Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)


Ms Susan Woodward, Ms Alice Morrison, Mr Andrew Critchley and Mr Mike Spencer

  Q520  Chairman: That takes us on to another part of our inquiry.

  Mr Spencer: Please allow me to give evidence to that part as well. I think the hope would be with a critical mass up here and the BBC in London recognising Manchester as a significant output and base, that then additional work would come into areas of factual programming, current affairs, and the rest.

  Q521  Chairman: Just as a matter of fact so I can get my mind entirely round the commissioning process, how long does it take to a get a programme commissioned?

  Ms Woodward: Forever.

  Q522  Chairman: Obviously it could take a vast amount of time but how much would you reckon an average programme would take you?

  Mr Spencer: If you hit lucky, and a lot of what our job is is to see which door is the most likely to open, and if you hit that door and you are fortunate, three months. I think on average it is probably between six and nine months.

  Q523  Chairman: In those six to nine months or in those three/six/nine months, is there a constant process of toing and froing?

  Mr Spencer: E-mailing and proposals and meetings, yes.

  Q524  Chairman: That is a long time. Is that the same in drama?

  Mr Critchley: Do you mean to get to what we call a green light or to get the programme on the screen?

  Q525  Chairman: I really meant to get to the green light, to get to the authorisation for this thing to go ahead.

  Mr Critchley: It can be a couple of years.

  Q526  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: That is what I would have thought.

  Mr Critchley: Especially given there are scripts to write and notes to consider from commissioners and episodic scripts to have ready for the start of the production, because we do not film things in linear order, we film all the scenes in this place today and move on so they are filmed out of sequence, so it could be a long haul.

  Mr Spencer: It took Celador three years to get Who Wants to be a Millionaire? commissioned. In retrospect which broadcaster would turn that down? But they all did, including ITV. It was only when personnel changed that the programme was actually commissioned.

  Q527  Chairman: To put it at a more modest level, say you wanted a current affairs programme on how to get into the House of Lords, you would do a certain amount of work on it, does that work get recompensed? What happens if at the end of the day the BBC or Granada says, "It is all very interesting but, thank you, no"?

  Mr Spencer: That is your bad luck really. In the case of how to get into the House of Lords, that is probably a subject you would think was a long shot and you would not devote too much time to it, forgive me, but, no, you are not recompensed, although you can get (and we have received it from the BBC and other broadcasters) some development money which will allow you to bring on researchers to go further with the subject.

  Chairman: I just think you rather have conservative ideas about what programmes to put out!

  Q528  Lord Maxton: You obviously and quite rightly are very forceful (I will not say aggressive) in trying to improve creative arts. I can understand why most of us are probably sympathetic to you taking jobs from London, although I think there are people in London who might say, "We are licence fee payers as well and we are entitled to at least some of the money." Is there a danger you are beginning to take it from other parts of the United Kingdom who may feel just as deprived as you do? I represented a Glasgow constituency and I think the creative arts in Glasgow might begin to say Manchester is getting more than its fair share.

  Ms Woodward: Pat Loughrey said at the dinner last night that the BBC in Northern Ireland (I think) received £1.4 million to underpin regional production which for the population of Northern Ireland would seem to be, as Pat said himself, a generous settlement, to say the least. I think then again in Scotland, which is a very different constituency, you have BBC Scotland which is very proactive in that area, also Scottish Television and Grampian and so it has extremely robust independent and commercial and state-financed broadcasting. In addition to that, Channel Four have chosen Glasgow of all the regions and all the nations to set up a research centre which helps to create mini hubs in that city by giving researchers an opportunity to get access to resources, to facts, to business information, and so Scotland of all of the regions and nations in the United Kingdom is probably one that is best served. But, yes, if you had a constituency in Birmingham, I would think you would make a good point. At the end of the day, if the cake is sliced in such thin ways that it is spread equitably across the UK you will never create a creative cluster, and without a creative cluster you will never create the critical mass of the component parts which will deliver more in terms of creative output than those independent and separate divisions. The cake cannot be spread to everybody and the jam cannot be spread that thin if you want to make an impact and grow the creative industries. At the end of the day it is a business that makes money for this country and we are an export industry as well as an internal industry, and that is a hard choice we have to make.

  Ms Morrison: I am one of nine regional screen agencies across England and they are all behind this move. Again looking at the figure of £1.4 billion made in London, we are the next biggest at £210 million. There is such an imbalance that what the region believes is this is going to change the psychology behind it and make innovation more important. The BBC is committed to working more openly, to doing more partnership, to doing more training, looking at new ways of producing programmes, and that will benefit all of us because all the regions are hungry and proactive and we need it more so we work harder to get it. That is where we see the value of this move partly coming. Also If I could just say on regional production, 17 per cent is guaranteed to the nations and that is a nice figure. So Glasgow is doing alright, and I can say that as a Scot.

  Q529  Lord Maxton: It is doing alright. Whether it is doing the right thing is another matter. But can I switch back to you in a sense. One of your jobs is obviously television and broadcasting but also it is to attract film makers. Will this move of the BBC here, who are film producers as well on occasions, help you in that job, attracting people to come and make films here?

  Ms Morrison: We hope so. Film is more difficult because for television there is an easier market, it is there and it spends money. Film is much more risky so it is more difficult to sell in some cases. This year the BBC have put £10 million into film and next year they are looking at putting £40 million in, which will make a significant difference. And Mark Thompson is talking about regional voices being represented right across the nations of the region. Film is a very important cultural dialogue and I think that would be excellent. The other thing that we think we would like to work on is using digital technology and here the skills are the same. For example, the quality on big dramas is easily as good as film, it is fantastic. What we would like to see is a crossover from the high-end dramas, which is a strength here already into film and also using the new technology. In that way I think it will encourage the BBC to spend more on indigenous film, film from the United Kingdom, which would be a really good idea also.

  Q530  Lord Maxton: What about actual facilities? Everybody talks about Braveheart being a great Scottish film but of course it was made in Ireland, it was not made in Scotland at all. The reason it was made in Ireland was because there was a sound state facility just south of Dublin which was not there in Scotland. Do you require that any more or are you saying that digital technology now makes these big indoor facilities unnecessary?

  Ms Morrison: For film, if you invest, for example, there is a great big new film studio built outside Cardiff, you just have to look at populating that. With film, the issues are always much bigger. I am sure you know this already but, for example, at the moment a big film studio like Pinewood is suffering purely because the pound is high and there is no clarity over tax breaks so the larger economic picture can have an effect on what happens at a national and regional level. It depends what kind of film you think would usefully be made here and how the industry is going as a whole because there is an enormous difference between a £1 million/£2 million film and the big blockbusters. That probably does not answer your question but it is as near as I can get.

  Q531  Lord Maxton: The Irish Government also allowed them to use the Irish Army as extras.

  Ms Morrison: And producers follow the money. If there are tax breaks it acts as an incentive, particularly in film.

  Q532  Chairman: Can I just ask you one question, you said there were nine screen agencies.

  Ms Morrison: Yes.

  Q533  Chairman: Is that not just a recipe for doing what Susan Woodward was saying we should not be doing and that is trying to spread the jam thinly round the nation? Because certainly when it comes to government, one has the awful feeling they will say if there are nine we must give a little there, a little there and a little there. Is that not how it works?

  Ms Morrison: Not really because it is about sustainability and this is the credible centre because it has that sustainable infrastructure and long history and the talent base, the production that is already going on. The nine screen agencies across the nation concentrate on different areas according to what their regions particularly need so, for example, in the South East they are concentrating more on the film production because they have the large studios there. All the nine agencies back this move.

  Q534  Chairman: You do not think we would do better as a nation to have three or four major centres of excellence of which Manchester is obviously one?

  Ms Morrison: To some extent, if you are honest about this, if you look at London as the first, Manchester as the second and Glasgow as the third, yes, I think it is good and three would be a good number. More than that we are only a tiny island and you would be dissipating too much so, yes, but I think that has already happened.

  Q535  Chairman: You think that as well, Susan?

  Ms Woodward: Before you think about or consider actually decreasing the amount of film councils you would have to create the centres of excellence which would replace them. I think there is the potential to have a look at that but you need to put the horse before the cart and you need those centres of excellence to then make the decision as to where best to spend additional revenues.

  Q536  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I think this is a question for you. How would you see the BBC develop its proposal for a shared production hub in Manchester, which obviously would involve Granada?

  Ms Woodward: I am really glad you asked me that question. We have spent some time talking about it within the industry sector already. We already have a production hub in Manchester and that is the ITV Granada site with 1,200 people, all the post production facilities, the studio facilities which are shared currently in a joint venture company called 3sixtymedia which is owned by both the BBC and ITV Granada. We would not be doing something brand new, we would be building on the basis of something we have already. On the Granada site we already have Red Productions who rent some offices on our site and share in our production studios, post production, canteen, medical centre, car park, security, and our stationery closet if you let Andrew too near, so there is already a very good template there for us to work on. The big question is where should that hub be and, as you know, the BBC Governors are looking at four sites, and quite a lot of detailed work is underway on which of those sites to choose, and the Governors are whittling four down to two and ultimately to one. How would I like the BBC to proceed with that? With due haste would be really useful. It is quite a long time to wait until 2010 and it would be really helpful for all the parties interested in the BBC coming here and being successful in helping drive the success of our industries to understand what is the cost and what is the breakdown of cost in order for them to help them look at some of these costs and see whether there are synergies and where we can share and therefore reduce costs. I understand it will be a very difficult decision for the BBC to commit what happens to be an enormous spend out of the spending pot. I understand how hard that decision will be and I am very happy and more than willing to help look at those figures and see what best practice we can share to reduce them.

  Q537  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Is it your belief that this hub is only really viable if the BBC makes the move that it is suggesting? If it were not to happen, would the hub still be a possibility?

  Ms Woodward: Because we have a hub already, that already exists, and that hub is not going to disappear overnight.

  Q538  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But could it involve the BBC without the departments moving?

  Ms Woodward: No, you need that critical mass of creative talent, commissioning spend and the ability to transfer the talent between genres, departments, divisions and indeed companies to maximise the potential benefits.

  Q539  Chairman: Just on that question of costs, the BBC at the moment—and I think it is obviously up for debate—are basically saying this is going to cost £50 million a year and the savings will be found after 25 years. Is that the sort of basis that Granada would be interested in investing in?

  Ms Woodward: ITV Granada, as you know, is part of the ITV plc group and we are diligent in pursuing and squeezing our assets and making sure that every penny spent is profitable. We are not ashamed of that. We are very proud of being a successful commercial company. Whenever we embark on anything not of this magnitude but any sort of proposal for change and development, we have to justify internally the business case so every single penny and every single pound is drilled down, re-examined and examined again to find out if we can make it a tighter fit. That is quite a hard question to answer. I do not understand on what basis the figures have been arrived at. I do not know whether that is a fair assessment or not fair. It is difficult to know.

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