Embed from Getty Images
There is nothing inherently wrong with moving Channel 4 out of London and to the Midlands or anywhere else of similar size with appropriate transport links for that matter . Yes there will be some relocation costs but there is significant value in the freehold of the HQ at Horseferry Road to defray much of this cost.
George Osbourne talked of creating a northern powerhouse and moving a significant cultural and commercially oriented enterprise would do much to boost that.
London is too hot. It sucks money and young people into its core like a demented super hot hypergiant and starving the rest of the country from investment and talent. London is hugely expensive for young people to live in and means businesses that rely on people at their core have unnecessarily high costs. As London prices for everything from property to transport spiral upwards at a faster rate than elsewhere so too does the pressure on wages especially for people hungry businesses like television production. A move outside London would mean production costs are reduced.
Many argue that it is not where Channel 4 is based that counts but where it spends its cash. To some extent that is true but the majority of production companies are London based. Even where these companies produce outside London any profits are repatriated back to the centre. It is not unusual for London producers to perform huge contortions to get shows commissioned as part of a regional quota which although technically within the rules bend the spirit of the rationale for the quota.
A large commissioning hub outside London would aid the spread of production to a region. Production companies locate themselves where the money is and where it is easy to have a face to face meeting. Television commissioning is networking and much of the business is done in expensive restaurants and bars rather than at the office or on the phone. That means producers have to be near commissioners and that means London. By far the easiest way to boost production outside London is to move the commissioning money and those who decide how it is spent.
London doesn’t necessarily represent England and even less so does it represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The “nations” do have greater diversity of commissioning with regional commissioning teams in the BBC and regional companies in UTV, STV and S4C. But for the rest of England nearly all commissioning emanates from London and a small coterie of people make those decisions. Inevitably these people have similar backgrounds, hold similar views and mix with the same people. This can only create a certain uniformity in programming and worldview. Many criticise what they perceive as the metro centric viewpoint of a London elite.
Arguments can be set against this view in that many programmes carry a regional flavour. “The Fall” was set in Northern Ireland, “Line of Duty” although not specified is clearly not London, “Vera” is set in the North East and three of the 4 recognised “soaps” are set outside London. Partly this is down to economics. London is very expensive to film drama. Even “Eastenders” only just makes it inside the M 25 at Elstree. Only a curmudgeon could argue that programming on terrestrial channels be that Channel 4 or others is not hugely diverse in terms of geographic location.
News and Current Affairs is perhaps a more pertinent criticism of a perceived elitist viewpoint and it would be interesting to see what changes would happen if a large national television news organisation based the editorial staff outside of London.
The idea that television would become less elitist if it were based outside the Capital is probably a fallacy. Television is inherently elitist given the current institutional basis of its recruitment. White, upper middle class, often public school and Oxbridge educated television’s elitism comes not for its failure of regionality but from its education and class bias.
There are potential drawbacks to the relocation of Channel 4. One is that those producers who lie outside the new commissioning area will potentially be disadvantaged by having to focus on two separate hubs. Already incurring costs to come to London to pitch, further costs arise from having to focus on a secondary commissioning location. Potentially this could even reduce the number of different regional producers as a new clump forms around the new base and commissioning is directed at the nearest supplier. Would Channel 4 have to operate a London quota? Or would commissioning become a free for all giving an advantage to those bigger production groups with London financing and with regional production companies? These questions would need to be addressed.
A second drawback could arise if any relocation is only nominal. It can easily be envisaged that a commissioning team is left behind in London because, it is reasoned, London has the greatest locus of production companies thus arguing commissioning is more efficient if at least some is based in London and to reduce the cost consequences for regional producers discussed above. Such a situation would totally negate the effects of any relocation and make the exercise costly and futile.
Furthermore it could be argued that the concept of having a regional television industry has been tried before. Granada had a significant base in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool with a strong North West based management culture and a loyal and strongly regional viewership. It was ideally placed to create a television powerhouse in the north. But when push came to shove Granada chose to base its operations in the Capital. That in itself is probably evidence enough that any relocation of Channel 4 will be costly and ultimately a failure.
I hold the view that business consolidates in certain areas for a reason, from natural causes. Silicon Valley formed naturally not because governments told tech companies to go there. Likewise television production companies clumped together in London because the circumstances were right for the creativity to flourish there. But it is becoming ever more ridiculous for workers to travel from places like Brighton, Cambridge, Norwich and beyond into London solely to work because to live anywhere near the city is too expensive. Increasingly television production facilities are dwindling. ITV is closing its studios on the South Bank, BBC Television Centre’s facilities have been greatly reduced to accommodate more lucrative housing projects. Fountain Studios in Wembley, former home of X Factor is closed and been sold off to a property developer.
Despite this you cannot base part of an industry somewhere else and expect it to flourish when the core remains in London. Industries rarely flourish because of direct government intervention. Industries grow because of circumstances. The prevalence of resources, talented people and markets. The Government is limited in the amount of influence it has over most industries. The exception is broadcasting. It must be hugely tempting for the Government to use that influence to help stimulate a regional economy at little cost but pushing Channel 4 out of London is not the way to do it unless they push the BBC out too and ultimately encourage ITV to join the party. It would have to be all or nothing and that ain’t gonna happen.