A place to call our own 

13 Jun 2011 6 tbs.pm/1267 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

From a purely practical and logistical perspective, the BBC’s Television Centre is nowadays a large, old-fashioned and under-utilized building that must cost a fortune to heat and to cool, as well as occupying acres of expensive and highly-desirable London real estate that could still fetch a tidy sum even with depressed land and property prices.

So, you may ask, why the big deal surrounding the BBC’s decision to sell off Television Centre, especially as such a move has supposedly been on the cards for quite sometime?

Mention the BBC to anyone in the United Kingdom and odds-on the first thing they will think of when visualizing its location will be the iconic BBC Television Centre. The corporation may be spread over numerous locations including Bush House, White City and MediaCity but to most people TVC is the BBC, full stop.

Of course the BBC has had another equally iconic focal point in the guise of Alexandra Palace, so perhaps the selling of Television Centre might not be the huge deal that many opponents to the sale are making it out to be.

However this sale also comes at a very crucial time for the corporation in terms of downsizing and reconfiguring its priorities as a broadcaster; a time when it desperately needs to hang on to all the good will it can muster.

Unless the BBC can successfully promote one or two other locations as a “home of broadcasting” (say, White City and MediaCity), there’s now a very strong danger that the BBC will lose a fundamental part of its core identity as a broadcaster, which in this time of change and conflict could well deal a fatal blow to the corporation in the longer term.

This is even more significant at a time when regional centres are being promoted at the expense of a single central location; devolution may be a good thing (and perhaps a key reason for the TVC sale), but one or two key locations are still needed for a broadcaster of the BBC’s stature even if it still needs to strive for greater regional relevancy.

And the BBC has nearly always had a regional dimension to its heart even if its exact composition has varied over the years, eg. Top of the Pops started life in Manchester, Pebble Mill at One came from Birmingham and BBC Bristol specialised in wildlife documentaries.

Lose the Television Centre and you might end up having a fair percentage of licence fee-payers asking “What am I paying the licence fee for besides a small number of worthwhile programmes?”, because the BBC maintains its good will partly by being so much more to its licence fee-payers than being just another broadcaster in the EPG.

Of course the BBC may now be trying to do an ITV, namely being just content with producing programmes from anonymous studios that could theoretically exist anywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe, but the BBC is a very different and highly cherished public institution therefore such a tactic wouldn’t sit well with public accountability (for one thing).

Numerous public events over the years have helped to give Television Centre its landmark status as a hub of televisual excellence, therefore the BBC risks throwing away all of this comprehensively rich heritage by putting up the “For Sale” sign without due thought as to how best to preserve and maintain this legacy.

It may be true that top quality programming should remain the number one priority for the BBC, but the BBC is fundamentally different to any other broadcaster you can think of, therefore any strategy that predominantly relies on convention (marketing, public value, the promotion of “good ideas”, etc.) seriously risks undermining any unique characteristics.

And that, I’m afraid, is the key problem. Myself and others have now completely lost faith in BBC management to coherently defend and protect the corporation’s core values, especially taking into account recent decisions such as the cancellation of the Electric Proms and removing non-news content from the BBC’s local websites.

Both of these cutbacks seem to be based around specific short term issues such as financial expediency and pacifying competitors as opposed to taking into consideration any in-depth and longer term consequences of such decisions for the BBC and its collective worth to the nation.

Such misguided strategies seem to underpin the fundamental basis of this decision to sell off Television Centre, even if there are on-paper advantages to such a move as noted before, but sometimes it’s the intangibles (heritage, reputation, etc.) that should always trump factors like financial gain for a major public service broadcaster.

And as with ITV’s decision to sell off numerous regional TV production centres for financial reasons before belatedly realising that it could actually do with more in-house production facilities, the BBC could end up doing something that it may bitterly regret for many more reasons than one.

Owning fewer public assets will no doubt make the BBC even more vulnerable to the prospect of further asset stripping in the future – it has already lost too many assets in a quest to become more ‘efficient’ (just look at the stormy relationship between the BBC and Siemens), and is perhaps just a step away from being turned into yet another Channel 4.

It may be a grim day for the future of Television Centre but the real nightmare could soon unfold for the BBC itself.

 

Roger Bucknall

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6 responses to A place to call our own

Matt 13 Jun 2011 at 4:12 pm

I think you’ll find it is listed and the fa├žade is in no danger of being demolished any time soon.

http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1393371

Better that the building find a use than be left in the mouldering and obsolete state it’s in in at the moment.

You make a lot of good points about decentralisation at the beeb and having it become more like ITV, sadly you make them 15 years too late.

There’s no broadcast technology at TVC, very little production goes on there and the studios are often host to productions by other broadcasters. The majority of BBC programs are made by independent production companies using facilities elsewhere and the big in house ones like Doctor Who and Top Gear aren’t made at TVC.

Everything you’re worried about has already happened. Selling the building is just selling the suit granddad was buried in, the corpse has long since turned to dust.

Paul Z. Temperton 13 Jun 2011 at 5:16 pm

In my view the really iconic BBC building is still Broadcasting House, as it has been for 80 years. Having such a dazzling and world-famous architectural gem bang in the middle of London must be priceless in PR terms for the BBC, and I’m sure many more visitors to London catch sight of it in the flesh than are ever going to find themselves in White City.

I’d be much more upset if they were getting rid of BH and I am delighted that instead it is getting a new lease of life.

Glenn Aylett 13 Jun 2011 at 11:07 pm

Maybe the political decision to move sport and children’s programmes to Salford spelled the death knell for the Television Centre as the decision to move news to Broadcasting House had been made in 2003. Should the BBC have kept programming as it was- radio at Broadcasting House, television at Television Centre- then this iconic building would have survived but the blurring of functions between the two buildings that ocurred when John Birt moved radio news from its traditional home in 1998 meant something was going to go.( At the time it looked to me that Broadcasting House could be on the way out).

However, I think the BBC will survive the end of the Television Centre as they will no doubt promote heavily Broadcasting House, which is an even more iconic building to radio listeners, and the new facilities at Salford. Also it does appear that they seem to like the White City backdrop in current affairs programmes and maybe this could be seen as their new icon in W12. However, it is sad news to see the BBC abandon their most famous building even if it is becoming impractical to maintain.

David Hastings 14 Jun 2011 at 11:06 am

The most significant parts of Television Centre may be listed but there are other, arguably just as important and iconic features such as the gatehouse which aren’t listed and would be very vulnerable to any redevelopment proposal. (It’s all about context – there would be an outcry if an IKEA was built next to Windsor Castle!) Plus TVC is arguably of much greater relevance if still used for its original intended purpose.

I’ve only visited TVC once about ten years ago and to my eyes it was still a thriving and very relevant place. Don’t forget that TVC was being well used during a two (BBC TV) channel era when the now-defunct Lime Grove also in operation along with several regional facilities, and ITV/independent producers still make use of BBC facilities for productions because they still happen to be rather good. (ITV having got rid of most of their studios recently. Hint hint.) A bit of creative thinking combined with subletting unused TVC space would do the trick…I thought that the BBC was supposedly full of creative thinkers?

Of course part of the trouble lies with the current trend for outsourcing both productions and facilities management, but it’s only a trend that will eventually be reversed, if only partially. (There’s no reason why specific locations can’t be mentioned in contracts.)

Programmes still have to be made somewhere, and ironically the current trend has shifted towards bigger studios such as those at MediaCity in Salford because some producers seem to have forgotten the art of making a small studio seem bigger than it actually is.

And as others like Danny Baker have pointed out, BBC management have made stupid decisions in the past, eg. the junking of old TV programmes, that they now bitterly regret making. They shouldn’t add another bitterly regrettable decision to that list…

And buildings DO matter, otherwise Harrods would have relocated to a unit on an industrial estate years ago.

Glenn Aylett 14 Jun 2011 at 6:13 pm

I totally agree with Paul Temperton, the revived Broadcasting House could become the new BBC icon, standing as it does at the top of Regent St, and the building being used as a news centre from next year. I saw BH earlier this year and was very impressed with the reconstruction, gone were those awful sixties office blocks and in their place is a new building to house BBC news that really stands out at the top of Langham St. I am sure this building with huge BBC initials on the front will become as iconic as the one in London W12.

Also, apart from me on a few anoraky visits in the past, how many tourists are likely to wander along Wood Lane on a regular basis compared with Regent St. I am sure the New Broadcasting House will become even more familiar to people in years to come than its better known television counterpart. However, still a sad day all the same.

Joseph Gallant 14 Jun 2011 at 7:30 pm

Here in the United States, time is running out on one of our most iconic television broadcasting centres.

NBC is in the process of moving their West Coast operations from Burbank to Universal City, just a couple of kilometres down the road.

Still, the facility, the first portion of which opened in 1952 (with several additions constructed in the years that followed) is considered one of the most famous broadcasting facilities in the world.

In fact, the phrase “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” is based on NBC’s location (although if you want to get technical about it, NBC is not in the centre of the city, but on the outskirts of Burbank near a freeway off-ramp).

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