Should TV be local?
The music industry has debated this issue for many years, with EMI’s establishment of a Northern office viewed as a first step towards bridging the North/South divide, only time will tell. The BBC has been consolidating regions and eliminating talented presenters from Local Radio. Channel 4 intends to enhance local programming, so we asked Dr. Jon Swords, Senior Lecturer in Creative Industries at University of York, if the geographic location of television production makes a difference and the North/ South divide.
Growing up in Norwich in the 1980s and 1990s, I became familiar with the Anglia Television logo, and watching Look East. A friend’s mum worked on the children’s show Knightmare and we drove past the Anglia Television building regularly. I thought that was what TV was: local. It was only when visiting family in London that I saw other presenters on the news, an unfamiliar accent doing continuity announcements and different logos on the screen. Those differences intrigued me and an attempt to understand them was probably one of the reasons I did geography at school and university.
The geography of where television gets made is fascinating. The way it gets produced means we find concentrations of production companies, broadcasters and workers in particular places. At the height of ITV franchises in the late 1980s and early 1990s, each region of the UK had its own TV sector usually built around the presence of ITV facilities and BBC news capacity. But changes made by Conservative governments to increase competition saw mergers and acquisitions that resulted in the end of ITV regional franchises and eventually a single ITV company. The result was the decline of television being made in places like Norwich, Birmingham and Newcastle, and an increase in Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds and, above all else, London.
We still see the rest of the country on our screens through soaps and other programming shot on location, and some argue this is sufficient to have a representative TV sector. Regional production centres have benefited from long-running commissions, spurring innovation and employment growth. But what we see on screen hides massive imbalances: London and the South East of England are home to over 60% of the UK’s television industry and we find the biggest and most powerful companies there too. But London is an expensive place to live and as Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder have highlighted in their recent book, decisionmakers based in the capital tend to be white, male, middle class and educated at Oxbridge or red brick universities. The rest of the TV industry has a better gender balance but is also predominately white and middle-class. If you don’t fit into what is perceived as the ‘norm’ it is harder to get in and get on in television.
“Relocating elements of the industry are important steps and the BBC’s move of divisions to Salford and Channel 4’s headquarters moving to Leeds are important steps.”Dr Jon Swords
The Screen Industries Growth Network – based at the University of York – has highlighted this through their work. Industry Voices is a video series produced by Dr Beth Johnson (University of Leeds), Wendy Sissons (University of York) and Candour Productions. It draws on the first-hand experiences of people who work in the screen industries and highlights the exclusions, discrimination, and exploitation they have faced. These have their foundation in racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia, amongst other prejudices. The pressures of working in TV, especially in London, also mean that hours are long. The Time Project – a collaboration between SIGN researchers at the University of York and Hull, and Share My telly Job – sought to understand the working hours of people in the industry. A 10.4 hour day was revealed as the norm which is the equivalent to working two additional days a week compared to the UK average. Add in commutes and it is easy to see why TV work is incompatible with caring responsibilities and compounds other exclusionary factors.
Other voices are needed in the TV industry. Relocating elements of the industry are important steps and the BBC’s move of divisions to Salford and Channel 4’s headquarters moving to Leeds are important steps. Both cities have benefited, but London remains the powerhouse of the industry and significant decision-makers remain London-based. It is hoped more of Channel 4’s commissions will come from outside of London and the BBC’s investment in comedy in North East England are welcome steps to rebalance the UK’s television industry. It is still early days and the Government’s regional policy is undermined by a lack of funding and attacks on culture. It is crucial the voices of people and places outside of London are promoted, celebrated and heard because they bring value that is still not recognised enough.
Catch our talk (limited tickets left) with Lisa Holdsworth and Christopher Ecclestone as we ask “Arts and Culture – For the many; or the few?” Tickets HERE
 Henry, L. and Ryder, M. (2021) Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond. Faber & Faber.
Below is Lisa Holdsworth’s Industry Voices Video chat which emphasis the conversations had in the industry.