BBC is decentralizing to Northern England as part of a sweeping urban redevelopment project. Can it bring some of London's prosperity with it?
Granada preferred the North because of its tradition of home-grown culture, and because it offered a chance to start a new creative industry away from the metropolitan atmosphere of London... the North is a closely knit, indigenous, industrial society; a homogeneous cultural group with a good record for music, theatre, literature and newspapers, not found elsewhere in this island, except perhaps in Scotland...you will see that the North is an ideal place for television.
-Sidney Bernstein, 1954, Founder of Granada Television
Nearly 60 years after launching Granada Television (now ITV Granada), founder Sidney Bernstein's vision is receiving a validation of sorts in the form of MediaCityUK, a mixed-use project along the Manchester Ship Canal that's anchored by the network's more famous rival, the London-based British Broadcasting Corporation. But MediaCityUK is more than just a job poach from England's capital (ITV Granada will be based there, too). It's the assemblage of production facilities, large and small creative service providers, a university, a job incubator, apartments, retail, and public space, all in one built-from-scratch neighborhood.
The 200-acre development is a cluster of flashy architecture, popping out from the relatively quiet Manchester Ship Canal. Situated in Salford (a borough of Manchester) amid glass towers, retail, a new footbridge, and a public square that's twice the size of Trafalgar Square, MediaCityUK now hosts nine media studios and nearly 400 apartments. All of it is accessible by a new light rail expansion, connecting riders to central Manchester and Picadilly Station, where trains can reach London in about two hours.
MediaCity overshadows the warehouses, factories, and middle class housing that have long defined the neighborhood, coming together as a dramatic contrast of new versus old. It's a new look for a region that could use a boost after a tough stretch of austerity measures and economic stagnation.
The BBC announced in 2004 that it would relocate thousands of employees from London in an attempt to cut operational costs and increase viewership among Northerners. Granada has long been seen by Mancunians as an antidote to the BBC, too London-centric for those up north. It too will set up in MediaCity, relocating 900 employees from central Manchester over the next seven months (including a new studio for world-famous Coronation Street).
How television was made at Granada studios in its advent. A far cry from what awaits them when they move into MediaCityUK in the coming months.
Granada's success helped preserve Manchester's status as the alternative voice to a London-dominated UK media, an increasingly important responsibility after the Manchester Guardian (now Guardian) moved to London in 1964. BBC has been present in the area since 1958, housing BBC Manchester, North, North West, the the BBC Religion and Ethics department, plus the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Through its decentralization, its regional presence now includes BBC Breakfast, Children's, Sport, Radio 5, Leaning, and parts of the Future, Media and Technology staff. MediaCity also contains a new audio studio for its Orchestra.
The move was partly intended to help bridge a cultural programming gap. Media tastes between the North and South have long differed, with BBC consistently losing out on ratings to Granada. Its increased presence in MediaCity hasn't exactly ended the North's defensive view of London media yet.
Radio 5 is now produced in MediaCity, its surroundings perhaps influencing its programming as it increases in popularity up North. Radio 4 however, long the intellectual beacon of BBC's radio programming and still London-based, has seen increased criticism outside the South. Martin Wainwright of the Guardian's 'Northerner Blog' even went so far as to explain the Radio 5 sensibility in relation to 4 as "intelligence minus-pompousness."
After attending a BBC "Closing the Gap" conference (centered on getting more Northerners to listen to 4) Wainwright mentions a perception among Northerners that the two stations symbolize a nation split by media preference. One focus group member even joked that 4's schedule was 'like something you'd find in an old woman's handbag.' Another attendee perceived a dismissive tone in the voice of one on-air personality whenever he says 'our Salford facility.'
Aside from programming, MediaCity neighbors aren't thrilled with the Salford City Council's substantial funding of BBC's move while nearby residents continue to suffer through austerity measures. The Council had to find £40 million worth of cuts the previous financial year, including funds for mental health programs, day care facilities, grants for homeless facilities and even the Salford Film Festival, which has not been held since 2010. According to the Salford Star, the City Council subsidizes the privately owned MediaCityUK through a £10 million fund (distributed over 5 years for unspecified projects). The Council also signed on for an 8-year, £20 million sponsorship of the BBC Orchestra.
MediaCity is owned by the Peel Group, the largest property investment company in the U.K., with 9 million square feet of property in its portfolio. What's happening in Salford is just one part of its exhaustive, 50-year plan to transform northwest England into the leading economic region in the country. It's 'Ocean Gateway' project plans for £50 billion of its own money toward urban regeneration, partnering with municipalities to fill in funding gaps along the way.
The Manchester area has already seen some of Peel's visions come to fruition, not only with MediaCity but also Salford City Stadium and the doubling of Port Salford's shipping capacity. For MediaCity, four parcels remain for future development with no solidified plans in place.
Despite the public subsides, the short term gains haven't been seen by locals as much as they might have expected. Only 233 of the 23,023 online applicants within the Greater Manchester area were hired by the BBC for their big move. According to the Guardian, BBC North received 66,000 total online applicants in 2011 with 529 of them being hired.
Visions of a Northern talent pool supplying production services to the networks on site hasn't quite manifested itself yet. Justine Potter, a creative director for Savvy Productions in Manchester told the Guardian earlier this year that many of the BBC executives who moved from London still rely on London-based companies. "I'm very bored of hearing that there just isn't the talent in the North. The talent is here." Since the BBC doesn't seem to be looking for northerners, Potter thinks the locals should come to them, saying she hopes "regional companies will knock on the BBC's shiny new media city revolving doors and find themselves on the inside, not back out in the cold."
MediaCity's non-network infrastructure might help fill in that perceived jobs gap. Peel, in conjunction with Salford City Council and a regional development agency, has also formed Media Enterprise Centre, an incubator that provides startups with flexible office space, advice from related companies, and training facilities. Branching out from television and film, the MEC will also have a center of excellence for video game development. And from the educational level, the new media studios, post-production suites, and a research facility for University of Salford's media students should help encourage an ambitious new generation of local talent.
Still in its advent, MediaCityUK is not yet the dreamy urban regeneration it's planned to become. The foundation of a strong economic hub is in place but the development hurdles of culture and politics have yet to be cleared.