Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

Journalists are already speculating that the appointment of the next Director General of the BBC is the most crucial decision facing the BBC Trust since the 1920s, not only as it’s necessary to address the massive BBC deficit (approx 20% of its annual budget), but because of the challenges facing the Television sector as a whole.

In many ways Mark Thompson has been a good Director General, not outstanding, certainly not visionary, but a safe pair of hands nonetheless. And for the past eight years the BBC has successfully navigated some tricky moments, from his appointment following the Hutton report to Sachsgate. But now we stand firmly somewhere within a revolution of technology that is advancing so fast that a safe pair of hands is not enough. The BBC needs nothing short of a revolution of its own. And so I’ve put together a manifesto of my own for the position of Director General.


I know it’s easier said than done for the BBC to resolve its ongoing union issues, but the BBC needs to remember that attracting and continuing to attract the most talented, the most innovative, the most creative people is key to its survival. Quite often the creative industries under-pay their employees, knowing that to a degree they will work for the love of their art; but talent should be rewarded appropriately, and conditions of work must be acceptable to reflect the socially aware organisation that the BBC must be. The BBC is a brand recognised world-wide as providing excellence in entertainment and current affairs– but this image has been neglected through the years, and like Television House, the BBC is in a shabby and slightly neglected state.


And when I say restructure I don’t mean automatic job cuts– I mean a full review of staff and their skill set, identifying what they feel their key skills are (what they really are), identifying the corporate need and directing their work accordingly. It’s a massive undertaking but a necessary one. Creativity needs space to flow, it also relies heavily on a positive, creative environment. The BBC should scrap focus groups and establish an environment not totally dissimilar to Pixar and their creative hub. Red Tape is undoubtedly a problem, and it has risen from the culture of political correctness that exists within the BBC; this is arguably the real cause of problems such as Sachsgate, as more outspoken  TV personalities (Ross, Clarkson, Brand), are seen by the public as a breath of fresh air– that is until, in reaction, they go a step too far. Of course, fire guards need to be kept in place to protect the BBC from legal action, but equally important is the flow of communication.


I agree with Jeremy Paxman that the decision to sell off Television Centre, built in West London on relatively cheap land, instead of the lesser used Broadcasting House in W1, was a misguided one. Worse than that was the decision to move much of BBC production to Media City in Salford. Decentralisation is never a good idea. The Irish Government tried and failed, and the BBC is in danger of following suit. No further department should move from London; and I say this as a proud Northerner. I do not believe that the world should revolve around London.  But in order for the BBC to both communicate and be innovative, it needs to pool its staff in one place. Great though it is, Manchester is too far away from anywhere to allow the BBC to achieve its maximum reach. Current affairs (and I include Breakfast and Sport in this) would struggle to provide the in-depth analysis it currently provides if it were based outside London, and it seems completely illogical to have moved BBC Sport the year before the London 2012 Olympics.

The BBC must reverse its decision to sell off Television Centre. It’s an iconic building with a phenomenal amount of broadcast history attached to it. However, it is also neglected. Walking through the corridors yesterday there was a definite sense of sadness– Radio 5 Live desks empty, whole corridors full of empty offices. The BBC must turn this atmosphere around and redevelop the Television Centre. A TV Centre should be a hub of innovation, a modern building that provides a facility that reflects the BBC’s past, but embraces the future. Refurbishing the Television Centre, and turning it into a building of research and development, where the very best creative minds develop new TV formats, new experiences for audiences and the way in which TV is made, can meet and work together to reinvigorate the BBC, and through export help it on its way to greater sustainability. The BBC can provide an iconic building should be the beating heart of the BBC’s revolution. I’m a firm believer in the phrase ‘speculate to accumulate’; yes refurbishing and retaining TV Centre is expensive, but the BBC should, whilst living within its means, be driven by creativity and excellence not driven by rationalisation and austerity.


Political neutrality is central to establishing trust with the viewers, so curbing the political opinions of current affairs presenters is important.  Equal time must be given to all legitimate political spheres.

The BBC needs to generate more of its own income, BBC Vision is already a key part of this, though definitely has room for expansion. Further thought must be given to opening the BBC Archive to provide a pay per view service. Aside from this, further money must be secured from central government. The Department for Culture Media and Sport directly funds key cultural organisations such as The Royal Opera House. The BBC has a much wider reach than the ROH and therefore is entitled to money from the DCMS in addition to money already received from the licence fee. With the rise of iPlayer and the internet, the BBC must lobby central government to secure an additional household tax that covers this.

As the National Broadcaster, the BBC should have a permanent member of staff within DCMS in order to provide government with information on a daily basis, to help give a clearer view as to the workings and cost of TV.


The structure of TV programming has changed very little since the BBC began. This must change. TV controllers are competing not only with hundreds of other TV stations, but on-demand services, the internet, games. Innovation is desperately needed. A new type of TV, not just occasional flag-ship shows, but refreshing, engaging TV. This would be the key responsibility of the innovation department. Mark Thompson, and likely every candidate who will be interviewed for the position of Director General will fail to understand that without radical change to programming and TV format, the BBC will fail. Small change is no longer enough– radical redevelopment is needed to ensure that the BBC, arguably the most influential and important organisation in Britain, continues into the future.



Rescuing RTE…

Posted: May 10, 2012 in Arts Politics, Development, TV, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

My love for RTE is difficult to explain. To me, it’s like a child dressing up in mum’s lipstick and heals, trying to be a grown-up organisation. Inevitably, the lipstick ends up all over its face, the heals snap and the child tumbles; it may seem sweet, but it has a lot of growing up to do.

RTE, or to use its full name Raidió Teilifís Éireann (the Irish equivalent of the BBC, for those who are none the wiser), is currently at the lowest point in its fifty-two year history. With staff morale equally low, senior management are attempting a very irrational rationalisation– you know the type– where they change all the things that don’t need changing, while plastering over some suspicious cracks.  RTE is not only suffering from a lack of vision and money, but a serious lack of functional infrastructure. A plan to  completely rebuild the Montrose HQ in Dublin appears to have been shelved ‘in light of the current economic downturn’– and this isn’t the only important plan to have been shelved. RTE also put to bed a subscription channel dubbed ‘RTE International’, that would serve the vast Irish community in Britain, and others around the world. Brand awareness obviously isn’t a priority at RTE.

So how can we help this cranky toddler?  Essentially, we need to encourage it to grow– up and out:


– Sell international broadcasting rights for programmes such as Fair City.

– Integrate the production arm (vision, post production etc.) and offer a full production service. Target international production companies, market the service alongside the attractive lower corporate tax rate in Ireland.

– Bring more services in house. Create ‘Picture Grading’ and ‘Outside Broadcasting (OB)’ sections.


– Remove mid-programme commercial breaks to boost audience retention and thereby sell end-of-programme advertising at higher costs.

RTE is by no means a rich organisation: expansion has been slow and without any real planning and it desperately needs a Director General who will shake the company up, find a real solution to problems rather than merely cutting the payroll. Unlike theatre, music, and film, TV seems incapable of meeting the threats of the digital age. Rather than embrace technology and shake up programming and the commissioning process, broadcasters (RTE in particular) are running the same tired programmes.

Audience development is important not only because it’s vital to the survival of theatre, but also because it completely effects the theatre-going experience.

Last Friday, I went to see Much Ado About Nothing by the RSC  in their shiny new theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I expected, rather naively on reflection, that the audience would reflect the very modern design. Sadly not. It was like waking up in the 50s next to the Jonses and their new Teasmade.  I have absolutely no problem with people of any age or background going to the theatre; what I have a problem with is people who feel they should go to the theatre because that’s what middle class people do. Why bother? Surely just stay at home and watch Coronation Street if that’s what you’d prefer? People need to have a REAL reason to want to go to the theatre– not just because they feel they should.  I’ve noted before the over-funding that this causes in the world of opera and other socially-enhancing-art-forms, and the RSC and National Theatre aren’t exempt from this. Their cuts in the Arts Council RFO portfolio were minimal, and Artistic Director Michael Boyd said that they’d cope… not the reaction of hundreds of other organisations crippled by the cuts.

But, I’m going over old ground… the real point is that the RSC should not be complacent about audience development, and should always seek to find ways of attracting new and future audiences into the theatre, while not forgetting those who have always been loyal. To do this theatre practitioners need to take a step back and look seriously at what they’re competing against, both in terms of successful commercial theatre and other entertainment sources: cinema, TV, games etc.  Admittedly the RSC has taken the brave step of once more delving into the world of musical theatre– presenting Matilda in London– and I suspect that this was largely a well crafted way of generating income, one that should be applauded nonetheless. But, producing musicals will not alone solve the problem of attracting future theatre audiences; I’m referring to the hard to reach audiences, people who have never been into a theatre, people who have always thought that theatre ‘wasn’t for them’. Intelligent producing and clever marketing can help attract these people. Practitioners should look at what makes West End shows appeal: theatre technology, visual effects and the universal language of music. Riverdance, to a cerain extent, achieved this in the 1990s– it put together a series of elements that were perfect for the love of neoliberalism and Postmodernism that we saw in the 90s. Which brings me to my final and most important point: Reinvention (with a capital R). I don’t believe that theatre should be created in the style of a long dead playwright. Each generation should endeavour to reinvent their theatre environment in a continual cycle of progression and modernisation; just as technology and time never stand still neither should theatre.

Let me be quite clear, that ANY money spent on local TV is wasted money. Local TV has been tried again and again and again but simply doesn’t work. In an age where local papers don’t make money, struggle to create enough copy to fill a newspaper, and where increasingly people turn to the internet for news, information and entertainment, there is no market for a ‘self sustaining’ local TV station.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, has treated the Arts & Culture portfolio as a springboard in order to gain a more prominent position in the next big cabinet reshuffle, all I can say is that I hope he gets it, before he decimates the arts further. It’s important for MPs to understand that Arts and Culture is not something that can be measured in pound signs (Although the arts generate a colossal amount of money in tax and tourism annually), arts must be measured in the enrichment of lives, not just in terms of entertainment but participation. And so the BBC must be protected, ring fenced infact. The Tory government has already pitted itslf against the BBC, slashing their budget recently by 20%, The BBC produces thousands of hours of content each year, selling it abroad, making it the most successful and diverse broadcasting organisation in the world. It is the envy of Rupert Murdoch’s News International conglomerate. Before the explosion of the hacking scandal, his son, James Murdoch called for the BBC to charge for its news service, saying that it was crushing competition, I note he didn’t call for The Guardian to shut down it’s free online coverage, or The Telegraph, ITV news or RTE news in Ireland, this is because BBC News 24 beams around the world, it’s simply unchallenged, more important than The Press Association and Reuters, in that it both breaks and reports news.

I’m not pretending that the BBC isn’t without fault: the drama department for example, seems to be able to only produce crime drama. Diversity is a buzz word that it would seem applies only to the ethnicities of the characters (which is great) rather than a diverse selection of the type of programme commissioned. I would love to see something on the Beeb that breaks barriers, really challenges people and maybe, just maybe, is a little bit naughty! But aside from this very minor criticism the BBC is an organisation central to British culture, Local TV will NOT ‘in time’ replace it in terms of influence and importance in people’s lives, instead the move distracts from focusing funds at building a stronger BBC, wasting money on a local TV project which like so many before, will fail.

Regional theatre and new writing are inextricably linked. Compare for a minute that sort of theatre you see in London’s West End, to the theatre you see in Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and even Hull and Scarborough, these places boast some of Britain’s best contemporary playwrights: Alan Bennett, Alan Aykborne, John Godber. Would the work of these men have seen the light of day on a West End stage? What producer is willing to take that risk!? Regional theatre offers new writers an important opportunity to shine, and therefore holds a key position in discovering and developing the talent of tomorrow.

So. Ireland. I’ve ranted before about the lack of performance infrastructure, but there’s more to say. Where are the development plans for regional theatre? Where are the theatre in education departments? Do they exist at all!? Take my local theatre, The Hawkswell Theatre in Sligo. Last September the position for Director came up, I applied, having enough ‘senior management experience’ and skill to meet the requirement, obviously I didn’t get it (Arts in Ireland are very nepatistic) less than six months later it came up again. In my letter I mentioned briefly that audiences can be developed through building active relationships with schools and other institutions educational and social. I briefly outlined the benefits of working with third level institutions both in terms of reaching new audiences but also in presenting material. There is NO money and very little benefit in theatres operating purely as receiving houses in the regions, they just don’t create the community buzz that producing houses do. A perfect example of this is Druid Theatre in Galway an organisation that not only the city is proud of, but the country; They have an international reputation. Of course Druid is entirely producing, but Sligo needs a theatre that people can get excited about, theatre that attracts the student population, and producing in-house productions in association with Sligo IT, offers a real opportunity to generate income and develop links with education. Is this too progressive? It’s difficult to get people to think out of the box… particularly in the regions. Why is that? Is it all about empire building? Key players enjoy the control they have over organisations, they don’t want to relinquish their control and so any newcomer that has a good idea is an immediate threat. I really wish this wasn’t true, but it is, and when I was a teenager it was the reason I was so keen to get out of amateur theatre -apply a business model and flat corporate structure and like alchemy, theatre becomes a lot more creative and communication flows a lot easier.

Regional Theatres need to work together strategically, and on a more local level arts organisations need to collaberate more, create clash diaries, share marketing and where possible resources. Theatre in the regions will never be the money spinner that it is in the West End (no appropriate Irish equivalent) but it can become more economically self sufficient, more robust and most importantly, it can revitalise tired communities, generate income through cultural tourism and create employment. Win win.

I once attended a meeting with a number of regional arts practitioners in the UK, I remember one lady saying ‘we need to move away from our preoccupation with infrastructure’, that’s all well and good, but first of all you need to have the infrastructure to move away from. A theatre isn’t just a place to perform, it’s a cultural focus point, a point of contact between artists and the community in which they work and live.

Despite having a culture of culture, Ireland has a distinct lack of performing arts infrastructure. Aside from the recently built Grand Canal Theatre, there are few venues in Ireland that can accommodate large scale productions. Even the two big producing houses in Dublin (The Abbey and The Gate) are tired venues, in desperate need of a complete technical update. So out of the five big theatres in Dublin only the Grand Canal Theatre offers a great deal of potential to producers of large scale theatre. If Ireland is to compete with Britain in terms of cultural tourism, then a great deal of investment needs to be put in to building new venues and redeveloping existing venues across the country. I was very surprised to discover that even Galway doesn’t have a large theatre with a fly tower and large amounts of wing space.

The last tourism and culture minister said that Ireland needs a ‘broadway’… I’d like to contradict that, Ireland needs a ‘West End’. But further than that it needs infrastructure in the regions, major theatres in every gateway city in the country. Investment into the cultural economy pays dividends not only in money generated by tourism, but in the community enrichment that happens as a direct result of culture and creativity. The world knows that Ireland is culturally rich, isn’t it time that the full potential of this was realised?

I don’t deny the fact that Labour were most definitely not without fault, however they were strong advocates of culture and the intrinsic value that it has. David Cameron’s ‘cool conservativism’ doesn’t fool anyone, and I particularly enjoyed the Banksy defaced billboards that demonstrated this fact. Near where I lived the graffiti wasn’t so clever, a simple ‘Fuck off Torys’ sprayed over the billboard delivered the message loudly and clearly. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt (or as BBC presenter Jeremy Naughtie inadvertantly called him: ‘Jeremy Cunt) jumped straight into his new position in goverment wielding the hatchet, abolishing the UK Film Council and cutting Arts Council England’s already cut to the bone, housekeeping budget by a further 50%. The result of this is being felt already with one County Arts Officer telling me ‘[ACE] literally can’t afford to show an interest anymore’. It’s very easy to say ‘we’re cutting administration money’, but surely they understand that the Arts Council doesn’t run itself, and anyone who’s completed an Arts Council Application form as I have, will know just how much information there is to plod through PER APPLICATION? The very depressing fact is that that is exactly what the average Tory party member does think. I worked for an high brow arts festival for years and at one strategic development meeting the chairman (a Tory party member) turned to the Arts Council Officer running the meeting and said ‘Is this your job?’ To which the lady replied ‘yes’, to which he responded ‘You mean somebody pays you to do what you do?’

Don’t act surprised. The Conservative view of Culture is of something that’s ‘nice to have’, it’s an occasion or event that’s used to further social status. Maybe this is a little unfair, but for years quality was judged in output only, not in the experience gained for participants and workers involved, not to mention the wider community enrichment that the arts bring. An excellent example of this (and one of my favourites) is the amount of money that Opera North receives between 2008-2012, just over £38m. I fail to see how this is true value for money (value for money being one of many assessment criteria used by ACE). Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s an opera singer, and obviously I don’t want to threaten his employment in any way at all, but really, £38m! The Royal Opera House in London over the same period receives… wait for it… just under £110m. It’s like ACE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have forgotten that without grass roots arts projects, youth theatres, theatre in education departments, in the future there will be no performers, no artists, no musicians of the standard that there are today. I noticed that Julie Walters and a number of others wrote a letter to the Observer last Sunday with a similar message.

Since London won the Olympic bid (and I say London because really where else in the UK is benefiting from the Olympics?), more and more money has been channeled out of the arts and into sport. I love sport, I do, but where is the value for money in this!? And we’re promised that as of 2012 Lottery money will be returned to the Arts. But in these past few years of economical drought for grass roots/ middle of the road arts, how many organisations will have gone, and gone for good?