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Operating at the BBC's heart

09 February 2011

Interview: Pat Younge has to make big cuts at BBC inhouse production but still wants to grow the business

“Inhouse production is the heartbeat of the BBC,” proclaims Pat Younge, chief creative officer of BBC Vision Productions.

If that is so, then Younge is the man who will have to perform surgery on it this year, taking out 20% of costs as a result of the licence fee freeze. Inhouse drama recently cut 22 jobs, and 75 went last month from Vision’s multiplatform operation. In coming months, more jobs will go from inhouse’s factual, comedy and entertainment departments.

Open and direct, Younge doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that his empire is set to take a hit. Unusually, he chooses to be interviewed in full view and earshot of his staff on a sofa in the midst of a large open plan BBC office.

He oversees 3,500 employees in England (of whom only one third are permanent staff, he stresses) producing shows such as EastEnders, Watchdog, Human Planet, Dragon’s Den and Miranda. In addition, production teams working on network shows in Scotland (Weakest Link), Wales (Doctor Who) and Northern Ireland also report into Younge. It’s an operation with a turnover of £350m.

Younge re-joined the BBC just over a year ago, after a spell in the US as president of Travel Channel Media, and is regarded as a key contender for the vacancy left by Jana Bennett at the top of BBC Vision.

He took on a business, he says, that was suffering from “very low morale”. Inhouse had been hit by major restructuring and job losses, thanks to increased competition from indies after the WOCC and a major shift of production out of London and into the nations. He thinks morale has since improved, and has put an emphasis on performance, which has included “managing people out” of the business if they are not up to the job, and multiplatform training.

Certainly, inhouse has enjoyed success lately - notably in comedy, thanks to hits like Come Fly With Me and Miranda. And the entertainment department has just delivered the “best ever series of Strictly”, he says.

After years on the defensive, Younge believes inhouse is now turning a corner. Buoyed by the guarantee that 50% of all BBC shows will be produced inhouse, it currently delivers 57% of BBC shows, with indies making 40%. “I’d love to get to 65-35,” he says, bullishly. “I don’t do declining businesses – I go into businesses to grow them.”

He can also look to grow the business without fear of censure from indies. Last year an indie lobbying campaign was brewing to try to end the BBC’s inhouse guarantee amid claims that inhouse was inefficient and anti-competitive. That campaign is now on ice after last year’s sudden licence fee deal, delayed until Charter Renewal in 2016. He’s clearly relieved that he doesn’t have to “waste all of this current year” on lobbying. “It means we can really aggressively plan for the future.”

On the downside, of course, he has to drive through a big cost-cutting agenda. In all, he’s looking to take 20% of costs out.

Half of these savings will come from ‘salami-slicing’– production efficiencies to be found within Vision Productions. The other half will be driven by the channels simply commissioning fewer shows, which will affect inhouse and indies alike.

Younge is confident he can find the production efficiencies. After all, he says, “The drive of technology dictates that programmes should be getting cheaper year after year.”

He questions the sizes of crews needed to make programmes now. He thinks gains from new technology are often wasted – crews, for example, shooting longer than they need to, simply because they now can. “We need to capture some of that gain, as opposed to spending that gain,” he says.

Last year, he claims that £60m of costs were taken out of Vision Productions. He gives one example: “We do Carols from Kings College at Christmas. And we do Easter from Kings. So this year, we filmed them both back to back. Different costumes. Two shows. One OB. Done. We cut the cost in half.”

Looking ahead, staff will move out of TV Centre by the end of 2012, offering the chance for savings. He also hints at a big rethink of the way Vision is managed. He fully endorses the BBC strategy of moving production out to the Nations, but it “introduced inefficiency into our own system,” he says. “There must be a more efficient way to run this.”

Despite the cuts, Younge says inhouse is more important that ever to the BBC, particularly in an era of connected TV. “We can populate iPlayer with our own content for viewers to consume ad infinitum without having to pay anybody else. Having control of production gives you some control of your destiny,” he says.

It’s a sense of control, he believes, that other broadcasters eye jealously. “There was a period when people were rather embarrassed by inhouse – it didn’t seem very freemarket or competitive. Now everybody wants to be back in the inhouse production game.”

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John Beveridge
John Beveridge  | February 9, 2011
What a load of Bollocks

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