As revealed by Clean Feed today, BBC Studios has confirmed that it is reducing its workforce in Northern Ireland.
It’s not clear why alternative work has not been passed to BBC Studios’ Northern Ireland unit to enable the six posts to be retained. However, a spokesman confirmed that no existing work had been transferred to another UK location.
In June, BBC Studios appointed Juliet Rice as new Bristol, Cardiff and Belfast Factual Entertainment Creative Director “to oversee its busy Factual Entertainment business in the south west and Northern Ireland.”
Suffice to say, the BBC Studios south west and Wales operations will be rather more busy than their Belfast counterpart now.
The BBC Studios move comes only a few months after BBC director-general Tim Davie announced ambitious plans to move more programme production out of London and into the nations and regions.
Whilst Davie’s plan had a lot in it for Scotland, Wales and some English regional centres, there didn’t seem to be much coming the way of Northern Ireland, other than a building refurbishment announcement for Broadcasting House in Belfast.
The Broadcasting House project has been wheeled out regularly as a good news story for BBC NI (since 2013) but with little in the way of progress. More on that shortly.
According to recent Ofcom figures, in 2020, the BBC reduced the proportion of its network spend in Northern Ireland from 3.5% to 1.7%, and the proportion of hours from 2.7% to 2.2%. The BBC may cite the Covid pandemic as the reason for the dip.
This is how the proportion of BBC network programming made in Northern Ireland looks for the last five years – and we’ve included the corresponding spend and hours for Scotland and Wales for comparison:
2016: NI £3.1% (H2.1%) // Scotland £10.3% (H16.6%) // Wales £5.8% (H4.3%)
2017: NI £2.4% (H1.9%) // Scotland £9.1% (H16.3%) // Wales £6.7% (H4.4%)
2018: NI £3.1% (H2.4%) // Scotland £10.4% (H16.7%) // Wales £6.3% (H4.6%)
2019: NI £3.5% (H2.7%) // Scotland £9.1% (H15.1%) // Wales £8.2% (H5.4%)
2020: NI £1.7% (H2.2%) // Scotland £6.5% (H15.3%) // Wales £8.2% (H4.6%)
Northern Ireland is significantly behind Scotland in terms of spend and hours. The higher cost per hour in Wales is presumably down to the number of episodes of dramas produced there. Drama is one of the more expensive programme genres.
US production companies have been setting up camp in Northern Ireland in recent years citing the lower costs, availability of skilled staff and good facilities as reasons for their choice of location. Based on the figures we see here, the BBC doesn’t appear to be quite as convinced.
The amount of first-run content for the local BBC audience dropped by 6% in 2020, to 568 hours (in monetary terms, this is a decline of £9.0m to £18.3m). The largest decrease was for current affairs programming, dropping by 16 hours to 72 hours.
Overall, news content accounts for the largest share of first-run programming for the Northern Ireland audience, comprising 51%.
Again, the BBC would probably point to the pandemic as the explanation for the reduced spend on local programming in Northern Ireland.
Here’s what the total spend on first-run local programming looks like in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales over a seven-year period:
2014: NI £24.7m // Scotland £63.8m // Wales £22.9m
2015: NI £26.0m // Scotland £49.5m // Wales £24.2m
2016: NI £26.9m // Scotland £50.8m // Wales £21.5m
2017: NI £23.3m // Scotland £45.8m // Wales £24.2m
2018: NI £21.9m // Scotland £44.4m // Wales £28m
2019: NI £27.3m // Scotland £72m // Wales £27.6m
2020: NI £18.3m // Scotland £49.6m // Wales £20.8m
It’s not clear if the Scottish figures include Gaelic-language channel BBC Alba, which spends c. £16m/year on first-run shows. We believe the BBC Scotland TV channel is included in the above figures.
BBC Wales also provides some programming for the Welsh-language channel S4C – again, it’s not immediately obvious if that’s included in the figures for Wales.
The Irish Language Broadcast Fund and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund provide some funding to BBC Northern Ireland. However, the funding levels are modest and are dwarfed by the funding pumped into dedicated TV channels in Scotland and Wales.
Where spend on local programming is concerned, there’s the argument about population levels in each of the nations. 2019 figures show Northern Ireland has a population of 1.9m, Scotland 5.5m and Wales 3.1m.
It’s surely worth considering though that BBC One Northern Ireland and BBC Two Northern Ireland are available to the majority of the Republic of Ireland – with a population of 4.9m.
Back now to that long-running saga about a replacement for the BBC’s aging headquarter building in Belfast. In 2013, the BBC announced that it wanted to relocate its Northern Ireland HQ to another location in Belfast.
Since then, the project has been talked about, talked about again and talked about some more, until it eventually became a refurbishment of the existing site and facilities.
However, it is our understanding that further changes were made to the building plan after the July 2019 application.
Then, in the early months of the Covid pandemic, the redevelopment project was suspended. Though no actual redevelopment work had started on the Broadcasting House site.
BBC Northern Ireland director Peter Johnson said the decision was taken in light of the need to protect the BBC’s financial position. He said the project would also be subject to review.
Mr Johnson said the review would “give us the opportunity to take stock of a changing environment and to look at how best to prioritise investment in our technology and infrastructure.
“We will also need to take account of wider developments affecting BBC strategy, funding and priorities,” he added.
In June this year, Tim Davie announced that the Broadcasting House project had been reviewed and the total budget cut down to £48m (£30m less than the plan announced in 2018).
The £48m investment would cover:
- Updating and upgrading broadcast technology, equipment and production spaces.
- Reshaping the building to make it “an open, creative hub for staff and the wider creative sector”.
- Opening the rear of the site with a publicly accessible plaza area, which is in line with Belfast City Council’s vision for the wider regeneration of the Linen Quarter, where the building is located.
- Allowing staff to work more flexibly between the office and home, with less travel between BBC bases, and investment in more environmentally efficient vehicles.
The 2018 announcement included a central hub linking existing buildings. This element has been scrapped.
And you’d think that after so many reviews they’d be ready to get started with the building work? Well, according to insider sources, planning of the building work is ongoing and no actual redevelopment work will begin until next year.
One would’ve thought that fairly detailed planning would be needed in order to arrive at a costing. But this almost feels like BBC Northern Ireland was told what the budget is and now have to figure out how to make it work.
As if to take the edge off the negative news about the reduced spend on the building project, BBC Northern Ireland announced on the same day that they would be renewing their partnership with Northern Ireland Screen:
The BBC aims to increase its network television spend in Northern Ireland, as part of a renewed partnership with Northern Ireland Screen.BBC/NI Screen/Ofcom
Now in its seventh year, the partnership has produced some notable successes, including the recent series of Line of Duty. With this new deal, the BBC aims to exceed its quota of commissioning 3% of network television content from Northern Ireland, which was the target for earlier agreements.
It’s not clear how much finance BBC Northern Ireland contributes to this partnership, in addition to the funding supplied by Northern Ireland Screen and other third parties.
Local politician Matthew O’Toole (SDLP) criticised the building refurbishment announcement, saying it was “pretty shabby news management to put this cut in investment out on a Friday afternoon and with a positive gloss”.
The south Belfast assembly member said he has called “repeatedly for the BBC to make good on their much-ballyhooed commitment to invest in Belfast”.
The cost of the Belfast Broadcasting House project is significantly lower than the recently completed new BBC Wales headquarters, which came in at £120m. The final cost of a new HQ for BBC Scotland, completed in 2007, was in the region of £190m.
The BBC also created the Roathlock Drama Village in Wales in 2011, at a cost supposedly in the region of £25m. It boasts 9 HD studios and is home to such high-profile shows such as Doctor Who and Casualty.
There have been countless other BBC building projects over the last twenty years or so – many of which we have documented here.
In spite of being highlighted many years ago as a building much in need of modernisation, BBC Broadcasting House in Belfast seems to have been put to the bottom of the pile.
A BBC Executive response (January 2015) to a review of the BBC’s estate by the National Audit Office (2014):
“Whilst there is still work to be done in some buildings, most significantly in Belfast…”
“Some buildings that the BBC has earmarked for improvement, because they are outdated and inefficient, have still to be upgraded. Sites that have not yet been upgraded include Cardiff and Belfast. These ageing sites require extensive maintenance and their design and layout is not well-suited to the BBC’s current needs. The BBC plans to relocate its Cardiff operations to a new site in 2018. However, it has still to determine how it will address inefficiencies at its site in Belfast.”
It’s hard to look at the facts and figures and not understand why the broadcast/TV production sector in Northern Ireland might feel a little aggrieved.
Perhaps BBC senior leadership in other parts of the country are better at fighting their corner and negotiating good deals for their respective local operations? Or, to address the elephant in the room, are BBC chiefs in London secretly concerned about the possibility of a united Ireland?
There’s perhaps a combination of factors at play here. However, I think it’s fair to say, the BBC could do better for Northern Ireland.
PICTURED: BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast. COPYRIGHT: BBC.