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Seeds of Change

The British Broadcasting Corporation - with a roster of eight network television services and a remit to increase television program spending by £450 million (US$700 million) over the next two years - is recognized the world over as a behemoth. BBC1 and BBC2, the two main terrestrial TV channels, form the root of the Beeb's TV enterprise. The more recent offshoots are BBC4, BBC Choice, News 24, BBC Parliament and kids' stations CBeebies and cBBC. But, none of them could function as well as they do without support from the U.K. pubcaster's other branches, particularly broadcasters BBC Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Wales.
October 1, 2002

The British Broadcasting Corporation – with a roster of eight network television services and a remit to increase television program spending by £450 million (US$700 million) over the next two years – is recognized the world over as a behemoth. BBC1 and BBC2, the two main terrestrial TV channels, form the root of the Beeb’s TV enterprise. The more recent offshoots are BBC4, BBC Choice, News 24, BBC Parliament and kids’ stations CBeebies and cBBC. But, none of them could function as well as they do without support from the U.K. pubcaster’s other branches, particularly broadcasters BBC Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Wales.

Headed by Pat Loughrey since May 2000, the BBC Nations (as the three branches are called collectively) have been steadily increasing their contribution to the BBC networks, while continuing to provide programming for local audiences. Last year, the Nations provided 362 hours to the networks, of which 46 hours were factual shows. Says Ian Grutchfield, commercial strategy manager for BBC Nations & Regions, ‘We increased Nations’ network supply to £78 million ($120 million) in programs this year, which is up from £64 million ($100 million) last year. The target is to rise to a total of £90 million ($140 million) worth of programs [for 2003/04].’

In the review of 2001/02, BBC director-general Greg Dyke stated, ‘The BBC’s Nations & Regions, marooned for too long on the outer edges of the organization, have come in from the cold and are spearheading a closer relationship between the whole BBC and the diverse communities that make up our audience in the U.K.’

The rising status of the Nations within the BBC is good news for independent producers, both domestic and international. Not only are the Nations looking for programs to fill their local schedules, they offer access to national broadcast. Notes Grutchfield, ‘We make programs for many of the famous BBC strands, such as ‘Everyman’, ‘Timewatch’ and ‘Panoroma’.’ He adds that at least 25% of the Nations’ output comes from indies.

Though the Nations are sometimes viewed as one unit, each operates independently, and has individual interests and strengths. Here is a closer look at each Nation.

The Thistle

Ailsa Muirhead, BBC Scotland’s commercial manager, describes the Glasgow broadcaster as ‘a microcosm of the BBC,’ in terms of department structure. ‘We have a children’s unit, an education unit, drama department, and factual and arts,’ she notes. The head of factual and arts at BBC Scotland is Andrea Miller.

A large part of BBC Scotland’s remit is to provide programming that reflects the culture and interests of Scottish viewers (beyond bagpipes and Robbie Burns). Three of the main factual strands are ‘Artworks Scotland’, ‘Ex:S’ and ‘Frontline Scotland’.

‘Artworks Scotland’ is a presenter-led, half-hour strand consisting of 12 individual programs; subjects run the gamut of artistic achievement, from painting to literature. Notes Muirhead, ‘An independent producer can pitch to that strand, as long as [the idea] has some kind of Scottish art reference point.’ The second strand, ‘Ex:S’, focuses on popular culture. Like ‘Artworks Scotland’, it fills a half-hour timeslot and is open to indie submissions. ‘Frontline Scotland’ tackles current affairs in either half-hour or hour-long episodes, including international stories with a Scottish connection; it also accepts pitches from indies.

According to Muirhead, budgets for programs aimed at the local audience vary, but half-hour observational documentaries often come in around £20,000 to £30,000 ($30,000 to $45,000), while hours are £100,000 ($155,000) and up.

In the past few years, BBC Scotland has also picked up the pace of its production of landmark ‘social experiment’ shows for the networks. Castaway 2000 and The Heat is On, both copros with the U.K.’s Lion Television, saw participants struggle to survive in difficult environments. The latest reality show from the BBC’s Scottish division is Restoration, a series about buildings competing for restoration funds. Slated to air in summer 2003, the program has been commissioned to Endemol.

Adds Muirhead, ‘We’ve also started a film franchise as an area of expertise in Scotland. We do ‘Hollywood Greats’ documentaries and the film slot for BBC network.’

The Shamrock

Headquartered in Belfast, BBC Northern Ireland has long produced current affairs programs for its local audience. ‘They frequently do observational docs that are based in Northern Ireland,’ says Grutchfield. ‘[The programs] go into a 10:30 P.M. slot on the main channel and they get very high [audience] shares. In the last year, BBC Northern Ireland ran about eight observational docs in that time slot. About 50% of those docs were produced in-house and about 50% by independents.’

A recent example is South City Beat, a six-part series about the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland after almost 80 years of law enforcement by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Produced by Belfast-based Stirling Productions, the doc series carried a budget

of £45,000 ($70,000) per episode and attracted an audience share of 40% to 45%.

BBC Northern Ireland’s experience in producing current affairs shows gives it clout in this area with the network channels. Notes Grutchfield, ‘A current affairs show offered to the network via BBC Northern Ireland greatly enhances its prospects.’

The Belfast-based broadcaster is also keen to coverinternational subjects. Arts and culture digi-channel BBC4 recently arranged with BBC Northern Ireland for a series of profiles about individuals such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson (also former president of the Republic of Ireland). Some of these profiles will be produced by independents – Dublin/Belfast-based Mint Productions made the two previously mentioned – and some will come from BBC Northern Ireland’s in-house factual department.

BBC Northern Ireland occasionally supplies programs to network strands such as ‘Omnibus’ and ‘Everyman’. Documentaries generally go through the broadcaster’s factual and learning department, which is headed by Bruce Batten.

The Daffodil

Within BBC Wales, factual programming now has enough status to warrant its own department.

Says Grutchfield, ‘There was a combined arts, music and factual department, but that has split into three. [The reconfiguration] was a response to increasing amounts of both network business and local commissioning.’

History is the Welsh division’s specialty. Notes Grutchfield, ‘People have always known that history programs are made by BBC Wales. Over the years, there have been many history programs, a lot of them copros, and we’re continuing to do more. BBC Wales is making programs for ‘Timewatch’, the BBC’s flagship [history] strand, and we’re also working with indies such as Granada to make history programs for the network.’

Projects on the slate from BBC Wales are: Stephenson’s Rocket (w/t), a £180,000 ($280,000) one-hour doc for ‘Timewatch’, produced in-house, about the original engine trials for the first passenger train; and Brothers at War , a 4 x 50-minute, £900,000 ($1.4 million) copro for the network about the U.S. War of Independence, with Boston pubcaster WGBH and BBC Worldwide. The Welsh broadcaster also recently produced a couple of one-hour specials for BBC4: Ape Hunters, about Africa’s trade in ‘bush meat’; and Whale Hunters , about the international whaling trade in Japan.

Other big shows from BBC Wales for the network are: ‘Extreme Lives’, a series of six one-hour one-offs about extreme adventurers (four episodes are produced in-house and two are either acquired or commissioned out) and leisure series Hidden Gardens .

For local audiences, BBC Wales also has a range of offerings, including the ‘Life Matters’ strand, about ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things,’ and factual entertainment series I Love Wales and The Prying Gardener. Adrian Davies is in charge of the factual department for BBC Wales.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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