A new headquarters marks the beginning of a new era for the broadcaster – and maybe for the rest of the country’s London-centric media
This week I found myself in Specsavers talking to a teenage assistant who had recently finished a college course in media and film, but now found himself selling glasses and doing eye tests.
He spoke enthusiastically of his abilities as a photographer and in making short films and music videos.
But as he lived far from London he saw no prospect of a media career, and was obliged to work on the local high street.
Now optometry is a vital service, but a job at Specsavers, it seemed to me, was a waste of this young man’s obvious creative ambitions, even if it does have some of the most quick-witted marketing in British retail.
The London problem
Our media remains overwhelmingly London-centric and university-educated. In an already deeply divided country, this fuels the idea that its output is the not-to-be-trusted perspective of a distant elite that’s happy to leave untold the stories of those from other places and backgrounds.
While the UK economy benefits from London’s global status as a centre of creative excellence, its cost of living is inhibiting the diversity of the industries that are paid to define the nation’s identity. I’m hoping that the launch of Channel 4’s new HQ in Leeds on Wednesday will help to change that.
So far 50 staff have moved in but by next year the broadcaster will be operating from the Majestic building, a century-old former cinema that will house a team of 200. Viewers will really notice the difference when a new daily show arrives in the 2020 schedule, broadcast direct from West Yorkshire.
Change to nation’s creativity
It’s easy to see this as merely a win for Leeds, which narrowly pipped Manchester and Birmingham in the beauty contest to become Channel 4’s new base.
But the business model of this unique public service broadcaster means that the shift has the potential to be a game-changer for our creative sector nationwide.
Channel 4 does not make its own programmes but commissions them from independent producers. Its staff in Leeds will reach out to film-makers in Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool and elsewhere.
The channel is opening a new hub in Glasgow, which will look for stories from Northern Ireland as well as Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, while the new Bristol office will connect with TV companies in the West and Midlands.
Originality of ideas and a depth of production talent are both crucial to the role the UK will have in creating content that will travel the world in the streaming wars being fought by global tech giants.
‘Not about tokenistic programming’
This is “not about tokenistic programming”, says Sinead Rocks, Channel 4’s managing director for nations and regions. “It can’t be underestimated how big a shift this is for Channel 4, because throughout its entire history it has been based in one building from a creative point of view.”
That’s the custom-made Richard Rogers creation in Horseferry Road, in London. Go back a generation and British television was arguably more geographically representative.
Studios like Granada in Manchester and Anglia in Norwich were sources of regional pride. The BBC operated a sprawling facility at Birmingham’s Pebble Mill and Channel 4 made a statement by commissioning a flagship music show, The Tube, from Tyne Tees in Newcastle.
Efficiency savings at the big broadcasters and London’s dominance of the advertising industry were factors in retrenchment to the capital.
“I’m part of the generation that had to go to London to grow my career,” says Rocks, who is from Belfast, where she began working at the BBC.
Credit must go to former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson who started to reverse London’s dominance by moving significant parts of the BBC – notably the sports and children’s departments and Radio 5 Live – to Media City in Salford in 2011.
Channel 4 offering five days’ paid leave and up to £500 to entice staff to move to Leeds HQ
Rocks was part of that move as BBC director of education. She says the critical difference with Channel 4’s relocation is that it is “putting genre heads with power to commission outside of London”.
Key figures such as head of drama Caroline Hollick have an opportunity to give a platform to previously-ignored film-makers and on-screen talent.
This move could be even more transformational. Behind the scenes, Channel 4 is hatching an idea called ‘The Academy’, in which it will work with the education sector to bring “a much more diverse range of young people” into the sector without them having to go to London.
She praises Manchester’s The Sharp Project as a model in providing TV craft skills and paid placements for “young people who would never have considered a job in the media before”.
Our creative talent needs to be nurtured and offered a career path – not to think it should have gone to Specsavers.