A whole new creative community is emerging around the relocation of BBC departments to Salford, while the new business thinking it has generated is acting as a blueprint for wider change across the broadcaster.
Speaking exactly a year after the corporation first began moving staff up from London as it relocated departments such as sport and children's TV out of the capital, BBC North director Peter Salmon said the march of technology aligned with increasing consumer choice meant the BBC had no choice but to change its whole structure.
"We needed to stay fresh, alert and at our creative best, and we are operating a new BBC up here. But we have not so much ripped up the rulebook, more redrafted it. If you want substantial change you have to have a very strong vision that takes people with you, and everything has to align itself behind that vision. The biggest thing is that people have to feel change. What people feel really makes a difference in the end."
So what has changed? Although stressing the move was about far more than "just filling buildings", Salmon said that the whole working environment was different. "If you go to Silicon Valley you see how everything, be it the furniture or communal space, is designed to encourage collaboration and creativity. We have mimicked some of those ideas. We have a more effective, efficient programme-making environment. This is not just a workforce of 2,300 people, a whole creative community is emerging."
Of that workforce roughly a third came up from London, a third from BBC North's former base in Manchester and a third were new recruits. Salmon said this injection of new blood had also been critical in terms of generating new thinking. "Bringing that outside view into the BBC has been important. Every new recruit adds a fresh perspective."
He added that because whole families had upped sticks and left London to relocate, it put more pressure on him to deliver. "When you are getting people to change their lives you really have to deliver and that inspires you."
Salmon conceded that delivering the vision was not easy. "You hear UK cycling coach Dave Brailsford talk about the 'aggregation of marginal gains' and that's something I relate to. In the first year we have had success that provides firm foundations for future growth, but BBC North is a long term reality. The people here are making some of the best programmes for the BBC using new technology and those people are on a journey themselves."
Salmon admitted that finding the talent of the future was both a significant challenge and threat. "The scale of the challenge is one of the most important we face. If the digital sector in the north is to grow it has to have the choice of recruiting people willing to be best in the business. We are working with northern universities to ensure the pipeline is working through." However he added that this was an issue across Europe. "The battle for technologists is one of the key battles for our industry throughout Europe, it is a real challenge."
And what about the north? Does its creative and digital sector possess the size and strength it needs yet? Salmon admitted that there weren't the independent production companies of the same number or scale compared to London, and that wouldn't change overnight. But he insisted there were positive signs. "London should not be the single focal point around which careers and opportunities exist and we are witnessing more digital companies moving against the traditional gravitational pull of the capital. What we are doing is enormously important and we have landed in real size and scale. But London will remain the principal centre and is still enormously influential. Our targets for growth at MediaCity are realistic."
In terms of growth, Salmon said there was talk about moving another 1,000 jobs to Salford. "It is about building on what we have started. How we expand further up here is a conversation we need to have with the new Director General of the BBC."
Salmon admitted that he was in part driven by what Granada achieved out of Manchester in its heyday. "Granada shows transformed broadcasting and we are literally standing here on the shoulders of giants of creativity. It shows you can do great things outside of London. The creativity of this city and region inspires us."
He said you only had to look at the health of TV drama which was going through something of a northern renaissance at present. "Creativity sits at the heart of ambitious cities and this great city has been imagined by creatives for decades. It has lived in the hearts and souls of people. We were drawn to the north because we firmly believe we can make a difference, and we are confident this will work. It is about scale and creative ambition."
He added that the "persistent sniping" in certain quarters of the media against the BBC move up north also spurred him. "To be honest it made us more determined to be successful. There is something about proving people wrong that is very powerful. We want to make the BBC sing and our challenge is to keep energy and excitement levels high."
The relocation of BBC sport up north has drawn particular criticism with the Olympics just weeks away in London. "People say why are we up here when the Olympics is about to happen in London. My answer is that the business we have built in Salford takes us way beyond this summer. The old technology we had in London just wasn't good enough, we have now made a massive investment in kit and connectivity like nowhere else which will keep the BBC at the top of its game. This was an investment in the long-term future of British sport."
Salmon admitted that the old adage that the further you travel from London the less affinity people have to the BBC was a hard nut to crack. But he added: "With this move the BBC can show it is serious about tackling the perception that we are just the London BBC once and for all. After a year I think we might have started to shift perceptions slightly that the BBC doesn't just exist in the capital. Creativity is everywhere in the UK, not just in the South East."
Peter Kawalek, Professor of Information Systems and Strategy at MBS, said beyond the BBC's first year in Salford still lie many big questions, not least how to fill more space at MediaCityUK which posed both a challenge and opportunity for site owner Peel Holdings.
He added: "MediaCityUK is grand and expensive at a time when the sector is increasingly small and networked. The site itself has to work and there is a lot of available space that could house many more start-ups and small firms. Peel will need the big-ticket firms, but extending the low-cost provision in the site will make it the intoxicating urban destination that it needs to be."
Kawalek added that working a path through the media landscape of Google, Facebook et al also posed major strategy questions for the BBC. "The organisation may be doing well in many ways, but we are already in an era beyond broadcasts to the sofa, and some of the apparent success of the BBC is just a residual from that earlier audience. The market is global and the BBC is competing on many fronts with many different kinds of media entity. And it’s these questions that are more significant than whether a large, new production is located in the North."
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