Media City – Now I’m A Believer!

Nigel Walley – I have had a chance over the last few months to really look at the whole Media City Salford initiative up close, and have found my initial position on it changing.  Like many people, I initially felt that the whole scheme for moving the BBC ‘up North’ was politically inspired nonsense.   But let me declare my hand early.   Not only am I a Londoner, but I am a Shepherd’s Bush boy – meaning the BBC Television  Centre is my local TV studio.  I grew up right by where Blue Peter was made and have a lot of affection for TVC.  I was therefore against the Media City initiative for a host of London biased reasons.

Yet here I am now standing at a water side railing, looking at the Manchester Ship Canal wending its way past Media City, linking the Mersey at one end to Manchester City centre at the other.  Behind me is one of the shiny new BBC Sports buildings, and across the footbridge is the new ITV Corrie set emerging from a building site. Next to it stands the Imperial War Museum.

Behind me on Media City itself something very interesting is beginning to happen.  ITV are moving the Granada teams on site, along with Corrie, and a variety of media agencies are lining up to move in as well.  However, for this article I am specifically talking about the BBC.   I have come to the conclusion that you can’t  understand the BBC in Media City if you treat their move here as a single BBC initiative.  To understand the BBC Media City idea properly you have to pick the BBC’s activity up here apart.  Because when you look at Sports, Kids, Music & Radio, Future Media and News separately, it begins to make sense.

Firstly Sports.  As I stand here looking at the river, I know that behind me the journalists of the BBC’s Sports department are planning the coverage of Sunday’s Euro 2012 final from Kiev.  Theoretically, they could be based anywhere to cover sport – but London has always been default.   But from where I am standing I can see Old Trafford across the water.  A short tram ride away is Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.  And from the West you can feel the emotional pull of the Ship Canal dragging your consciousness down to the Mersey, to Liverpool and the Irish Sea.  This means that Anfield and Everton’s stadium, Goodison Park, are a short drive (but more scenic barge ride) away.  Other cities feel closer here than they do in insular London.  The sports hubs of Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds all feel part of an industrial ‘middle-Britain’ that is within touching distance.   Even Glasgow and Edinburgh feel close. This part of Britain is ‘sports central’ in a way that London can’t be.  Not only is it a logical place for the BBC Sports to be based, it begins to feel mad that they were anywhere else.

Radio and, in particular music, begins to open up to me in the same way as I stand here. Most of my formative music experiences were London based – sweaty venues somewhere on the tube system to see The Clash, The Undertones, Squeeze and the other post punk bands of my youth.  I was too young for punk and too lazy for the later Madchester scene. I never got here for it. However, as I stand here, and if my Twitter feed is to be believed, half my London friends are on the way up to Manchester for the Stone Roses re-union gigs.  Once again, my mind starts running through the cities north of Watford Gap.  I go through the bands I like from Sheffield, Leeds and the other cities that define the region and I wish I was going to a club rather than Piccadilly Station to get the train home.  Standing here, BBC Music begins to makes sense in the way that BBC Sports does.

Future Media have moved 300 people here and are able to tap into a globally competitive, digital media scene in Manchester that has long established its credentials as a solid new media cluster. The opening of the new satellite uplink in the Quays this week, and the digital workflow R&D initiative in September, show that Media City is at the heart of the TV media tech evolution.

Kids are, by definition, everywhere and therefore  BBC Kids  could be anywhere but, as a Shepherd’s Bush boy, I always like the idea that the Blue Peter Garden was down the road.   Having said that, the ironic thing is that I never saw it, as it was locked away behind the old TVC gates.  On Media City, its right in front of you when you get off the tram, or walk out of the TV Studios.  They have put it right in the piazza, in front of the new Studios building where they film Blue Peter.  You can walk out of a recording, see the BBC Kids offices with the presenters milling about, walk across the Blue Peter Garden and then get the tram home. Media City feels like it was made to make kids’ programmes.

Most importantly the facilities for the viewer are second to none. The TV industry has treated its live audiences with disdain for too long. Making them queue down alleyways and in side roads, then shuffling them through side doors with limited access to toilets or drinks.  The Studio here turns its whole face to the viewer, with a vast auditorium with Daleks, a Tardis, shops and a cafe in the foyer, and a tram that stops right outside.

There is still a lot of work to do up here.  The IT has some flaws which are shocking, and there is still a second and third wave of small and medium size companies to encourage onto the campus to make it truly fly. But they are beginning.

There is, however, one major fly in the ointment for me – national news.  This may be construed as my natural London bias, but the one BBC area that I can’t support is the broadcasting of Breakfast News and the other national news formats from Salford.  Moving them up here has made them feel like regional news broadcasts.

As I stand here by the Canal, the Libor fixing scandal is kicking off in London.  Barclays and the other major banks are being discussed by politicians, regulatory institutions, corporate HQs, consumer groups, academics and journalists – all of them based in London.  Its the one thing that makes me want to get back to London to feel like I am amongst it.   This is the one weakness in the Media City story and I believe, its an area where the BBC should quietly cuts its losses.  The rest of Media City looks like being such a success that the BBC should be able to quietly sort this out.  If they don’t then News will be the stick that the Media City detractors will continually use to beat up the BBC.  This will continually divert attention from the amazing things that are happening up here with Sports, Music and Kids.  That should be the story now.


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