As Pact opens its new regional office in Leeds, Zig Zag boss, and Pact Council member, Danny Fenton reflects on the changing fortunes of regional production
Pact today officially opens its new Nations and Regions office in Leeds and I for one couldn’t be more impressed with the work the producers’ association has done to set up its new regional hub.
It’s pleasing to see this organisation capitalising on Channel 4’s decision to move its national HQ to the West Yorkshire city. Leeds is a fantastic, vibrant location and provides incredible access to TV communities in the north and north west of England.
As a Pact Council member, one thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that there’s an element of if you’re a producer outside of London then you can easily be disenfranchised. Today’s move will further build on Pact’s good work to re-balance this equilibrium and make our nation’s production community feel like there’s a voice in both the north and the south.
But putting my Zig Zag Productions hat back on momentarily, I can’t help to reflect on our own Leeds foray 20 years ago.
I think the apt saying is: ’Wrong time, right place?’ This might be so, but 20 years ago the UK television landscape was in a very different place.
So let’s rewind. When Zig Zag began we were actually backed by Yorkshire Television who had taken a 25% stake in the company. Back then, Yorkshire was very keen to capitalise on opportunities to do regional work. It may sound slightly ahead of its time, but Yorkshire was then winning contracts from pharmaceutical chain Boots to produce short-form content for a platform called ‘Boots TV’. Who would have thought it? So Leeds naturally seemed a dynamic place for us to launch a regional office.
So with Yorkshire TV’s support we opened Zig Zag North, run by a talented executive named Simon Howley who originated from Barnsley. At times we enjoyed real success. We partnered with Yorkshire’s in-house department on several co productions: most notably a documentary on the Spice Girls called ‘Royal Spice’, chronicling the girl band’s escapades before they were famous and garnering 10 million viewers on ITV in the process.
Yet I have to concede that at the time we found several challenges up North. While opportunities were given to us by Yorkshire, it remained difficult to get those coveted network commissioners to come to Leeds. Programmes shows like ‘Royal Spice’ of course generated eyeballs, but these success stories soon became few and far between and we found a proper infrastructure wasn’t in place in the city to win national commissions.
Unfortunately, this all came at a time when general investment in regional TV started to diminish and we found that it was becoming very difficult to win national commissions out of the regions altogether. So after two years we took the decision to buy back our stake back from Yorkshire Television, which in turn meant closing down our Leeds office.
Of course, this was a shame but looking back it was the right decision. When Yorkshire first backed us they were really big on expansion and were looking to diversify into investing into indies. You’ve got to remember that 20 years ago this wasn’t a thing – there weren’t many media companies making these sort of M&A investments, unlike now. But since then Yorkshire closed down a lot of its internal departments, coinciding with TV’s diminishing regionalisation efforts and Granada stepping in to buy up a lot of its regional operations.
This all brought our rather short-lived Leeds chapter to an end. It’s ironic now that Leeds is going to get that cash injection, boost and drive from Channel 4 and other super-indies it could’ve done with 20 years ago. On reflection, we were probably 20 years too early to the Leeds party.
That said, we did learn that Leeds was a city full of creative talent. So today with Pact’s regional office and Channel 4’s commissioning power in the city, I believe a new talent pool will emerge. This combination will create future business and I can’t wait to see what the results will be.
No doubt there will be challenges along the way, most pressingly to create an infrastructure with longevity that was so lacking in our own Leeds journey. But as it stands all the components appear to be in the right place to make a success of it in the UK’s third largest city. Can there now be a permanent Yorkshire television industry that attracts production talent to Leeds on a permanent basis, stopping people having to travel to London to get commissions? I think there can be.
You might well ask will Zig Zag now move back to Leeds? I’ll never rule anything out in this business. and clearly Leeds is now going to be a very popular location for TV companies nationwide. But we also don’t necessarily want to rush to where everyone else is going. Our recent alliance with Larry Bass’ indie ShinAwiL in Northern Ireland demonstrates there are also huge opportunities in the Nations as well as Regions. And for the time being, this will be where we focus our attention.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that now Pact has made this move, the UK television business will have a much wider and diverse outlook. This can only be a good thing.
Danny Fenton is CEO of Zig Zag Productions and a Pact council member