Look beyond middle-­class, white London, says Matt Hancock MP

Look beyond middle-­class, white London, says Matt Hancock MP

Matt Hancock MP (Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)
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Matt Hancock, Minister for Digital and Culture, tells broadcasters to broaden their horizons at the RTS London Conference

Throughout its history, TV has been one of the UK’s greatest success stories. In recent years, it has grown at twice the rate of the rest of our economy and annually generates over £13bn in revenue. Of that, the growing independent production sector now contributes £3bn a year. 

More than just the economic statistics, your work really matters. You are one of the UK’s best shop windows, introducing the world to our culture and telling them who we are as a nation. 

The export market for finished programmes, international commissions and format sales has more than doubled in size over the past decade to over £1bn today. 

You and your programmes are among our most powerful cultural ambassadors. Kids in South Korea queue to meet Peter Capaldi. Crowds in New York scream for Benedict Cumberbatch. And all over the world people make their arms into an X and tell Simon Cowell: “No one wants this more than me.” That is soft power in action. And it is great for the UK. 

But, of course, this is also a time of great change. Digital technology is revolutionising viewing habits. And it is primarily these challenges – and these opportunities – that I want to talk about today. 

Traditional TV viewing now accounts for only some two-thirds of the nation’s viewing time. What we watch is changing: 72% of us now regularly watch short-form videos on YouTube and elsewhere. 

James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, that Calvin Harris video featuring Rihanna, Hillary Clinton’s latest spot ad, even back copies of PMQs – everyone’s taste is catered for, mine included. 

And, if we want more conventional-­length programmes, we won’t necessarily turn to the conventional channels. Netflix now reaches 4.4 million households in the UK and Amazon Prime more than 1 million. 

I’ve set out three core priorities for all the creative industries, and they are no less important in TV than the others. The first is backing success. In all we do, we want to back success where we find it; to build on and strengthen Britain’s creativity.

"Kids in South Korea queue to meet Peter Capaldi. Crowds in New York scream for Benedict Cumberbatch"

So we have introduced new TV tax breaks. And they are working. In the first full year of the TV tax credit, nearly £400m was invested in high-end television programmes, a further £52m in animation, and £35m in video games. 

Amid this constant change, public service broadcasting remains hugely valued in most viewers’ lives. In a typical week, figures show 84% of us will watch public service television. The vast majority of people – 73% of viewers, according to a recent poll – believe it is doing a fine job. 

Of course, public service broadcasting is only part of the mix. The UK has a vibrant multichannel sector, delivering more than 500 channels via free and pay platforms. 

I know many of you worry about the impact of Brexit. The EU referendum highlighted the need to bring this country together. That can only be achieved by reaching out to – by directly addressing – all its constituent parts. You and your industry have that power. 

Throughout her history, Britain has succeeded best when we’ve been open, positive, engaged, and looking outwards, towards the whole world. You can help define Britain’s place in the world today and bring the people of Britain along with us. 

On the specifics, we absolutely get the importance of: the country-of-origin principle; continuation of UK content’s designation as European work; access to skilled labour and to funding; and the central importance of the broadcasting industry. We are working on those things as we prepare to negotiate Britain’s exit. 

That brings me to my second principle: expanding access. It is a central objective of this Government that everyone, from every background, should have an equal chance to succeed, an equal chance to access arts and culture. 

In TV, you are already bringing culture – high-brow, middle-brow, resolutely low-brow, it really doesn’t matter – into homes up and down the land. 

But just as your audience is wide and diverse, so should your industry be. While there is already a push for greater diversity on-screen, and we will continue to support that, it must be matched by a similar drive behind the scenes. 

Ideally, this room would echo to a range of accents, from all parts of the country, from every ethnicity, from every class and gender. Does it yet? I challenge you. 

The BBC move to Salford has been a triumph, and it is one that I would like to see other broadcasters follow in terms of spreading people, production and investment beyond London. 

New technology and distribution is making it easier to break through. But does commissioning reflect the diversity of our modern nation?

"Ideally, this room would echo to a range of accents, from all parts of the country, from every ethnicity, from every class and gender."

On gender, disability, sexual identity, and ethnicity, yes, you are beginning to make strides. But what of social and geographical diversity? 

I ask you, and I hold you to a higher standard, because a popular, demotic industry like yours, with such a wide and diverse audience, should be leading the way. 

So reflect the country you serve. Thrive on Britain’s diversity. Look to opportunities beyond the nearest horizon. Show by example that people from any walk of life can get ahead if they’ve got talent. 

My third priority is to drive the opportunities of digital synthesis. 

There is a very good reason I’m the Minister for Digital and Culture. The synergy between art and technology has never been more important. This link – between our creative and cultural assets, and the digital platforms and technology that deliver them – is, in my profound belief, how Britain will pay her way in the 21st century. 

This sector is perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about: the pipes and wires of digital delivery meet the beauty and creative genius of the TV sector. 

If a Wikipedia page is slightly slow to load, it probably won’t greatly try the patience. If a programme we’re engrossed in begins to buffer, it can feel like the end of the world. All the tension you’ve carefully crafted – the gags you’ve expertly timed – are ruined. 

So I’m absolutely determined that the UK’s digital infrastructure must be world-leading. We have invested substantially in our digital communications infrastructure – both for mobile and fixed connectivity – with £750m from central government. 

We are rolling out superfast broadband across as many homes and businesses as possible. We have already achieved 90% coverage. We are on track to reach 95% by the end of next year and are pushing fibre, too. 

It will get easier and quicker, year on year, for people to access the brilliant shows you make. And digital needs content. 

That nexus between technology and culture is our future economy’s sweet spot, and it is at that nexus that your industry has always lived, and where it must continue to thrive. 

Yes, there are challenges, but there are huge opportunities to reach more people, to open more minds, embrace new technology, to educate, excite and entertain like never before. That is a passion we share and, in doing so, I will be at your side. 

This is an edited version of the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP’s speech to the RTS London conference. The full version is at: www.rts.org.uk/article/matt-hancock-minister-digital-and-culture-tv-one-...