The alleged movers and shakers of visual media gathered at the Lowry Theatre on 19th Jan 2009 to indulge in a blah blah fest on the future of broadcasting in the nations (i.e. Wales, Scotland and Ulster) and regions (here there and everywhere that is not London and the South East).
This 16th conference was unfortunately mis-timed to coincide with the publication of the all-important Ofcom report into the future of public service broadcasting. All speakers agreed that public service broadcasting is a force for good, it is necessary for democracy.
However apart from that broad agreement there was little blue-sky innovation on how quality public service broadcasting could be sustained.
Peter Williams, a 40 year stalwart of quality documentaries and founder of the United for Local Television Group, seemed to think that we should get more local. His group wants to open up a massive auction of licences for a network of truly local stations across the country.
In Williams’ world every metropolitan borough and county area would have its own local channel connected to a new overarching network, Channel 6. But who is going to pay for all this local output? I cannot foresee overseas broadcasters queuing up to buy locally produced programmes about bell ringing in Tintwistle or womens’ groups in Cheetham Hill.
Williams was confident that a large source of funding could come from local authority councils. You what! I can hear the champagne corks popping in every rotten borough town hall in the country as council leaders rush out to get image makeovers and increase the number of media advisers on the already swollen payroll.
What guarantees of editorial independence, I asked Mr Williams, if the purse strings are controlled by the likes of John Merry? He seemed to think that local independent trusts would see to that. But if he thinks that trusts could operate independently of political pressure or patronage he really is living on a different planet.
UK 2009 equals image obsessed councils that try to micro manage every morsel of local news output to their advantage. Williams should talk to local newspaper editors who are constantly force fed a diet of council speak, with under paid, over worked, under staffed journalists trying to cut through it. Any criticism of council policy gets harder.
On one hand, the commercial world credit crunch has made local publications more reliant on the huge council advertising budgets and might not want to rock any boats. On the other, councils are increasingly withdrawing their advertising into their own Pravda style magazines. Democracy and accountability is getting lost somewhere in the middle.
The United for Local Television Group don’t really seem to have thought their business model through. Italy has more TV channels than any country on earth but the vast majority of it is crap. Because the Italian channels that in some cases broadcast audiences of only 10,000 struggle to make it pay, big business in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi stepped in.
He bankrolled the channels which are now the broadcasting equivalent of a castrato singing soprano to old Silvio’s tune.
Take Channel M, it is hardly adequate for the diverse needs of 2.6 million residents of Greater Manchester. And if what we want in Salford differs from what is important to viewers in Wigan or Ramsbottom then how would Channel 6 square the circle for viewers in say Barrow or Windermere when trying to manage a Cumbrian channel?
If it is not broke why try to fix it? Oh sorry it already is broke, as ITV cuts back on its local news output and fails to commission hardly any local interest documentaries.
The big problem for localised TV is that although most people think it would be a good thing, nobody would really watch it, except if it was showing a feature on their own wacky pub darts team that had shaved the left side of their heads for charity. If it’s the pub team from the next town doing it, then nobody gives a toss.
The afternoon brought media stars like Shameless creator Paul Abbot on to the platform. Abbott bemoaned the lack of investment in Northern writers, complaining he had to pay for new writers out of his own pocket.
“Research and development is not on the agenda and it needs to be so we can put bodies in the shiny new offices” warned Abbott.
Having worked extensively down south I considered if life was that much easier for London writers. Not really, the big difference is, they have a theatre in London. That is where the research and development is carried out; prolific London writers like Tony Marchant spent years honing their craft in the vibrant theatre scene there. It nurtures new writing better than anything a once in a while chance to write an episode of Coronation Street, Shameless or Hollyoaks can.
If Abbott and others are really interested in developing their new writing talent perhaps they should get back to basics and support the theatre. Especially the small theatres on the fringe like The Green Room, The Contact and even the old Salford Players theatre.
Salford has not had a professional theatre that stages its own productions for over 40 years - something Media City might consider when it apportions its own research and development resources.
What I find worrying is the difference between the ambitions of London kids and many Northern kids. London kids primarily want to perform, whether that is on the stage, television or film. However when you speak to most kids in the North they ‘want be on the telly’ and have little grasp of the job or art of acting beyond the tube.
Until that is addressed, talent in the North (and there is plenty of it about) will be constrained to chasing the limited amount of acting roles and writing commissions on the usual suspect list of local TV staples.
To create a sustainable talent pool that is capable of surviving beyond that system and progressing to create new echelons of creativity and industry, then performance and writing, both creative and journalistic, must get right back to basics.
The media delegates that congressed at the Lowry must recognise their industry is not a stand alone one but merely a link in the creative chain.