TV biz finds big buzz in Manchester

Communications Act shifts production patterns

LONDON — The plane traveling from Manchester to the south of France for the spring TV sales mart Mip is always packed with local BBC high flyers, but not this year.

“The difference was really noticeable. The flight used to be full of BBC executives,” concurs Philip Reevell, co-owner of Moonbeam Films.

“For the first time, the BBC people were outnumbered by Manchester indies.”

If the U.K. government gets its way, that is likely to continue as a trend, and not only Manchester, home to global player Granada, is involved.

Other British cities, principally Cardiff, Glasgow and Bristol, are also leading the charge to a devolving British TV industry.

The 2003 Communications Act gave added impetus to a pattern of production based loosely on the time-honored regional structure of the BBC and ITV.

The idea was to encourage independent producers to work outside London — and to shift some inhouse programmaking and, crucially, commissioning away from the metropolis.

Channel 4, Blighty’s biggest commissioner of indies, was told to buy 30% of its programs from suppliers based outside London.

The BBC’s target is for 50% of its programs to be made outside London.

The agreement that led to the renewal of the corporation’s charter — a complex negotiating round completed last year — guarantees the pubcaster will move around 1,000 jobs to the Manchester suburb of Salford.

A media center at Salford, MediaCity, is being built as part of an urban regeneration project on what was once a thriving dockyard.

“Film and TV people have to go to where the markets are,” opines John McVay, CEO of U.K. producers’ lobby group Pact.

“If you’re in the global market for popular films, you have to be in Hollywood. The same is true for TV,” he adds. “Manchester could become the kind of city where any smart, commercially minded independent has to have an office.”

“We’ve never found it a disadvantage working in Manchester,” says Andrew Critchley, managing director of boutique drama specialist Red Prods.

The outfit is famous for its edgy fare, like groundbreaking gay drama “Queer as Folk” (re-versioned for Showtime in the U.S.) and the recent acclaimed Tony Marchant-scripted Iraq war film “The Mark of Cain.”

“The infrastructure is here,” Critchley adds. “We’ve filmed everything we’ve ever done in Manchester. There isn’t the expense and the logistical difficulties of filming in London. You can go from urban to suburban to rural in a single day.”

The Red topper thinks Manchester would be better served had the BBC decided to relocate one of its flagship genres like drama or comedy to the city.

Children’s, sport, Radio 5 Live and some new media activities are all moving.

The BBC claims the move, to be completed by 2011, represents £225 million ($450 million) of production spend plus $550 million in commissioning coin.

“The BBC’s relocation to Salford is a massive step,” a spokesman for MediaCity claims. “It’s the catalyst that will make it happen and a big piece in the regeneration jigsaw. Including the BBC, you’re looking at 15,500 people working at Salford in media and other creative industries.”

“There’s no doubt that the BBC’s Salford project will create a large, creative community in Manchester,” echoes Grant Mansfield, managing director of Television at RDF Media.

The company, with U.K. offices in Glasgow, Cardiff and Bristol as well as London, knows from painful experience that setting up a regional base and then pitching for commissions is the wrong way to approach opening up shop outside the capital.

“I opened and closed a Bristol office in 18 months,” he recalls. “You need to take work with you and then start pitching. That way producers have the confidence to leave London and come and work for you.

“That’s why the BBC’s move to Salford represents an important step, because the size of the Manchester talent pool is going to get a lot bigger.”

Looks like the passenger list for this year’s Manchester flight to Mip will no longer be the exception to the rule — as more U.K. indies open for business in the city.