The BBC’s networks – Portraying Communities

Jana Bennett, Director of Vision, BBC
Cardiff and Co Ambassadors Event
26 July 2010

I am delighted to be here at this wonderful new building, in Cardiff Bay. A big thank you to Bill Savage and Cardiff and Co for inviting me today.  And to Olwen Moseley for her kind introduction.

Before I begin, let me just show you a quick clip that nicely introduces what it is I want to talk about today…

Captain Jack neatly summed up what it is I want to say today. Filmed just around the corner from here,  Torchwood showed audiences “something fantastic” while evoking a strong sense of place and identity.

Cardiff has a very positive story to tell. One of creative renewal – not only of buildings like this, and areas like the Bay but of a re-invigorated production sector. A story in which I am proud that the BBC has played a part and also appreciate the huge support from many of those in this room.

Over the last few years, I have witnessed first hand the talent, skills and expertise that exists here in Wales – across all the creative industries. This generates a huge amount of confidence and ambition – which are the real secrets of success.

These days the name Doctor Who is synonymous with Wales and Cardiff. Re-launching the Doctor after his 17 years away , sparked off a chain of brilliant and successful new drama productions here. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures from BBC Wales, and  Merlin, made by Shine, have all built the critical mass of talent to make  Wales a world class drama centre.

And they keep on coming. Soon we’ll be showing a brand new version of that great television favourite Upstairs Downstairs – no doubt keeping Wales’s reputation for regeneration of much loved brands intact!  You will also be seeing the new series of the BBC 3 hit Being Human,  and a new daytime Drama, Indian Doctor, starring Sanjeev Bhaskar – both of them made and set in Wales…and just last night, the new style Sherlock in pride of place  on BBC One – though we could never take Baker Street out! This is set to be one of the biggest dramas of the year alongside Doctor Who.

The BBC has always had a very close relationship with its audience in Wales. But I am also well aware that, in these devolved times, the scope and remit of the BBC – and how it spends licence fee payers’ money – can be the subject of pretty frank and robust discussion here in Cardiff. I hope that discussion can continue here today.

As the Director of Vision I’m responsible for what appears on the screens of our 7 TV channels , and a lot of our content online. In terms of investment, that’s a pretty hefty slice of the license fee cake.

So let’s start with the money – though I certainly don’t want to end there. I’m looking forward to spending much of today’s event discussing more compelling things such as great programmes,  great storytelling., and how we can use them to really connect with people’s lives.

One of the big BBC stories of the past few years has been the huge increase in network production spend outside London – in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions.  Our commitment is to increase that spend to 50% of the total production budget from outside London by 2016.

If you just take a look outside, you’ll see the tangible proof of what I am talking about:  the JCBs are hard at work on the other side of Roath Basin, as the new BBC Wales drama production centre begins to take shape….

The new studios when they open next summer will be home to a fantastic range of drama productions. From the daily soap Pobol y Cwm to those pillars of the BBC network schedules – Doctor Who, Casualty and the Sarah Jane Adventures.  And I know it won’t stop there.

I am convinced the new Drama Village will be a magnet for talent – and a catalyst for the wider development of the creative sector in Wales.  That’s also the vision behind the Media City development in Salford , and  Pacific Quay on  the Clyde in Glasgow, home  to an expanding network TV production centre in Scotland .

But this story is about much more than JCBs, bricks and mortar, or even great pieces of architecture. It is about the BBC rethinking its relationship with the whole of the UK.

That means moving away from the old hub and spoke model where London was the only centre of excellence. Instead , we want a network of centres to make the most of  the talent, skill, brilliance where it  lives, closest to the audience it serves.

But what does this mean in cash terms?

We have seen a 50% increase in the level of network production in the nations in the past twelve months, from 7.9% of total network programme spend in 2008 to 11.7% in 2009.  We are well on the way to meeting our target to increase network programme spend from the nations to 17% by 2016.

From the very beginning, I have believed that this shift had to be about far more than economics, it is about delivering top quality television programmes for audiences, by harnessing the best talent– wherever it comes from and whatever accent it speaks with.

When I launched our Out of London Strategy nearly two years ago – I quoted Van Gogh – who had some very interesting things to say about not wasting creative talent. This is how he put it: “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passers by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way.”

Well, there may have been times in the past when some of you here have felt like that about being in Wales – as have others, no doubt, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the English regions.  Not anymore.  Our approach to moving production to places like this is that it allows us to unlock talent right across the UK – there may still be a few dinosaurs around who really do believe that all the people who can make brilliant TV by definition live in London; we always knew this was rubbish but now every single day we are proving it.

The changes have already been significant.  The audience may still assume that every time they see a big, studio-based  entertainment show, it’s coming from that iconic palace of pleasure – TV Centre in London.

In fact it often isn’t.

The Weakest Link and the new series of Tonight’s the Night with John Barrowman are just two examples of programmes now made entirely in Scotland.  Add to that  the existing Dragons Den, Mastermind and Question of Sport from Manchester, and soon the picture begins to look very different.

And it’s not just in Entertainment. We also have Casualty and Crimewatch on their way to Wales, The Review Show, Imagine and soon Question Time in Scotland, a new series, Sunday Morning Live, from Northern Ireland, as well as award winning dramas like Occupation and Five Minutes of Heaven.

I am convinced that we need to be louder and prouder about where our shows are being made. We need to tell the audience how the BBC has changed, and clearly point to where our programmes are coming from.  We’re beginning to do this already. The opening titles of Doctors are now recognisably of Birmingham. Some of you will no doubt have caught Tonight’s the Night on Saturday, introduced clearly that it was coming from Glasgow. Let’s not be afraid of celebrating a sense of place in our shows.

We know what a positive impact having programmes made in their area can have on people.  It is abundantly clear for instance that  here  in Wales there is immense pride in the success of Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures. You only have to visit the shrine to Ianto Jones – only a few hundred yards away from where we are today – to see how people have taken such productions to their hearts.

Moving production to the nations and English Regions; building it in other places is clearly a good thing.  But there’s more.  None of this transfer of investment will be entirely worth our while unless we gain a creative benefit. A creative benefit in terms of the voices we hear, the stories we tell, the pictures we paint.  We want to tap more deeply, and more broadly, into the experiences of different communities across the UK, and bring our output even closer to their lives.

We’re not there yet. It’ll take time. To use a Gavin and Stacey analogy – we’re at Chievely Services. Halfway there. We’ve moved the productions; now we must sharpen our focus on the editorial benefit I’ve been describing.

One of the BBC’s core purposes is to represent the UK to itself, and that means all of the UK, its nations, regions and communities.  That was put into the BBC Charter for good reason.

Our audiences are probably more cosmopolitan and outward looking than ever before, but that only serves to strengthen the value they place on their own nations, cities, and communities, and in shaping who they are.

In many ways there’s nothing new in the primacy of a genuine and accurate sense of place and community.

It has been the lifeblood of British drama and comedy from the very earliest days of television.  Just think of Auf Wiedersehen Pet – several regional British identities brought together on a building site in Germany – or Ballykissangel, Boys from the Blackstuff or Coronation Street.

The BBC has often successfully tapped into distinct regional voices because so many creative people – and writers in particular- have understood that a genuine sense of place and community will help draw an audience into a story and win their hearts.

Ruth Jones and James Corden most recently created the hit comedy Gavin and Stacey whose characters and structure were entirely built around geography and a sense of community.  It wasn’t commissioned because it delivered portrayal of Wales and Essex, but because it was full of great characters with universal appeal.  But its impact came from its quality and from its authenticity– Jones and Corden were writing from real experience and a deep understanding of the two communities.

To take an example further afield. David Simon spent two decades working as a crime journalist in Baltimore before he wrote The Wire. He got a lot of the most minute details right – even the way people eat crab in Baltimore is different apparently.  The drama had universal significance, but people in Baltimore spotted those details as a mark of its authenticity and loved it all the more.

This is an important insight but one which perhaps we at the BBC have not always given sufficient weight to. To some extent we didn’t have to, the old regional structure of ITV meant it had become their USP, and they did it very well. But those days have all but gone. As a public service broadcaster the responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders  – we must  now be more deliberate and systematic in how we address the issue of portrayal.

While we can point to many, many positive examples of programmes which portray different parts of the UK powerfully to all of us, I believe there is more we can do.

There is sometimes a tendency for broadcasters to think that basing shows nowhere in particular is the safest course – because anything too specific might alienate the majority of the audience who do not live there.  I don’t believe this is so – and I will make this clear to our programme makers and commissioners.

I believe if you take the plunge and choose to set programming in specific places,  you have a win/win situation.

The people who live in that place will love the programme all the more – for allowing them to see themselves and be seen by others on television.

And the people who don’t live in the location – well they live somewhere too – and they know that what they are seeing is a real place a real somewhere, and they enjoy the sense of discovery, of finding some things the same and some things different.

In short, we must move our programmes from nowhere to somewhere.

Let me reassure you though – I didn’t just wake up this morning and decide we need to improve portrayal on our network programming.  This message is coming through loud and clear from our audience:  they want to see their communities, and to hear their voices on our TV programmes.  These things are powerfully part of the identity of each and every one of us.  They really, really matter to our audiences and to me.

A few months ago we commissioned some research, speaking to audiences across the UK, which gave us concrete evidence and fascinating insights.

Quality, our audiences told us wherever we went, matters above all. That came as no surprise perhaps.  You only have to see the success of programmes like Top Gear, Luther and Being Human to know that quality programming will pull in audiences wherever they may be.

However, when it came to the issue of portrayal of their area on network TV, the picture across the UK was not a uniform one.

The research shows us that the further away our audience live from London, the less happy they are with the way they are portrayed on TV.

Londoners not surprisingly were not particularly exercised on the subject.  But, in parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North of England people did feel strongly that they wanted to see more of their part of the world on television.

This feeling was echoed by focus groups during research across the UK. – from Anglesey to Cornwall and Londonderry/Derry to Peterhead.

The further away you go from London, the greater the priority for portrayal becomes. And even within individual Nations, the further away people were from the urban areas, the more they felt they wanted to see more about themselves on network tv.

People in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all understandably concerned about more portrayal resulting in some of the more persistent stereotypes in their nations.  No-one was accusing the BBC of peddling these but we all know what they are: in Scotland, much has been said about the need to get beyond the stereotypes of “shooting up or shooting grouse”; in Wales the worry is still about coal miners, choirs and of course sheep.  In Northern Ireland people understandably felt that they wanted portrayal of their area to go beyond the legacy of 30 years of sectarian violence. The audience doesn’t want to be belittled.

But there’s more, some of it quite positive.  Here in Wales, the impact of Doctor Who and Torchwood being made here have raised both confidence and expectation.   People also want to see more programmes which reflect contemporary Wales. Which is probably why Gavin and Stacey scored so highly here.

What everyone wanted above all in TV programmes was quality.  That’s great and that will always be our biggest priority.  But it is also true that when people know that a programme is made near where they live, then that can make the value of it to them even greater, the enjoyment even deeper.

But – and it is a big butonly when we get it right. Getting the right references, the right accents – these things really matter.  If we are consistently accurate about these things, then people will love our output even more.

What is really interesting is that the performance of programmes which do portray specific parts of the UK bears out what the audience is telling us.  They’re not just saying this matters – they’re proving it in their viewing behaviour.

Good programmes will perform well across the UK. But where they are set in specific locations, they perform even better in those areas.

Trawlermen, which followed Scottish fishermen, had 7% more audience share in Scotland than the UK average. Gavin and Stacey had a 10 point lead in Wales, and Best: His mother’s son (about George Best) had a massive 15 point  lead in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, changing the way we do things can bring great dividends too.

Take Live at the Apollo. A highly successful programme, featuring comedians such as Jack Dee and Michael Macintyre.. But when you looked below the surface at the figures it does really well in the South and Midlands. But slightly less well everywhere else. But when we launched  Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow – which follows a similar format but visits cities around  the UK – and showcases the best local talent – it does well everywhere.

We took the decision to make it a roadshow – because that would add texture, authenticity and help build a stronger connection with our audience.   Key to its success is McIntyre’s approach – he makes a point of cracking risky jokes about the places he visits, but looking the local audience in the eye while he’s doing it – and some of the local talent he showcases adds a whole new dimension to an already successful format;   It’s confident, grown-up comedy which plays with identity and accent in an interesting way. Watching it you know there’s a chance of seeing someone a bit like you, wherever you may live.

Our research also explored what kind of portrayal drives the most impact with audiences.  Is it accent, or setting, or cultural references?

You won’t be surprised to hear that accent – while welcome – doesn’t do the trick on its own. So, while people in Wales are certainly proud of Huw Edwards, that doesn’t make the Ten O’ Clock news any more Welsh than Newsnight.

Instead, audiences told us that true representation means seeing on screen the world that they inhabit. It’s the locations, the cultural references that root a programme in its locality. It’s putting the landmark back into television.

Now, some may argue that this need not be the preoccupation of the network commissioners. Surely these audiences have local opt-out programming. Well, yes, that is true – and these programmes perform a fundamental role in allowing the nations of the UK to speak to themselves, to explore their own communities, their own identity and culture.

But that is not enough for audiences. They expect to see their lives and their stories being shared with audiences in other parts of the UK.  They want to be seen and to be known.  Russell T. Davies once described his native Wales as “the unseen nation”.  Feeling invisible can shade for some into feeling unimportant, excluded.

If the BBC is moving towards being a more inclusive broadcaster then we must pay close attention to the issue of geographic portrayal alongside our other important commitments to diversity of all kinds.

Our audiences say it matters. However, we aren’t doing it for credit from our audiences – because it’s what they expect as licence fee payers. And, as I said earlier, our charter says it matters too.  We’re the BBC. We’re not Sky or ITV. We are not driven by corporate pressures and economic interests.

This is our challenge. Being a public broadcaster sets us apart from our commercial competitors.  Quite rightly, the public – who fund us – expect us to be inclusive and wide-ranging in the picture we paint of the United Kingdom

So – what’s going to change?  I’d say – to coin a phrase invented here in Wales – delivering stronger portrayal is a process not an event.  But in 3 years time I believe BBC network TV programmes will reflect and celebrate life across the UK in far greater breadth and depth than you see today.  We will have built on some of the strengths we already have, and made them more visible and consistent across our channels.

We are already doing a great deal, but we can do more, and we can be more purposeful about it.

So How are we going to do it?

Well, first of all the key decision makers – my team of channel controllers and commissioners – are very clear about our direction.

Over the past few months, we have been exploring ways to make sure that from now on we are more deliberate and more consistent in how we reflect the UK.  We will  regularly asses our output through the prism of geography: ensuring that we are covering the ground more effectively, looking out for those parts of the UK that we may not have focussed on, and also looking at audiences and how they respond to our programmes in different ways in different parts of the UK.

With more production based in the nations and English regions, we now have more programme makers in more locations than ever before, both independent and in house, and we also have more commissioning roles around the UK.

All of these teams, as well as the Commissioners in London, will be encouraged and empowered to think creatively and ambitiously about ideas, formats, and writers who can deliver distinctive voices with an authentic sense of place.

Sometimes I suspect that writers, and programme makers, have assumed that this kind of focus would not be welcomed by commissioners and so have deliberately avoided offering those projects that would deliver portrayal.

I want them to get the message out loud and clear that we want fewer programmes from “nowhere” in particular, and more from and about “Somewhere”.  That way we will get both the quality and the authenticity that audiences tell us they want.

Torchwood may have had its fair share of aliens and a few cannibals in the Brecon Beacons I seem to recall, but we know that one of the things which made it such a success was Russell T. Davies’s decision to set it here in Wales, in this city, which in the end helped to define the show.  He didn’t see setting his science fiction drama in this city as an impediment to scale, ambition, risk taking – quite the reverse.

This isn’t just about perspective, about writers and their distinctive local voices.

Settings and contributors have a major part to play in how we build stronger portrayal into our programmes.  The One Show is a shining example I think of a programme that covers the length and breadth of the UK, without being worthy or self-conscious about it.

Did you know that all of the films on The One Show are made outside London? And of course the news today that the wonderful Alex Jones will be joining Jason Mumford on the sofa is another great example of growing talent. More than a hundred of them made here in Wales. I’m certain that on The One Show there is possibly a wider range of accents heard, and landscapes seen than in almost anything we do.

The One Show is a relative newcomer, but we should not forget heritage brands like Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise and Countryfile which also films around the UK all the year round without making a huge fuss about doing it. And we probably haven’t been very good at making sure that our audiences really know where the BBC is filming and where it has been – we will make it clearer how broad our geographical footprint actually is.

The most important thing of all is that delivering true portrayal must be a virtuous circle of bringing together brilliance, talent and skill to do the right thing , and getting an even better creative outcome which the audience will recognise and value.

So let me start here and now by giving you a few examples of upcoming programmes that  will be doing some of what I have been talking about today.

Today I can announce two new productions have been commissioned from Scotland : Young James, about the early life of James Herriot,  and an adaption of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. Both firmly rooted in Glasgow and Edinburgh. They will both broadcast on BBC One next year. They join Single Father on BBC One and Lip Service on BBC 3, to create an exciting new slate of drama for Scotland.

In Wales we’re also working with Ruth Jones to develop a new entertainment show for BBC Two. And I’m sure some of you have been following Wild Wales with Iolo Williams on BBC Two which has performed well across the UK. Next spring, Village SOS, made by BBC Wales, will follow the transformation of six communities, one in which will be in Wales and another in Fife.

This is where our strategy to increase production outside of London is delivering dividends in terms of what we see on screen.

But it’s important to add that our creative leaders in Wales as everywhere else will not thank us if we restrict them artificially only to telling stories about their patch.  If we’d done that we would never have got Tribe, and Last Chance to See with Stephen Fry.  But there is a great deal we can and will be doing to highlight the richness and variety of the United Kingdom in our programmes.

The BBC occupies a privileged and precious place in the lives of audiences across the UK.

However, audiences in Wales – along with those throughout the UK’s nations and regions – have the right to expect that we will repay that trust by continuing to evolve, by exploring new opportunities to connect with them and reflect them, by being innovative, by being bold, by being imaginative.  And by telling their stories.

As I said earlier, it will take more than bricks, mortar and JCBs to change the DNA of the BBC. To make it equitable in terms of economy and portrayal we will need to move from “nowhere” to “somewhere.” – and a lot of the time that somewhere will be right here.

Thank you.

Jana Bennett is Director of Vision at the BBC

Also within Politics and Policy