Monday, November 21, 2011

£ 877 Million And No Wastepaper Baskets -- BBC Moves HQ To Manchester (From The Telegraph)

New BBC HQ -- Salford

NOTE:  This may be of small concern to non-UK readers (I'd love to know how any UK readers feel), but I post it because I worked closely with the BBC for about 15 years, both in the US and the UK, and I feel affection for friends (present and past) at the organization.  The move north is obviously big, expensive news.  There is a "back-story" here, of course, that's been told to me regarding the real reasons behind the move, i.e., the ones that aren't for public consumption, but I can't repeat it here.

I would like to say a couple of things, however, and then Neil Midgley's 10-29-11 Telegraph story, such as it is, can "tell itself."

Thought Pod -- What were they thinking?

First, I imagine that the new Manchester/Salford BBC HQ (called "Media City"), viewed in person, is indescribably, world-alteringly, weird, ugly and anti-human. The photos here make this apparent, I think, but I should mention that when I actually saw this same decor deployed at the new BBC Worldwide Americas HQ in Manhattan last spring, it was crazy-awful beyond belief and loathed by all staff I spoke to.  The old London HQ was certainly not a place of aesthetic beauty, but Television Centre in White City had a kind of institutional grandeur (studio production facilities are always cool) and BBC Enterprises' (later Worldwide's) building in Wood Lane, which I knew quite well, seemed like an time-capsule artifact from George Orwell's 1984 with its spiderweb-like structure leading mysteriously to multitudes of discrete, obscure, minatory nowheres.  Visits to the building gave me insights into the post-WWII British mind and imagination I never experienced elsewhere.

The Good Old Days -- Eurovision Song Contest, Television Centre, 1963  

Second, for those too impatient to read all of Peter Salmon's odd musings below, I have bolded and italicized his most trivial, idiotic ideas (it was difficult to make a final selection but I think I've chosen correctly; n.b., I did this so you wouldn't have to) in the four magenta sections located near the end of the piece. If you focus on these items and mentally pull on them, like you would a dangling thread extending from a sock or a wool strand hanging from a sweater, you will easily be able to imagine the whole inglorious Mancunian edifice -- business and buildings -- unraveling (or crumbling) before your eyes.

SCARY -- SCARY -- that these are "leadership thoughts" attached to billion-plus dollar costs, jobs and lives

THAT'S RIGHT:  £877 million and No Waste Paper Baskets - the world's problems yielding to an unexpected solution, blinding in its clarity and obviousness. 

Twit, twit, twit.  Twit.  

With management and "improvements" like this, it does seem as though the Beeb may have served out its useful life.

Peter Salmon

"Few BBC projects can have generated such consistently bad headlines as its multimillion pound migration from London to Salford. Almost as soon as the Labour government insisted on the move, in the last licence fee settlement in 2007, the negative stories began. 

There was the money, with eyes popping at the £877million cost. There were the decisions that seemed plain bonkers, such as taking the headquarters of BBC Sport 200 miles north only months before the London Olympics. And then there were the big–name critics, with the BBC's own John Simpson accusing bosses of pushing ahead with the move "not in the interests of broadcasting, but to tick some box". 

Odd, expensive and ghastly.  Will "date" shortly and badly. Will confound future historians (assuming same exist) seeking to reconstruct rhyme, reason and chronology.  Armageddon (of which this may be an omen) may intervene and make all this irrelevant.

But Peter Salmon, the BBC executive who has been in charge of the project since late 2008, has no regrets. "I wouldn't change a thing," he says. "We can't win with the constituents on Fleet Street, we never will. We've given that one up – we just have to please licence–fee payers."

During our conversation, in fact, it proves impossible to get Salmon to acknowledge even the smallest of clouds on the BBC's sunny Mancunian horizon.

He defends his own decision, for example, to delay buying a house in the North. Jimmy Mulville, the producer of some of the BBC's biggest shows, including Have I Got News for You, accused Salmon of "leading from the back". Salmon's wife, the actress Sarah Lancashire, remains with their family in "leafy Twickenham".

He says he will buy a "family home" in the North in 2012 but will not commit to actually moving his family into it. "We've got six kids, my wife has got a separate career.  I will be based here full–time. I'll buy property which will be my family's property. But who cares to live there is not something I need to share with your readers, I feel."

"Presenters" (not yet present)

He also defends the right of BBC colleagues to take their time in deciding whether to move north. (Staff with homes down south can claim up to £1,900 a month for as long as two years to rent near Salford and shuttle to and fro each week.) Of the most high–profile refusenik, BBC One's Breakfast presenter Sian Williams, 

Salmon says: "Every individual has to make their own choice, has got their own life, and I respect that." 

The decision to move BBC Breakfast to Salford came only last year, long after the BBC announced that its sport and future media departments, as well as children's programmes and Radio 5 Live, would head north. 

It was derided by critics, who wondered how BBC Breakfast would convince Londonbased guests to make a 400–mile, overnight round trip for just a few minutes on the studio sofa. But Salmon remains relentlessly upbeat.

"It's wonderful to have celebrities and actors and writers and performers and comedians and singers in the mix," he says, "but the primary function of BBC Breakfast is a three–hour news magazine. We feel we can do that really well from the north of England." 

Peter Salmon redux.  Obviously One Believer.

Salmon's colleagues testify to his commitment not just to doing things in Salford, but to doing them better. 

"For Peter, it's not enough just to do what you did the year before," says one. "There always has to be a bigger and bolder idea."

Another says that Salford's delivery (so far, on time and under budget) is so wellregarded internally at the BBC that Salmon – whose CV also boasts stints running BBC One and BBC Sport – is increasingly mooted as a future director–general.

Certainly, as he sits on an ergonomic office chair in one of the new BBC Salford buildings, Salmon can be quietly pleased with the move to date. Last December, the building was still pretty much a shell; now, more than 1,300 people are working from the site. Almost all of Radio 5 Live comes from Salford, with Richard Bacon and Victoria Derbyshire's shows having arrived this week. Blue Peter is there, too, with Match of the Day following next month. 

Segway.  Present future prescient.  Sad about the shirt.

The BBC's director–general, Mark Thompson, announced earlier this month that another 1,000 jobs would migrate there by 2016, bringing the eventual total to 3,300 – or one in five of the corporation's total staff. 

Salmon's real test will come next summer, when Salford is to be the nerve centre for the BBC's Olympic coverage. "We've put the kind of technology into this site which will allow BBC Sport to have a lot more interactivity, to work across every platform known to man and woman," says Salmon. 

If you have a purple Thought Pod, why not have a green one also?

"To support our ambition to follow every thwack of a shuttlecock, every oar that passes through the water and all the rest of it, it'll allow them to do that in a way that they couldn't have done from London. We simply haven't got the technological means to do that from TV Centre."

Despite the miles that will separate BBC Sport HQ from the Olympic Park, Salmon says his ambition is to make it "the best Olympics ever on TV, radio and online".

Salmon's HQ – part of a development that has been modestly named MediaCityUK – is certainly futuristic. 

Bristling with shiny buildings but isolated and windswept, MediaCityUK has an almost Martian feel. BBC staffers huddle away from the mid–October rain in a newlyopened Costa coffee shop, and one of Manchester's Metrolink trams reaches its terminus on the largely deserted piazza.

Inside the BBC building, dull carpets are dotted with areas of garish purple and green, and the central atrium is lined with "thought pods" that will seat two staffers for impromptu meetings. Staff have been given lockers for their personal belongings, and then "hot desk" at different seats as required.

But one luxury they are not allowed at their hot–desks is a waste–paper bin. The only bins are near the photocopiers and in the kitchen areas (which, of course, also have recycling hoppers and a receptacle for "lined single–use paper cups").

According to Salmon, the lack of a personal bin "makes people move round a bit more, collaborate a little bit more and get to know their colleagues, learn new things about different ways of working. If people become territorial and defensive about their own space, they tend to work in less efficient ways." 

Imagine seeing this every day of your life.

Even when making such eyebrow–raising claims, Salmon speaks with evident enthusiasm for his brief. He refuses to name presenters who have decided not to move house to the North but says he will be monitoring their performance.

"The most important issue is, are you committed to the programme? Are you brilliant at what you do? Are you fully engaged?" he says. "If the answer as a consequence of any arrangement is 'no', then it's simply not going to work with that presenter."

Salmon predicts that the site will be so cost–effective that the £189million spent by the BBC on out–of–pocket costs for the move will be recouped by productivity gains. And he hopes that the north of England's 17million licence–fee payers, who have traditionally had lower–thanaverage affection for the BBC, will be won over by a gradual change in some of its output. 

Desolation Row (Am I a goldfish dreaming I'm a man or . . . .)

Salmon makes a bold prediction about the shows that will soon be broadcast from the North West. "I think that every programme from Salford will be better over the next period because of the fact that we've moved – because of the spirit and the creativity and the technology that we've assembled here. Including the Olympics," he says. "If that wasn't our ambition, why do it?"

"Every programme from Salford will be better over the next period.""

Television Centre For Sale (Sad)

"Peter Salmon's CV:  Born May 15, 1956 Education St Theodore's High School, Burnley; University of Warwick (literature) Career Joined BBC as a trainee in 1981. Went on to produce Crimewatch UK and co–create Sport Relief. Had spells at Channel 4 and Granada before rejoining BBC in 1997 as controller of BBC One and then director of sport. Left again to set up production company, rejoined in 2006 before being appointed director of BBC North 2008 Family Married to the actress Sarah Lancashire with whom he has a son; three sons from previous relationship Interests Music, football, cycling, museums."

Ming Tea: BBC  (LINK)


  1. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

    Property for Sale in Manchester

  2. I'm glad you liked this. There's probably a ton of updated information available in the UK press (news articles, opinion columns, letters to the editor, blogs). I think the move was a very odd, Brave New World-1984 sort of undertaking. Curtis