A&E, Channel 5 and ITV all invest in making shows outside London. Tara Conlan travels beyond the M25 to see their work
In recent years, Channel 4’s new national HQ in Leeds and the BBC’s relocation of 2,300 posts to Salford have dominated our perception of out-of-London programme production.
This is perhaps not surprising: the corporation has the largest Ofcom quota for UK production outside the M25 – 50% – followed by Channel 4 and ITV, who both have 35%, and Channel 5, with 10%.
But even channels not subject to the same quotas as the big public service broadcasters are quietly making regional shows. Some, such as History channel owner A&E Networks, are making more shows than ever outside London and reaping the benefit by reaching audiences across Britain.
In a review of regional TV production, published earlier this summer, Ofcom said: “Television production outside of London is a crucial part of the UK’s broadcasting sector. It helps to disperse and stimulate investment and job opportunities in the sector throughout the UK [and] benefits viewers by ensuring a diverse range of programmes and editorial perspectives.”
So why is there not more recognition of what the other channels are doing?
A&E Networks’ general manager UK and senior vice-president, content and creative, Heather Jones, thinks part of the “problem is that people who live in London and media circles” tend not to watch as much on her five UK channels as those outside the English capital.
However, when she tells Londoners about shows on History, such as Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the English? or the forthcoming Damian Lewis documentary Spy Wars, they are invariably impressed.
"The amount of filming required by Coronation Street and Emmerdale is equivalent to “two feature films a week” in Manchester and Leeds."
Around 40% of A&E’s UK spend goes out of London. This is an increase of 25% over the previous year. “We just got on with it. It’s something we are very committed to doing,” says Jones.
She explains that shows on the Crime+Investigation channel are often more successful outside of London, with “heavy viewing in the Midlands, north east, north west and Scotland,” and “valued because people are seeing themselves in them”.
Jones has overseen a conscious effort to harness the “huge opportunities to tell stories outside London.… In the archaeology series River Hunters we were genuinely discovering local history. The most important thing I said was: I do not want to see rivers south of Birmingham.”
She acknowledges that it’s cheaper to commission outside London – but it comes with “multiple benefits”, including “the beautiful scenery”. Regional shows can also fill some
of the gap left by the decline in local newspapers: “Local media is very sparse these days. It’s the duty of the national broadcasters, it’s part of our remit. We’re there to serve all the viewers.”
Jones says that series such as C+I’s most popular original show, Murdertown, “demonstrate the [role] of local stories. London didn’t feature, it was Hull or Pontypridd.”
She argues that structural change is necessary to support enough experienced talent, adding: “I applaud Channel 4 going to Leeds. There are certain corners of Britain that have owned genres – Bristol [for example, has] natural history. We have to start building these talent pools, and the only way to do that is by building proper structural ways to tell these stories.”
Channel 5 has also quietly increased its regional investment by a whopping 40% – exceeding its Ofcom regional target of 10% twofold. Director of programmes Ben Frow explains his strategy: “Being an indie has got to be one of the hardest jobs – and being a regional indie is even harder. As a broadcaster, we owe it to them to support them as much as possible.”
Last year, he tried to improve regionality by “buddying up” commissioners with regional companies so that they could get to know the channel. This led to commissions worth £4m – the 35 hours of programmes included Warship: Life at Sea, made by Artlab Films, based in the north west.
But Frow admits that “it is hard for us to do regional commissions because of the time it involves.… It requires effort on our part and their part to keep up the relationship – it’s not just a few hops down the Tube line.
“We’ve still got more to do, but we increased the number of regional hours in primetime by 40% to 16.4 hours. It seems small fry still, but it’s an indication.
“It’s more difficult from a practical commissioning level, as it’s not as easy to have face-to-face conversations. But we’re going in the right direction.” Particularly, he says, in northern England and in the west, as Ofcom noted in its regional review.
“We’re not a metropolitan channel,” says Frow. “We need to reflect our viewers and have regional faces and voices. Our most successful shows are made in the regions, such as The Yorkshire Vet or Cruising with Jane McDonald.
“I only have nine commissioners. Three of them do live in the regions, so they help keep us grounded and not ‘West London up our own arses’.”
Quotas “make sure you keep an eye on the ball”, Frow believes, but he “intends to do more”. “It doesn’t just come down to money, it comes down to time. You get so sucked up in the day to day… it’s difficult to find time to take a step back, but I’m passionate about it.”
"Talent outside London is huge. Quite a lot of people want to work outside London."
Unlike Channel 5, ITV’s regional roots run deep. “ITV never gets enough recognition” for its regional contribution, argues Managing Director of ITV continuing drama and ITV North John Whiston.
ITV makes 2,000 hours of content from its regional bases. Around half of all ITV Studios staff and 23 of its labels are based outside London. In 2017, the most recent figures available from Ofcom show that ITV made more than its quota of 35% – some 44%.
Whiston points out that the amount of filming required by Coronation Street and Emmerdale is equivalent to “two feature films a week” in Manchester and Leeds.
He says of Coronation Street: “We’re one of the biggest outside lots in Europe. We invested massively and we’re doing the same in Leeds and expanding there for Emmerdale. We just get on with it. Other companies have more strategic reasons to be shouting about it.
“Talent outside London is huge. Quite a lot of people want to work outside London, as I’ve done most of my career.”
He points to quiz show producer 12 Yard in Glasgow as a prime example of how specialist talent can act as an incubator for a genre. The BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol also shows how this can happen. And, he says, “what’s great” is when a brand such as Twofour Group’s Channel 4 series Educating Essex can be extended into other areas and even into the US.
Whiston also admits that regional production is “of course… cheaper. No doubt about it.” Sunday-night drama Victoria uses houses in Yorkshire for key scenes so that programme-makers can film “without having to disturb the whole of London”.
He notes that it is now trickier to hire freelancers in Salford – a “sign of a buoyant market”. Having the BBC in Salford, however, is a “fantastic” advantage. “We share initiatives and training schemes… [and the corporation’s] big commitment [to MediaCity] has really transformed the area.”
The axing of The Jeremy Kyle Show, which provided great volume and training for ITV Studios staff in Salford, has been a blow. Whiston believes that Kyle’s show will likely be replaced by another regional series.
He is not enthusiastic about production quotas, and suggests that “quotas feel quite old-fashioned” in the international marketplace in which ITV now finds itself a player.
“We’re expanding on our own merits” he says. “Talent, place and cost” are driving ITV’s expansion in the regions: “we will carry on whether quotas are in place or not”.