BBC Charter Review - NFM's Response

Posted: 9th November 2015

With the BBC’s Charter currently under review, Northern Film & Media have contributed to the consultative processes being run by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, and the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.

NFM strongly advocates renewal of BBC’s Charter. However our support comes with some significant provisos.

We believe that, in so far as we have a regionally and nationally comprehensive broadcasting service, it is of huge value to the North East’s audiences and creative economy. It has the potential to reflect North East lives, communities and places, both to ourselves and the nation as a whole, binding us into the national cultural fabric. It also allows the region’s creative professionals to make use of their talents and create value for the UK economy, while at the same time helping to sustain the region’s televisual production base and its contribution to the region’s wider economy. It seems clear to us that the BBC is the only credible mechanism for delivering such a service.

However we believe that at present the BBC’s services fall some way short of being comprehensive, in the sense that resources and opportunities are not being devolved from BBC North to its constituent regions in a fair, proportionate or acceptable manner. We believe there is a strong prima facie case that the BBC is massively underinvesting in production in the region relative to our collective licence fee contribution and as a result it is underserving North East audiences. (It should be noted that we recognise that the limits of BBC North’s current powers play a part in this situation, just as we recognise that various key members of BBC North staff have consistently acted with good will towards the region.)

We believe that if Charter renewal is to be justified the BBC needs to re-assess and update its devolutionary strategy in relation to the North East and reallocate resources accordingly. Moreover, we suspect that this will need some kind of statutory underpinning.

Rationale

Our response to Charter review is framed in relation to two key facts:

(1)  The BBC collects vastly more from the North East in licence fee payments than it spends in the region. We estimate that this disparity is of a factor of 5:1.

(2)  In spite of the establishment of BBC North, satisfaction with the BBC remains significantly and persistently lower in the North East than in other English regions, according to the BBC’s own internal research.

We suggest that these two facts may be causally related. In plain English, the most obvious explanation why the people of the North East are comparatively dissatisfied with the BBC’s services is that the BBC still under-engages with the region. It underrepresents North East people’s lives and it underinvests here. (The combination of the two forms of under-engagement is, we would argue, critical to understanding the comparatively low esteem in which the BBC is held in the region.) Indefensibly, it seems that huge amounts of money are being hoovered out of a comparatively poor region to finance services run in other richer parts of the country (to their cultural and economic benefit), and those services are not felt by the people in the North East to be adequately responsive to their lives and needs.

It is often argued that there should be no automatic entitlement for a proportionate spend in the regions – whether that be on television production or any other cultural activity. The argument is that resources should be tilted towards London, as the UK’s capital city, in order to sustain international calibre infrastructure and production to the benefit of the country as a whole. (The same rationale is extended to the network broadcast hubs in Manchester and elsewhere.) Audiences, we are told, care only that programmes are entertaining. However against this argument needs to be weighed the comparative dissatisfaction of North East audiences with the BBC’s services – a dissatisfaction which the BBC is aware of, though which is rarely discussed publicly. It is also notably at odds with the position which the BBC takes in relation to the nations of the UK: in their recent British, Bold, Creative (2015: p.46) – a document designed precisely to support their case for Charter renewal – it was the BBC’s proud boast that “During this Charter, we ensured that what we spend on network television in each Nation broadly matches its share of the population”. We cannot see any justification for applying different criteria to the regions. To the contrary, we would argue that the presumption should be in favour of proportionality and that all deviations from that position should be rigorously justified, quantified and monitored.

Matters are not helped by the fact that the BBC approaches England in terms of a South/North/Midlands division which is not adequately responsive to the particularities of the North East. (Indeed, since the BBC’s network hubs are all on the West Coast, it is not really appropriate for anywhere else east of the Pennines either). As an illustrative fact, the train journey from Newcastle to Salford takes as long as the journey from Newcastle to London – an indication both of our relative dislocation and also of the practical difficulties of servicing the North East from the North West.

Regional Production

Much of the limited amount of BBC network production in the North East is for children. We currently have two returning series: The Dumping Ground and Wolfblood. Such production is very welcome – it shows the region on national screens and creates jobs within the region. However it is comparatively low budget, and also of limited relevance to adult audiences. In terms of adult drama we currently have only one returning North East production: Inspector George Gently. Seven seasons have been completed and it is not clear how much longer it will continue. The BBC has made no undertaking to replace this show if it is cancelled, and the effect on the region’s crew base in that event would be very serious, with significant knock-on damage to our production base. The BBC has badged the recent series Boy Meets Girl as a North East production. We welcome the opportunity given to a North East writer on that production, but note that the show was almost entirely shot in Manchester, with only two days’ filming in the North East.

Regional programming is also under worrying threat. Most of this is categorised as news/current affairs instead of being recognised and protectively ring-fenced as primarily regional content. Ominously, news and current affairs is one of the key programming areas in which the BBC is currently looking to make savings.

Practical Demands

(1) Ring-fencing: statutory obligations and official commitments to a guaranteed amount of spend in the region, specifically on network broadcast commissioning, proportional to licence fee income.

(2) A commitment to a long-running daytime production: this would provide a huge boost to the solidity of the region’s crew base and the sector as a whole.

(3) The appointment of a commissioner with specific responsibilities for the region, able to work across genres, preferably based at least part time in the region.

(4) A supercharging of BBC North’s remit, commissioning powers and resourcing, underpinned by a quantified requirement to distribute production opportunities across the region.

(5) Infrastructural investment as part of that rebalancing, in particular to address the lack of studio capacity in the region.

(6) We believe there is also scope for the BBC to work further on collaborative digital projects in the North East.

(7) Steps to address the following developmental issues: development of talent; training, and retention of key skills; building on existing strengths such as children’s drama.

We are engaged in discussions with a range of stakeholders to help ensure that the interests of the North East’s production base, industry professionals and audiences alike are properly represented in the debate.

To read Northern Film & Media’s full submission please click here

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