Saving the Beeb

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We all love the BBC, don’t we?

Well, I would if I could watch it. Over here we have BBC America, which seems to have nothing on it but repeats of Top Gear, Planet Earth and Doctor Who. And, for some strange reason, endless reruns of Star Trek.
It’s very frustrating for us ex-pats: the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world, yet something called BBC America shows nothing but a few shows aimed at children and geeks. With such a broad catalogue of fantastic programming on its domestic channels, surely that’s a wasted marketing opportunity for Brand Beeb.
I have a friend who has managed to hack his computer into the real UK BBC, and I sometimes go round to his house for a cup of real tea and a dose of the latest Graham Norton or Have I Got News For You. If only iPlayer were on a subscription basis, we’d all watch it most of the time, and so would most of our American friends. But the BBC has about as much commercial nouse as any other monolithic public-funded institution – in short, none at all.
Hence in the UK the begging bowl is out: support our BBC! we only cost you 40p a day! Pleeeease keep us in our jobs for another ten years – we all have mortgages in Notting Hill to fund!
Notwithstanding the fact that I’m no longer a registered licence fee payer, I’ve been watching the debate over the BBC’s charter renewal with more than passing interest. As Chair of the North East’s creative agency Northern Film & Media (the organisation actually finds it quite useful to have a voice here in Hollywood and I’m happy to do what I can for colleagues back in God’s own country), I was recently asked to launch their campaign for the BBC to do something to help television production in the North East.
Apparently it’s the case that far fewer people watch the BBC in the North East than almost anywhere else in Britain. I already knew that:  ITV is much more popular up North, a legacy of the old Tyne Tees Television. But what NFM has also found is that the BBC collects five times as much revenue from North East licence payers as it actually spends on producing television in the region. NFM suspects there may be a connection between these two statistics.
So NFM’s team wrote a submission about it and sent it off to the DCMS, which is deciding the future of the licence fee. I added a few choice words of my own. How unfair, I said, that in Scotland and Northern Ireland the BBC is forced by its licence to spend the same amount of money it receives from its licence payers, whereas in the North East, aside from the regional news operation, it actually spends almost nothing at all. As a result, Scotland and Northern Ireland have lots of local producers in work, and in the North East, virtually none.
The BBC was rather put out. “What about those two CBBC series filmed in Rowlands Gill?” they said, “and Inspector George Gently, filmed in the glorious setting of Durham.” “Oh, and… (they were already running out of steam, I could tell) …the Great North Run, and that new BBC2 comedy starring Denise Welch set in Newcastle?”
Set in Newcastle, but actually filmed in Manchester, I retorted.
Which just about sums up the whole problem. The CBBC shows, with their Geordie accents and all, and dear old Martin Shaw’s Gently, are very nice to have, and they do employ a few of our freelancers and allow us to place trainees on location for a couple of months a year, but they basically do nothing at all for our indigenous television industry because they’re run by production teams hundreds of miles away from the North. It’s great for Virgin Trains and the Holiday Inn group, but no use for developing a permanent creative base in our region.
The commissioners, sat in their smart new offices in Broadcasting House or Salford, have never seen the need to come visiting in order to develop relationships with producers in the North East, because there’s no obligation on the BBC to spend any money East of the Pennines at all. Compare this with Glasgow, where’s there’s a massive new building with studios, commissioners and a whole network of independent producers making hundreds of hours of programmes a year.
It’s a problem that could be solved in the twinkling of an eye if, for example, the BBC set aside a small token fund for North East production, or even created a job for a commissioner for the English regions, and based him in an office with a nice view of the Quayside. Just one regular daytime series, with the smallest of daily budgets, would be enough to resurrect the North East’s entire regional television industry, provide a training ground for the creative leaders of the future, and put genuine Geordie voices on the screen.
I’m pleased to see that our campaign is already gaining traction and support. My dear friend Steve Salam, who mostly makes those irritating/jolly sofa commercials, but also won a BAFTA nomination for his excellent BBC Children’s documentary, wrote in the Journal this week: “I am finding greater opportunity getting projects off the ground in China – 14 hours’ flying time to Beijing, as opposed to three hours on the train to Manchester. The region needs a dedicated, locally based champion (with) access to funds to support development and access to network slots.”
And, I’m pleased to say, our politicians are coming to our aid. The tireless and passionate MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah, is being very supportive. She’s now shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport, and this week she helpfully wrote a letter to Tony Hall asking for a response to our complaints.
It’s going to be hard for Tony to justify the current situation. The BBC’s commissioners, all of them, have treated the region with so much disdain for so many years, none of them actually know where Newcastle is, let alone have visited it. They think that Salford cured the North’s production problem, but it has only helped the North West.  With the sword of licence fee renewal dangling above it, the BBC urgently needs to do something to prove that it cares about our region. It need all the support it can get, especially from influential Labout MPs. And we all love the BBC, don’t we?  Or we’d love to.
I just hope that, once our campaign is successful and productions start flowing, they’ll also do something about BBC America, so I’ll be able to enjoy all the new North East programmes over here. Otherwise, I may just have to come back to Newcastle to help make them.
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Tom Gutteridge is an Emmy-award-winning television producer, writer and executive. He is chair of Northern Film & Media, former chair of PACT and deputy chair of the Royal Television Society, trained as a journalist at the BBC, used to be CEO of Fremantlemedia North America, and was founder/CEO of Mentorn, creating and producing iconic shows like Challenge Anneka, Robot Wars and Paradise Hotel. He is currently CEO of Standing Stone Productions and Consultant Executive Producer for Battlebots Inc. He lives in California.

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