BBC and Birmingham; the BBC responds

BBC Director General Mark Thompson has responded to Yardley MP John Hemming’s letter…..

20th December 2011

Dear John

Thank you for your email.

In respect of your questions:

1) I understand that BBC factual programming is spread over seven sites:

Factual production is currently configured as follows:

Belfast – Current Affairs, History and Daytime (religion)
Glasgow – Arts and Science
Salford – Religion and Ethics
Birmingham – Features
Bristol – Features (including Daytime) and Natural History
Cardiff – Features
London – History, Science, Features, Current Affairs, Arts, Documentaries, Daytime.

2) I understand from the Delivery Quality First review document that it is proposed to reduce the number of sites that factual programming is done in, from seven down to six sites. Could you indicate how the different specialisms of factual programming will be spread across the remaining six sites?

That is the case. Our rationale is to get our bases down to (preferably) two bases for every genre, and to ensure that those bases are sustainable, able to compete and of a scale to justify investment in new technologies. Across the sites, production will be configured as follows:

Belfast – Current Affairs and Daytime
Glasgow – Arts (now lead) and Science (minor)
Salford – Religion and Ethics
Bristol – Features, including Daytime (now lead) and Natural History
Cardiff – Features (with Bristol) and Documentaries (now lead)
London – History, Science (lead), Features (now minor), Current Affairs (lead), Arts (now minor)

The proximity of Bristol and Cardiff means we can create a strong, collaborative features unit which combines the current output of Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff to create an in house production powerhouse for factual features.

3) Can you explain the business case for moving the Birmingham factual programming unit to Bristol? Why isn’t the opposite happening? I.e. Bristol factual programming moving to Birmingham where the land rents are significantly cheaper than Bristol?

The creative strength of in-house production is crucial to the future of the BBC. As the industry magazine ‘Broadcast’ noted recently; “In-house production has already shrunk to a point where some believe its long term future is threatened. While it’s logical for the BBC to focus on the big landmarks in natural history or current affairs that others won’t provide, there needs to be enough stuff around the edges to sustain in-house’s delicate ecology and ensure that talent can hone their skills elsewhere first.”

Because of our reduced income, we need BBC in-house production to be at the top of its game – winning more business against an extremely strong independent production community. If we fail to do this, we will need to make more savings on programmes we make for our audiences. In recent years the BBC Birmingham Factual business has shrunk, partly as a result of changes to daytime commissioning, with the loss last year of To Buy or Not to Buy and Country Tracks which have not been re-commissioned.

There has been a sizeable reduction in documentary commissions in Birmingham. Two years ago we moved production of the RHS flower shows from Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton Park and See Hear moved to the department, but the fast moving nature of the business and the recession has meant that this has not been sufficient to sustain a shrinking hub. Birmingham has just lost the Hairy Bikers commission, which would anyway force a substantial reduction of the existing base. That is the nature of this highly competitive industry, and the sad reality is that for the genres it’s competing in, the Birmingham base is too small to compete. Added to which, we would have had to invest substantially in Birmingham to get it ready for new digital technologies and that is simply not cost effective. In addition to all of the above the base would have been subjected to a further 12% reduction in line with our new productivity goals.

4) Can you confirm or deny whether the rumours that the BBC have done a deal with Bristol City Council that if you are successful in moving Birmingham’s factual programming unit to Bristol, the Council will financially support, either directly or indirectly, the creation of a new BBC Bristol building, away from its present location in Broadcasting House, Whiteladies Road, Clifton?

I can advise you that there is no truth whatsoever in such a suggestion.

5) Have you considered moving any of the present London based factual programming to Birmingham? If not, why not?

Bristol is strong, growing and has a double anchor through the presence of the world famous Natural History Unit and the site’s proximity to Cardiff – enabling us to make more efficient use of an existing site and significantly reduce back office costs as a percentage of spend, and thus to put more money on screen.

We did move the RHS programmes to Birmingham; we have moved arts and science programming to Scotland; documentaries to Wales in line with our commitment to spend 50% of production outside London. However, as I have said, the key factor for in house production to thrive is critical mass and we cannot sustain the number of bases we have and achieve that mass. Birmingham is the least sustainable factual base we have in Features and it simply makes sense to merge it with Bristol and Cardiff.

6) What will happen to the space created within the BBC Birmingham premises at the MailBox, if the factual programming unit moves to Bristol?

As you may know, the BBC is seeking to reduce its property footprint by 30%. As part of this reduction we are currently reviewing our property options and considering what we will move where. As you’ll appreciate this is a complex exercise and it would be wrong to comment or speculate on how this might impact upon one specific place.

However, I do think it is important to emphasise that the BBC is not leaving Birmingham. In addition to all the existing programmes and services I have mentioned which will stay in Birmingham; it is also worth recognising that over half our current network spend is in Drama. We have just added a further 20% spending to that through the new Father Brown drama commission and we are extremely happy with our relationship with the University and the Drama Village which is allowing our drama team the ability to use new production techniques and to win new business. We are also forecasting a growth in our independent commissioning spend in the Midlands which we expect will start to come through in 2013/2014.

I hope this helps to clarify the reasons for our decision.

Best wishes

Mark Thompson

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