Monday, February 23, 2009
Television Is Dead...
On Saturday night at the Sage in Gateshead the North East’s media elite assembled for the annual Royal Television Society Awards. It wasn’t quite the Oscars, but it was still an impressive shindig, with nearly 600 guests, ranging from veteran producers and local celebrities, to hopeful media students. Every UK region holds its own television awards ceremony, but ours is by far the largest, an astonishing fact considering our producers make the least number of programmes.
Last week Northern Film & Media, our local screen agency, launched a campaign to save our local production industry. It's not a moment too soon. They showed us some pretty bleak statistics: Wales, with a population only slightly larger than ours, produces thousands of hours for the UK’s broadcasting networks, whereas we produce almost none. In this region we fork out £134 million a year in licence fees, but the BBC commissions not a single North East network programme. It’s a shameful state of affairs. This region has creative talent spilling out of every pore, but its television industry is invisible in the national marketplace.
Blame for this decline has been laid largely at the door of ITV; I’m not sure this is fair. I think I know how the rot set in. It was in 1992 when, as newly elected chair of the film and television producer’s body PACT, I decided to launch a campaign for regional production.
I guess it was mainly guilt. Having been brought up on Tyneside, and leaving to join the BBC at the age of 21, it didn’t occur to me to return to my roots to work in the region. Like so many northern professionals, ambition and family had settled me in London, but I wanted to do something for my colleagues back home, because I knew how hard it was for them to breach the walls of Television Centre to get their ideas commissioned. Here I was in London, with hundreds of hours of juicy programmes, and my regional colleagues were getting the scraps.
So almost the first thing I did as chairman was ring up John Birt, who had just become the BBC’s director-general. I’ll never forget the call, or the circumstances. I was in The Ivy (where else??), and he called me back after I'd left a message with his assistant. I'm only setting the context, because what he told me on the phone was so utterly shocking I can still picture myself reeling with disappointment against the wooden panelling. I told John that we wanted the BBC to do something to increase the commissions for producers from outside London. He replied, “It’s not the BBC’s job to protect regional production; that’s what ITV is for”. I probably ordered a very large glass of champagne to calm me down.
That simple sentence sounded the first death knell for regional producers. As if to underline his point, shortly afterwards he closed down all the thriving local BBC features departments, the source of wonderful local programmes over the years, and more importantly the training ground for budding producers, directors and cameramen who, by an unfortunate quirk of fate, found themselves born north of Watford. The features department used to have direct links to the networks; now all BBC regional programmes were to come through the news division. Basically, if it wasn't a factual documentary which fitted in with the news agenda, they weren't interested. No entertainment, no features, and certainly no drama or music programmes. It was the beginning of the end.
This response fired our regional campaign, which we won hands down: the BBC was forced to set aside 30% of all its production spend for non-London producers, and in 1998 this quota was extended to Channel Four. But despite having an obligation to commission, the BBC accepted no responsibility for maintaining the supply chain. It had already destroyed its regional infrastructure of training and support that was essential to nurture local producers into the network fold, and it didn't offer anything in exchange.
Leaving the job to ITV ultimately proved disastrous: for when Tyne Tees was bought by Yorkshire, and then both became part of Granada, it was inevitable that network production would be focused on the larger companies, rather than the remoter corners of the empire. As a network force, the home of The Tube, Highway, Supergran, and hundreds of hours of network production, including quality drama, the spirit of Tyne Tees withered away. They shut their big network studios on City Road and moved their
news operation into an office block in an industrial park.
From then on Tyne Tees could only offer our producers a meagre supply of local documentaries (produced on budgets less than 10% of network prices). A friend of mine has made 30 documentaries over the last few years for Tyne Tees at an average budget of just £12,000. Last year I made a single non-broadcast pilot for a network show which cost £600,000. And I doubt the series will ever be made. That's the chasm between us.
Local producers have worked wonders with these derisory resources, but recently the axe fell on even this small consolation. ITV is no longer commissioning local documentaries, so from now on they’re on their own.
So on Saturday night, as the final batch of regional programmes competed against each other and Wire in the Blood received its last ever nomination for Best Drama, there was anxious talk across the ham and pease pudding canapés about the future.
Yet, amazingly, it wasn’t all gloom; there was a real determination to fight on together. One well known actress from Emmerdale stood up on stage and issued a rallying cry for us to keep on going, even though by then she'd clearly had more than a couple of glasses of RTS champagne, she brought the house down. It was a theme echoed by all the award-winners throughout the evening.
Our producers now need the support of all our politicians and opinion formers. The creative industries will be the heart of what the government proudly calls Digital Britain; it’s vital that our region will be part of that future. Watch this space.