What Is Channel 4? Making the Case for Relocation and Knowing What You Are Getting…

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The question of the Channel 4 move is an interesting one for me, as in my previous life as Head of Research for the North West Regional Development Agency I did some of the Salford Media City bid work, reviewing the economic case for investment and the bid for the BBC relocation, and now I am here in Birmingham and I have been asked to advise on the bid for Channel 4 relocation (I also live in both Salford and Birmingham so I genuinely have split allegiances). This relocation case has sparked some interesting debate within City-REDI and this blog is developing this healthy debate and building on the recent blog by Max Nathan.

In some ways this debate goes to the heart of one of the perplexing issues when developing government action and intervention of this kind, do you invest in success and track record building on the assets you already have or do you invest to change your path dependency, future proofing and diversifying your economy? Does it build on specialism or does it create opportunities to spread and diversify growth? In reality we often plump for a blend, the former approach is for the more risk averse who want to ensure a guaranteed return for limited public money, the latter for those willing to take a calculated risk where the pay-off may be bigger and the return higher but the losses could equally be high.

Returning to Salford, if we had used the agglomeration argument in Max’s blog, the economic case wouldn’t have made the mark. There were low levels of jobs in the sector (especially in Salford) at the time, Liverpool had higher numbers and, if recollection serves me well, Birmingham was in a better position as the BBC hadn’t divested as much as it has now. For those that know Media City, the big debate was that the development was on brownfield land next to serious pockets of deprivation, where employment was low, housing was poor and skill levels low (and this largely remains the case). There was no thought that local people could access these jobs and there was more than a symbolic wall around the site with the dock gates keeping out the poorer communities. There was also a battle between Manchester and Salford with a competing bid being developed a few miles away on Oxford Road, the site of the former BBC. We also can’t overlook the power and presence of Peel Holdings who owned the Dock Lands and utilised Peel Media to develop the site. Co-ordinated large scale land packaging and investment on a large scale. This was an opportunity not based on agglomeration, business numbers or skills. It was based on land availability, private sector investment, pooling of small assets already nearby and one flagship investor in the BBC and relocation of other organisations from other parts of the city (Salford University, Salford College and ITV).

About the same time, major changes were underway in Manchester, structural changes about functional ‘quarters’ were being put in place which has changed the face of the city. These changes centred on real and perceived strengths and a vision of a city centred based on culture, music, and creativity. Their strategic plan had the vision to transform an industrial city dependent on manufacturing to becoming the UK’s most creative city. They focussed on an improved visitor infrastructure, world class cultural and sporting facilities and built on the Commonwealth Games success and investment. Manchester also invested heavily in the ‘Northern Quarter’, Castlefield and Whitworth Street Corridor. All these areas were based on attracting creative and cultural industries. Growth and agglomeration were based on a host of interventions in the wider Manchester conurbation. Jobs created in the sector were broad and across a range of functions and activities and not all attributed to Media City or strictly media roles.  Gaming, arts, theatre, culture all contributed to this, culminating in the move of a substantial part of the Arts Council to the Northern Quarter.

However, as I said on twitter there is a danger we misunderstand the function of the Channel 4 (Ch4) jobs as they are potentially very different to BBC jobs and the wider jobs targeted by Manchester. The BBC, who moved whole station production sets i.e. BBC breakfast; had a high demand for the skills and roles which we normally perceive of in the media. Ch4 is largely a production commissioning company, with filming taking place all over the country. Ch4 is more commercial affairs, advertising, programme management, commissioning and channel management. It doesn’t have in-house production, therefore there will be no traditional production jobs moving and if we were making an agglomeration argument there is greater alignment in skills and function terms with the business and professional services sector in the West Midlands, rather than media and creative. The small numbers of jobs being relocated also don’t create the additional critical mass within the sector or significantly add to the employment base (especially if they are split over multiple regional sites).

So I am not sure the agglomeration argument would completely hold for Manchester unless we believe that it is important to place the commissioning roles within the wider supply system. However, we could assume that the commissioning would still go to places which have production sets and the variety of production companies, such as London. Media City would still attract the commissioned work but will only be a proportion of it as it doesn’t have the type of production/digital/programming jobs or the sets for the range of Ch4 programmes. In reality, Ch4 will still commission their programmes nationally wherever the skills and jobs are based. Having said that flagship investments like Ch4 do create ripple effects which can draw in new businesses, this being the case, the argument may be about building new capacity and capability elsewhere, and on changing perceptions of a place and its “investability”.

To see this commissioning function in action you can look at their top programmes which are filmed all over and often commissioned out to other production companies such as ITV. This would suggest they won’t be building sets, taking on cameramen or directors etc. There may be a crossover with digital media content production (but that isn’t place bound).

The argument for relocation should be based on the social implications of the creation and commissioning of content. UK TV should represent the whole of the UK, moving commissioning roles outside London should be aimed at putting commissioners in the position of experiencing a wider view of the UK than London. It should also be about ensuring greater representation of diverse communities and allowing a wider set of communities to access investment in cutting edge and new programming content. The Midlands generally is woefully underrepresented in programming as the success of Peaky Blinders demonstrates, as a ‘shock Birmingham hit’, it only emphasises the competition from regional programming in Manchester where a long list of hits can be identified.

Not all government investments are about the economic case (although I have serious doubts about using the economic/agglomeration case for Manchester on this one, and surely if we were making this case we would leave them in London!) and it’s dangerous to use this as the main case, when the social impact of diverse representative programming is far more valuable to us all.

Looking back at the critical activities which aligned to create the growth in creative jobs in Manchester I wonder which city is now in the same position to capitalise on a similar relocation? With the approaching Commonwealth Games, Capital of Culture, HS2 arrival, potentially Birmingham as the large scale investments which add to the buzz of place Manchester was riding. However, whoever wins this, don’t expect Broad Street or Oxford Road to be swarming with actors and cameramen, you’re more likely to get grey suited accountants and lawyers and which city has the assets to attract them, is probably a topic for another blog.

This blog was written by Rebecca Riley, Administrative Director, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.  

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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