The costs

Television Centre was sold for just £200m. 

 

The redevelopment of Broadcasting House and equipping news and weather studios there cost £1.04bn.  The cost of moving the CCA from TV Centre up the road to the Broadcast Centre in White City is estimated to be around £50m.  This is the hub of all the BBC’s TV communications in and out of the UK.  It took many months to move some of the kit and of course a great deal of new equipment had to be purchased.

Moving Radio 5 Live and Children’s and Sport departments from TVC to MediaCity in Salford has, according to the BBC, cost £942m.  This includes relocation expenses paid to staff – many of whom reluctantly left London.  The BBC were tied into a 10 year deal with Peel Media – the company that owns the MediaCity (dock10) studios.  They were committed to spending £82.8m over 10 years simply to hire studio space.  Previously they would have used their own studios in TVC – the productions’ hire fees would have then gone into investing in newer kit in the BBC’s own studios and making constant improvements for the benefit of everyone.  Any profits made by BBC Studioworks stay within the BBC. The money the BBC and independent programme makers now spend in Salford instead of TV Centre is pure profit for Peel.

The BBC have not completely left TVC of course.  According to press reports, Stanhope will receive around £12m per year in rent for the 3 studios (Studioworks) and stage 6 (BBC Studios).

 

BBC Studioworks took over stages 8 and 9 in Elstree film studios and built a fully equipped control room suite for the George Lucas Stage – originally for 2 years, later extended to 4 and now beyond that to at least March 2024.  They constructed new production, sound and lighting galleries, created a new apparatus room and production offices, fitted out prop stores, refurbished dressing rooms and bought 200 new lighting monopoles.  They also have to pay a large annual rent to Hertsmere Council who own the studios.  All of this has cost an undisclosed but obviously very large sum indeed.

 

Studio D at BBC Elstree was completely refurbished.  It became the key studio used for general elections, Children in Need and other shows that needed multiple phone and other comms in and out of the studios.  All this was previously installed at TVC but was ripped out.  These complex communications had to be re-routed to BBC Elstree at great expense.  The galleries in studio D were stripped to the walls and completely rebuilt to cope with these large scale productions.  A switching centre for multiple live OBs associated with elections was built in studio C’s galleries at huge expense.  None of these costs which ran into tens of millions would have been necessary had they simply stayed at Television Centre.  Much of this funding presumably came from central BBC coffers.  There is no way the Studioworks business could have afforded it.  However, astonishingly, the most recent general election in 2019 used a news studio in Broadcasting House for its results programme.  I heard that Studioworks were charging too much to use the facilities in studio D – so all that investment at Elstree is no longer of any use.  Let that sink in.

 

According to the National Audit Office the cost of building New Broadcasting House, Pacific Quay in Glasgow and moving to Salford was £2bn. That’s two thousand million pounds not spent on programmes.

 

Programmes made in Salford or Glasgow use local camera, sound, scenic and electrical crews and make up & wardrobe assistants.  However, heads of these departments are freelance and most are based in or near London.  Therefore every production made outside London involves paying transport and accommodation costs for key personnel such as producers, director, researchers, writers, set designer, lighting director, sound supervisor, camera supervisor, make up and wardrobe supervisors – plus of course the performing artists.  These costs cannot be avoided – the industry is no longer staff-based but freelance.  Experienced freelancers simply won’t work in Salford or Glasgow unless they are paid their expenses.  Every production wants the best people to be working on it and this freelance talent is mostly London based.  These people are not ‘Londoners’ but have come from all over the UK and chosen to live near London as it is still the hub of the television industry as well as film, theatre and music in the UK.  None of these extra costs apply to programmes made in or near London.

 

The desire for the BBC to better represent the whole country is absolutely right.  Much of the content of some programmes has for a long time been far too metropolitan – particularly in news and current affairs.  It also certainly makes sense for drama productions to be made by local crews all round the UK – this happens all the time now and the range and quality of work has benefited hugely from this.

However, it is hard to see how making gameshows, talent shows, panel shows and sitcoms in Salford and Glasgow makes the BBC less London-centric.  How many viewers know where these shows are made?  How many care?  Citizen Khan would have looked and sounded identical (although would almost certainly have cost less) if it had been made in Television Centre rather than Salford.  When Nick Knowles stepped onto the Who Dares Wins set or Dale Winton onto the In It To Win It set in Glasgow rather than in TVC – how was that better for the average Scot?  Why was it less London-centric to make Eggheads in Glasgow rather than in London?  Several Heads of Department (including me) were put up in Glasgow hotels to make that show over many years which was a cost never incurred when the show was recorded at Television Centre.  How is any of this better for people living in Bristol or Barnsley or Birmingham or Barry Island?

 

 

The BBC claimed that TV Centre was costing too much to maintain.  However, they could have sold off the outer ring of buildings and redeveloped the upper floors of the doughnut and stage 5 – whilst keeping the 8 main studios which were almost all fully fitted out with the latest HD kit and required no serious money to be spent on them for years.

From just a quick look at the costs above, it does seem that moving almost everything from TV Centre has cost the BBC far more than staying put and selling off part of the site – rather than selling off all the site and renting part of it back.  They did not need to tie themselves into an £83m deal with Peel – they could still have moved Sport, Children’s and Radio 5 Live to Salford if they really had to but did not need to commit to using Peel’s studios for entertainment and comedy that cost more to use than studios in London.  They did not actually have to move News to Broadcasting House which would have saved a vast amount with the reconstruction of that building.  If saving money was the main driving force behind all this then refurbishing and modernising stage 6 and expanding into stage 5 for News would have cost a fraction of what it cost to build New BH.

Also, The One Show could have been based in TVC where the Helios courtyard or horseshoe car park would have been a far more suitable place to stage music and other activities rather than the front of New BH, where it must really irritate and disturb all the people working on serious news there.

 

Even though the very expensive construction of New Broadcasting House did go ahead, there was no inevitability that this should lead to the closure of Television Centre.  Stage 6 could still have been occupied by BBC Worldwide (BBC Studios) as has happened.  The other departments that were based at White City could have moved to TVC rather than being crammed into New BH, which was never designed for them.  Worldwide could have run a visitor attraction in the basement of the hub – with sections including props and sets from famous comedies and dramas including Dr Who.  One of the studios could have been modified to be used as a conference centre when needed by Worldwide in quiet times for studio bookings. Another proposal which should have been taken up was to use one of the smaller studios – TC5 say – as a rehearsal room for one of the BBC orchestras.

 

Several of the decisions taken by the BBC Board of management under Mark Thompson were heavily criticised in the press and by MPs.  However, the selling of Television Centre was arguably the worst as it is having the greatest long-term effect on the industry.  To be fair, the decision to move news to BH was taken under Greg Dyke’s leadership but this decision was taken in October 2000, 13 years before the actual move took place.  There were plenty of opportunities to revise the plan in the intervening years when the immense costs became apparent.

 

 

The anger and frustration felt by many working in the industry at the decision to demolish most of the studios at TVC is still widely felt. It is not only because of the cultural and artistic legacy, it is because of the practical advantages of having a number of studios based in one place.  The decision was taken by senior managers with no experience of making music, entertainment or comedy programmes in studios.  They employed consultants to advise them – who were also I suspect not people with any direct experience.  Even so, it appears that their original recommendations were ignored.  It seems that the wishes of the independent TV production companies who make most comedy and entertainment programmes were also ignored.  What is particularly galling is that most of those responsible have moved on – some including ex-Director General Mark Thompson even moved out of the UK.  You may draw your own conclusions.

 

The excuse given for demolishing most of the studios was that it would have cost too much too keep them on.  As Danny Baker pointed out, a similar excuse was given when all those videotapes from the ’60s and ’70s were wiped.  Those responsible have never been forgiven and I suspect that Mark Thompson and his board of management will never be forgiven for what they did.  There has been a lot of misinformation spread around.  Michael Grade, on  The One Show, said that it would cost £200m to convert the studios to high definition.  In fact all the main studios were converted between 2006 and 2011 and were at the time of closure the best equipped studios in the country.  No wonder they were being booked by programme-makers right to the end. One hopes that Lord Grade was simply misinformed and that his chairmanship of Pinewood-Shepperton had not coloured his views.

 

The demolition of most of the studios at TV Centre was a national disgrace and those concerned should be ashamed at what they did.  There was an opportunity to keep the studios but redevelop the rest of the site but ignorance of how the studio industry works or plain lack of imagination seems to have affected their judgement.  The redevelopment of Granada Studios proves how this could have been made to work.

What has been clear all along to many in the industry is that the BBC still needs a reasonable number of fully equipped studios for its own use and for the independents who make programmes for them.  It is indeed bizarre, if not to say gravely irresponsible, that the BBC has created a situation where there are not enough fully equipped television studios of the right size in the UK’s capital city – a city with a worldwide reputation for all forms of entertainment and culture.

After all, they spent over a billion pounds in redeveloping Broadcasting House in central London, making it the best equipped radio and television news centre in the world.  They created an excellent drama centre in Cardiff, have also moved the BBC Wales HQ to a new more central location in Cardiff and a few years ago completed an expensive new broadcasting centre in Glasgow. So to severely curtail the television comedy and entertainment side of their business – increasing costs through a shortage of studios – is perverse to say the least and wholly inexplicable to other broadcasters around the world.

 

London has been and always will be the creative focus of the UK’s entertainment, music, theatre, cinema and television industries. In recent years it has become more than that – a truly global city attracting talented people from all over the world. 

Sadly, having just one available studio at TVC is insufficient for London’s needs.  Even that studio – TC1 – is the wrong size for many shows.  The 90 x 70 foot studio is what most productions need.  Even though stages 8 and 9 at Elstree have been kept on they are not a direct replacement for the missing TVC studios.  Their location and lack of a nearby tube station mean that studio audiences find it much harder to get to them than TV Centre.  Their design and fit-out prevent rapid turnarounds from one show to the next.  They also lack the ancillary storage and back-up facilities of the TVC studios.

 

I was given the opportunity to personally make the case for retaining TC8 as part of the proposed ‘Television Factory’ to the BBC’s Head of Commercial Design Development and Planning and to the BBC’s Head of Workplace, who was also the head of the joint BBC/Stanhope working party that was planning how the Centre would be redeveloped.  Although I was politely received, nothing came of our conversation or the detailed paper I submitted putting the case for keeping TC8 within the proposed scheme.

 

Many well-known people have commented publicly on the BBC’s decision to sell off most of TV Centre.  Let’s face it – none of them favourably.  These include almost all those who appeared on the Goodbye From Television Centre programme.  Alexander Armstrong said in an interview early in 2013:

 

“The BBC is a brilliant, infuriating, delightful cornerstone of our culture but it drives me round the twist.  I will never forgive them for selling off BBC TV Centre.  It’s probably the best studio facility in Europe, possibly the world, and it’s being sold off for flats and a luxury hotel.”

 

In the Goodbye from Television Centre programme it was quite clear that almost everyone who was invited onto the show to reminisce about ‘the good old days’ was in fact very upset and angry about what had been done.  ‘I’d like to kick them up the arse’ shouted Brian Blessed and I suspect that a very long queue would form behind him to join in.  Michael Grade, chairman of that show and as it happens – chairman of Pinewood-Shepperton, looked distinctly uncomfortable at times as it began to dawn on him that his guests were not simply going to tell a few funny stories but were genuinely moved and upset at this appalling decision.

 

A campaign to save all 8 main studios was launched in April 2013, nine months after the redevelopment plans had been announced.  Probably nobody could quite bring themselves to believe it was really happening until the doors finally closed for good.  It was simply called  Save TV Centre Studios and had the backing of Equity, The Writers’ Guild, the Musicians’ Union, BECTU, the NUJ and many others.  A number of well known celebrities, journalists, actors and musicians gave their support and there was a petition with a large number of signatures. 

Unfortunately, despite a great deal of hard work being put into the group by a few individuals it was unable to reverse any of the decisions already taken by Stanhope and the BBC.  One can’t help wondering what the outcome would have been if this campaign had begun at least 18 months earlier, when negotiations were still on-going between the BBC and various developers.  I suspect it would have had a much greater chance of success.  Very sadly, trying to make changes long after the deal had been done behind closed doors was always going to be a very hard mountain to climb.

 

 

There are dozens of people who took photographs of the Centre before it closed and posted them on-line.  There are also two very good Facebook pages – ‘BBC TVC’ and ‘Memories of BBC Television Centre’.  If you are on Facebook I strongly advise visiting both.  There is loads to see and read.  Joe Godwin has also posted a superb slideshow on YouTube of photos of various parts of the building taken on January 1st 2013, accompanied by a number of familiar Kids’ TV theme tunes.  Well worth a look  here .

Another beautifully made video showing snippets of TVC programme gems superimposed on the building has been made by Ed Stradling.  Be prepared to shed a tear but see it  here.