Are You Moving Up?

Are You Moving Up?

London has always been the heart of the UK’s TV and media land. As a freelancer, if you weren’t willing to relocate to the big smoke maintaining a regular work flow further a field was luxury. With more production houses eloping north and the big promise of Salford’s Media City, the wheels are already in motion, but how much will things really change?

We have become jaded and cynical about token corporate moves to provide cultural balance, but sometimes they make such a fundamental difference that we forget what the earlier alternative was.

Until 1982, almost all television production was made in-house by the broadcasters of just three channels. The government of the time wanted to break what it saw as a left-wing union-dominated cultural monopoly and imposed a minimum quota of 25% of productions to come from external commissions, and founded a free market-based fourth channel which would only buy-in productions from the outside suppliers which didn’t even exist yet. This created the independent production sector and as a by-product the freelance production sector to service it. That was a token gesture which changed our television system completely.

What about the BBC’s does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin Out of London Strategy? It is designed to counter accusations of metropolitan values dominating the TV programmes (remember, barely one in five TV viewers live in London) that the BBC makes. The key to this strategy is moving substantial BBC commissioning and production departments to Media City in Salford and Pacific Quay in Glasgow. Will it make a real impact on the cultural and geographical makeup of the TV industry for the next two decades, or is it just another token rearrangement? My guess is that it will indeed make a difference, but will it make a big difference to you?

Here is what is happening. In both places the BBC is placing its studios within what is intended to be a ‘creative village’ of different content production companies. You may remember that this mixed-tenantry had been the plan for the 17-acre White City Media Village which opened beside the BBC in Shepherds Bush in 2004, but last time I visited it looked as if the BBC had taken over the entire 5-building development entirely for its own use.

Things are already different up North. In the Glasgow Pacific Quay complex, the BBC is a neighbour to Scottish Television, Shed Media, Talkback Thames, 12 Yard and Endemol, and a range of non-broadcast creative companies. The BBC plans to employ 1,000 staff in Pacific Quay, although there is still a question mark over which departments and productions will be sent to fill the remaining vacant studio and office space. The BBC’s new space in Salford is more than double the size of Pacific Quay, and the corporation plans a workforce of 2,500 there when it takes over the site in 2011.

The BBC is giving the Salford move serious commitment. It has appointed big-hitter, Peter Salmon, as the first Director of BBC North, and confirmed that entire genres – BBC Sport, Children’s, Learning, Future Media & Technology and Radio Five Live – will all be making the move. The rumour is that Peter Salmon has told senior staff that a move to Salford is not a hardship posting which they can use to negotiate a good package, but will be by invitation only. If you already live near Manchester or Glasgow, ‘Out Of London’ is all good news for you which will mean more work in the future.

Production companies and broadcasters have a symbiotic relationship for the good, and when producers are clustered near commissioners this makes for more production overall. More good news for Salford is that the funding and development agency, North West Vision and Media, is also moving in, bringing an annual disbursement of £3 million to help the work of the media companies around it.

Meanwhile, it might surprise some people who have only ever worked from London that Scotland’s digital and creative industries already turn over around £2.8 billion a year, employing an estimated 100,000 people.

Both Glasgow and Manchester have their own established communities of production people who intend to base themselves there for the long-term, who don’t have to commute to London. However, there will be a lot more work to do out of those two centres in the future, and more production freelancers will be needed there to service it within the next three years. Some of these will be fresh locals training up for the roles, and others will be newcomers bringing their skills from London and its closer satellites. London will remain the biggest TV production centre in the UK for the next couple of decades, but Manchester and Glasgow will prove to be significant alternatives. What will they mean to you?