To believe that relocating Channel 4 will have a similar impact to BBC North setting up at MediaCityUK, is hugely naive.
This politically motivated stunt suggests a complete misunderstanding of what Channel 4 is about.
I know as the owner of a Manchester-based indie, I should be backing the bid to bring the channel North, but the more I look into it, the more I think it should stay put and instead invest in regional satellite bases for commissioning editors.
Let’s look at the arguments.
Nations and Regions
The key reason to move Channel 4 is to reduce the emphasis on the capital and bring in more regional voices. That’s a fantastic idea – in theory.
But there are 2 major issues here:
The first is a question of how an office in Manchester or Birmingham reflects say the views of Norfolk or Cornwall?
I’ve written hundreds of news articles about new commissions from the BBC for Prolific North, it’s great to see how many more have come to the region since the BBC set up shop here.
But that emphasis on showing that “we care for the North” has had an impact on the rest of the country. For a start, the Midlands (East and West) aren’t really feeling the regional love, and even in the North of England, there are jealous glances towards Manchester from Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle.
Moving Channel 4 to a new city may have an impact within that close geographical area, but it doesn’t automatically make it look UK-wide.
The second issue is that Channel 4 doesn’t have an in-house production team.
It’s not the same as moving BBC Radio 5 Live or BBC Breakfast, when suddenly the North got a voice and there was finally the acknowledgement that just because there was an accident on the M25 it didn’t mean the whole country shut down.
The programmes on Channel 4 are provided by indies and the majority of these are in London. Yes, Channel 4’s out of London provision is far better than ITV, but the fact that it only has commissioning editors in the capital does have an impact on its tone of voice.
That’s why having permanent regional commissioning offices would be the best solution. Commissioning editors would realise there’s life outside of London, there’s a wealth of talent beyond the capital and that there are some really important stories that aren’t being told.
All of the cities which have bid for Channel 4 have put forward really strong cases and you can’t argue with them, because the impact on the local economy would be big. We’re talking 800 jobs here, plus all the associated work.
However, if they think that it’s going to lead to a bunch of indies relocating to be near Channel 4, then that’s wide of the mark.
Look at Endemol Shine, they already have a MediaCityUK base, so it’s pretty easy to get to Birmingham, Sheffield or Liverpool. They also know that Channel 4 will come to them.
For the smaller indies, a regional base is probably easier to get to than London, so they can stay put as well.
Also, doesn’t that defeat the object? The fact is that Channel 4 should be going to the regional indies, rather than the other way round.
It wouldn’t be like MediaCityUK, where the BBC and ITV can sustain thousands of jobs and need skilled broadcasters nearby because of the amount of television and radio being made on site.
The success of MediaCityUK isn’t the BBC. The success is how well it works beyond the BBC. The companies which have no association with the corporation, but still base themselves there.
Talent is one of Channel 4’s weakest arguments and it’s the one that annoys regional people the most.
It’s the “there be dragons” feeling, that nobody outside of London is capable of operating a camera, using a computer, or decided what makes a good programme.
At the same time, the creative talent that Channel 4 supports, is indirect employment, via the indies.
Could Channel 4 be out-manoeuvred?
The fear for Channel 4 is that it could be completely out-manoeuvred.
The new Culture Secretary seems adamant that she wants Channel 4 to leave London, so Channel 4 execs have to put a strong case together about a) the economic impact they already have on the Nations and Regions; and b) how MediaCityUK has only helped the North and not the rest of the country.
For the first part, they say they invested £169m in the Nations and Regions last year and support 3,000 jobs through indies. Their regional spend is impressive compared to its competitors.
However, in the second, they have to be really careful. There are strong arguments that the BBC’s move has really only had a Northern impact, but they can’t push that too strongly, because if they were forced to relocate, MediaCityUK would be top of their list – by a mile.
That’s because the infrastructure is already in place, plus it’s a far easier sell to existing staff – having indies, BBC and ITV within walking distance, means that they’re not leaving career opportunities behind.
So, they can’t bash the BBC too much, because it’s effectively also criticising their preferred destination.
What is the solution?
In my opinion, Channel 4 (and let’s be honest, all platforms), need to start looking beyond London.
They need to have permanently staffed satellite offices at key cities around the country, to get to know suppliers and also the stories.
Putting commissioning teams around the Nations and Regions would be a far more cost-effective way to ensure that there’s a regional voice.
They’d have more local knowledge and they’d also be far more aware of the talent, rather than just relying on the bigger London companies for the majority of output.
Channel 4 and others do have “meet the commissioning editor” events they also pop up to the regions now and again. That isn’t enough and is too often seen as a ‘must do’ rather than a genuine attempt to get out and about.
Unfortunately, putting 2 or 3 people in offices up and down the country isn’t going to grab the headlines.
That’s why the whole relocation is a political stunt. To have a genuine, long-term impact on programme-making, it’s the commissioning process which needs to be rethought, not the channel.