC proposes to locate here are at the forefront of new media, interactive and online developments.


Take Children's, for example. It already has a pioneering role for an audience that increasingly expects content on demand. For many children, the idea of being restricted to a traditional TV schedule already seems as old fashioned as watching black-and-white films. By last summer about 45% of children in the UK had access to broadband. Four million a month were using the CBBC website compared with 1.4 million watching the digital TV channel.


The digital transformation


Across our full range of output, the BBC is in the process of transforming itself for an on-demand digital world in which viewers will be able to watch programmes on mobile phones and portable players as easily as the TV at home. We've recently changed the way we commission content for this multi-platform world by setting up BBC Vision, whose commissioners now assess the creative potential of ideas across all platforms right from the outset. It's all about giving audiences a richer experience. And that means looking for content that won't just be great on linear TV channels but on the web, on mobiles or via the red button, and that works for on-demand or games or any other applications people can dream up.


In the future, we expect many of the most significant innovations, the ones that will really take everyone by surprise, to come from the new media community. And it's in the spirit of this community that it can be based just as easily here in Salford, or in the Midlands, in Cornwall, in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as it can in London and the South East. They can help us to commission and deliver content in a host of imaginative new ways to ensure it's not just compelling but accessible to all digital audiences.


Opportunities for smaller companies


Many of the services that are lined up for the Salford move already rely extensively on the independent sector. For instance 25% of our New Media spending is with indies. Going forward, we are going to need people and companies with the skills and creative vision to generate ideas and make them a reality. This will create fresh opportunities for younger, smaller, more flexible companies.


One of the reasons why it's easier for them to break into the market or ramp up their activities is because new media content costs substantially less to make than broadcast programming. That means it's less risky in terms of the size of capital outlay required. And the growth of new media is expanding total media consumption, boosting the opportunities for production by small firms.


This is one of the things which makes us determined to ensure that the Salford investment benefits the north as a whole – not just Manchester. We're not naive about this. As someone who lives part of her life in Cumbria and was educated in York, I think I understand better than most that "the North" is not always a completely harmonious and homogenous concept! We also have to be realistic about what one media investor, however big, can achieve unless there is infrastructure and other investment in support. For example, geography alone means it can take longer by train to get from Manchester to Newcastle than from Manchester to London. But we've been thinking hard about how to make a start. For example we're already working with colleges and universities throughout the North of England to let them know about the significant entry level employment opportunities that Salford is expected to generate. The next generation of creative leaders could well be studying digital media at universities like Sunderland and Middlesbrough.


Casting the net wider


But we want to cast the net even wider, to identify and encourage the most able people, whatever their starting point may be. That means looking for people who traditionally may not have come into the industry, whether it's for reasons of ethnic or social background, disability or academic qualifications.


Under the umbrella of Project North, we're establishing an Education & Communities Partnership covering the whole of the North of England. We aim to work not just with every university in the region but with a number of further education colleges, community and training organisations.


As well as traditional placements, the sort of initiatives we have already been trying and which we would hope to continue and develop have included teaming up with the University of Central Lancashire, based in Preston, to encourage greater Asian representation on journalism courses; and having senior editorial staff support curriculum development at Bolton and Edge Hill Universities.


The catalyst theory is already starting to work. The media city and the BBC between them are proving to be an inspiration for other innovative media initiatives. Take Salford University's decision to move its entire arts, media and social sciences department to the media city site if the project goes ahead. Or the planned £25 million project to build a flagship academy school at the Quays to specialise in media, enterprise and business. And the North West's two leading audiovisual organisations – North West Vision and Media Training North West – are to merge with the explicit idea of maximising the opportunities of the BBC's move North.


That's just a sample of what's happening. The prospects for all kinds of young people are tremendously exciting, and I hope thousands of them will want to get involved. But we know we can still do more. And I would be very interested to hear your ideas about how we could achieve that.


I hope we'll all know the final decision on Salford very soon and if, as we all hope, the outcome is positive, I hope you will join in celebrating the most significant production shift the BBC has ever seen and one of the most important regional media developments of recent years.


Summing Up


To sum up, I believe that 2007 could turn out to be a landmark year for the nations and regions, one in which they increasingly take their place in the brave new digital world. Through digital, there's more scope for the kind of creative thinking and innovation that all of the UK is so good at. The BBC will play a full part, and I hope that every media organisation represented here will do so too. With our support and encouragement, let's hope that the global media players of the future could be – literally – just around the corner.


I hope this conference will help to focus attention on the opportunities to come and I wish you all a very interesting and stimulating day. Thank you.



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