Britain’s creative kickstarter: the BBC

Want to know the value of the BBC to Britain’s £76.4 billion creative economy? Have a look at the unique impact of its Manchester investment.

Alex Connock
19 August 2015
Lowry Manchesterhi.jpg

Lowry Theatre, Salford

There is a place a lot like Northern California – where rushing rivers tumble over boulders through rocky outcrops and pine forest. But it’s twenty minutes from downtown Stockport. You could spend a sunny day driving about in the Goyt Valley, and confuse the geography with upland California – until you switched on your car radio. At that point, you would fall into a canyon of difference.  

In Northern California, scan across the entire FM waveband, and you might never find a station to stop on. It’s 24-hour ‘adult contemporary’ formats, spiced up with religious radio – a small ditch of choice that stretches from John Bon Jovi to Kanye, via rehashed Old Testament admonitions. 

But in the hills of Northern Britain, your radio choice is actually Biblical in scale.  Alongside many genres of music, you could hear Melvyn Bragg exploring Abelard and Heloise, or the theological differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, or the vacuum of space. You could hear the Art of Self-Borrowing as explored through J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass. You could listen to an Alan Ayckbourn play or hear Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge characters brought to life. You could be transported, via broadcasting of unchallenged intellectual richness, to one of the finest libraries in the history of the world. 

And what makes the difference? The BBC. 

For the last 60 years, the BBC has been to radio and TV programme-making what Apple is to personal computing today. The world champion. The sine qua non. The BBC has quite possibly been the only UK industrial entity that has consistently been in the global premier league in its field for over half a century. Can you name another? British Rail? The Royal Bank of Scotland? 

Industrially-speaking, the North is a handy testbed for the wider impact of the BBC on our creative industry, far from where the policies are made in smoke-free rooms – be that Washington or London – and right where the programmes are made and actually enjoyed.  

We can see how the BBC impacted on different parts of the North of England when it moved major assets there, and what that might say in microcosm about the corporation’s role within the British creative economy as a whole. And since we started with California, we can comparatively think about how the ‘cluster’ effect of California’s long-term embrace of digital creative companies brings extraordinary compound benefits way beyond the value or cost of any given single player. 

We can also consider how unthinkable it would be there to consider the idea of dropping that most precious of industrial entities: a truly world class player. Try telling the burghers of San Francisco that Apple isn’t worth having any more, and they’d chuck you off a cliff. We should feel the same about the Beeb. 

The BBC North Experiment 

Media City Salford .jpeg

For a simple test of what the creative economy of Britain would be like without the BBC, we can look at the differing evolutions of the creative economies of the North West and North East over the past five years, in the context of the BBC moving substantial assets into one place (Manchester) but not another (Newcastle). It’s not a scientific experiment of course, but it does offer a beguiling indication: where BBC North went made a far bigger, wider difference to the creative economy.

Raw metropolitan prejudice, much of which would resonated nicely within the snotty Parisian court circa 1750, was directed at the BBC’s 2010-2013 implementation of a strategic move of certain departments such as Sport and Children’s to Salford (which is in Manchester, unless you are into local council sophistry). A stream of prejudiced negativity, often from nameless BBC staffers, was directed against the very idea of moving programme production out of London to one of the other cities that paid for it.  

The general theme was moral outrage: how dare they? Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘Like it or not, London is Britain’s cultural capital. The attempt to shift one of its greatest institutions to the North makes no more sense than greening Abu Dhabi.’ 


On the Abu Dhabi point, Hastings disregarded that many of the biggest success stories of British broadcasting over the past 60 years had already originated in the North including the world’s most successful long running soap (Coronation Street), the two most cerebral long running formats on British TV (University Challenge and Mastermind), dramas from Red Dwarf to Prime Suspect and Colditz (surely World War 2 buff Hastings’ ideal show?) plus current affairs from World in Action onwards. 

Manchester’s opponents also arrogantly disregarded the principle that there could be any hypothecated political and democratic logic to locating the production dimension of a publicly-funded entity more fairly across its funding regions.

And above all they disregarded the economic desirability of creating a ‘northern powerhouse’ cluster (to borrow a phrase from George Osborne) of the creative economy in Manchester. The conceit was that creative capital belonged in a single overcrowded political capital - and that conceit was wrong, because the BBC North project has worked.

The BBC with its reported £500m investment (the exact level depends who you ask) kickstarted Media City to the place it is today – a remarkably wide campus of production which encompasses not only major departments but also (often unreported) major teams of BBC digital R&D workers. Media City has concurrently added ITV output spanning drama, entertainment and factual. It has added outposts of large indie groups and distributors (such as the Red Production company, or the one I run, Shine North, part of the global Endemol Shine Group). It now has some 3,000 TV workers. And it has digital and marketing start-ups, a university campus, a brand new college for 14 to 18-year-olds targeting digital employment, and much more. 

As Media City came on stream, I sat as chairman of the Royal Television Society North West across a doubling in entries to our annual awards process from 2012-14 – and by no means just from imported BBC entrants. We viewed entries as a wider production sector bellweather, and we saw cultural engagement rise in doubled attendance at events from quizzes to talks about the how-to of documentary making.  

And in turn that multiplied beyond, into a wider – if hard to attribute – renaissance in Manchester’s creative economy, which saw a step jump in the digital sector over exactly the same period. Manchester had 70 per cent growth in new digital companies incorporated between 2010 and 2013, against a nationwide clusters average of 53 per cent, as measured by the Tech Nation report (Morris and Penido 2014). 

The report also said there were now 56,145 digital jobs in Greater Manchester, and that 61 to 80 per cent of survey respondents identified access to talent and social networks as the key benefits of being in the region: ‘Manchester’s long-standing media industry has now gone digital. The average company turnover growth is one of the highest in the UK’ said the report. This was cluster economics at work. ‘Some £3.5 billion has been invested to support Manchester’s digital and technology infrastructure. For example, Salford’s £950 million Media City UK, Europe’s first purpose-built business hub for the creative and digital industries.’

What the BBC brought to Manchester was critical mass. It brought strategic scale to a strategic industry. It was a world champion, championing a world class production economy. It worked. 

Compare that with the North East 

Newcastle view August 2011.jpeg

Meanwhile the BBC didn’t do anything of the sort in Newcastle. 

They didn’t move any departments to the Tyne, or inventive digital units. They didn’t open any staff canteens or national newsrooms or breakfast shows. Granted, they have made superb drama and kids productions – estimated at a £6m annual annual contribution to the region’s economy by Northern Film and Media. Some of them have been seriously successful, like Wolfblood. But even the most ardent BBC corporate PR person couldn’t argue the corporation invested at the same permanent scale as in Manchester.    

And as a direct result, TV output in the region, and the kicker effect that has on the rest of the creative sector, is, in relative terms, flatlined.

Andy Becket wrote a Guardian article in May 2014 titled 'The North East of England: Britain’s Detroit', positing wide decline and an unclear economic raison d’etre. It was widely derided in the region as untrue and unfair, and certainly in the digital sector there are signs of real progress.  

Again, the Tech Nation report identified strength in IT-based software engineering and back-office IT support businesses (not least the FTSE 100-listed Sage and leading games developers include Ubisoft Reflections, Epic Games UK and CCP Games).  Fully 77% of companies surveyed reported belief they are part of a digital cluster.

But what was absent was critical mass in the creative media industries of TV, video content, radio at the same level as was seeded in the North West by the BBC’s market intervention. In the Tech Nation’s skills mapping, there was less adjacency for North East skills bases with the kind of creative production skills the BBC is bringing to the North West. To Manchester’s 70% growth in new digital companies incorporated between 2010-13, the North East had just 23%, way below the national average.

And why does that matter? Because what happened in the creative elements of the digital content economy in Newcastle, or rather what didn’t happen in terms of cluster economics, jobs growth, ‘northern powerhouse’ - is a foretaste of what could happen to the British creative sector as a whole without the extraordinary kickstarting effect of the BBC at its heart. 


San Francisco.jpg

In 1913 a young man was sent from New York to Flagstaff, Arizona to find a location to shoot an ‘Indians’ (his word) movie.  

Two weeks went by - then a telegram arrived from Flagstaff: “No good for our purpose. Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood.”  

That was from Cecil B De Mille, and Sam Goldfish (who later changed his name to Sam Goldwyn) telegraphed back: “Rent barn but on month to month basis. Don’t make any long term commitment.” 

At that point, no feature film had ever been made in Hollywood. These were the first guys in town to do more than a short. Their seed investment, and that of others, was one step in the Hollywood cluster being born. And once the cluster was in place, it became unstoppable – an industry worth $679 billion to the US in 2014. 

In a 2014 paper on Why Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley, the authors concluded that the principle reason it happened was not that it had inate geographic advantages, or a better technological heritage. It was that the entrepreneurs behind key businesses like Fairchild Semiconductor, who achieved some success in the 1960s and early 1970s, were prepared to pay their success forward by backing others, thereby creating a cluster effect. This didn’t even happen in Dallas, where Texas Instruments had better technology.

Again – it’s clusters of world-beating expertise based on seed investment and re-investment.  

The BBC as core of the UK creative cluster 

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That’s why this debate matters. The creative industries are worth £76.9 billion per year to the UK economy, according to a DCMS report published January 2015. And at the heart of that is a core investor, in which as a nation we have a controlling shareholding: the BBC.  

We have devoted seven decades of remarkably stable national investment into that corporation, and it is repaying us. Not only with a cultural richness that keeps us entertained on the Peak District moors, not only with a cluster of employment in cities Manchester that is helping to drive a dynamic rebirth of the city’s economy as a digital production and tech hub with critical mass, but also with a production industry that is British and world-class like very few others today.  

If we tinker with the BBC we take a risk of undoing our uniqueness and becoming like everyone else - without the global impact of a BBC-powered creative economy. 

So reform the BBC? Sure. But don’t deny for a moment it’s pivotal role as the UK’s region-boosting, world-beating creative kickstarter.

This is an extract from the forthcoming book: 

The BBC Today: Future Uncertain. Ed. John Mair, Professor Richard Tait and Professor Richard Lance Keeble. Abramis Bury St Edmunds: 5 September 2015

Isbn: 9781845496562

(Copies available from [email protected] and on Amazon)

All the images in this piece were provided by the author

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