Living in Aberdeen, where I can get to work in 10 minutes, I'm constantly in awe of London colleagues' stories about the hours they spend commuting. And I'm amazed at the sheer nerve of London hotels charging nothing under £100 for the grottiest of rooms and a complete absence of service.
In Manchester last week for the Salford TV from the Nations and Regions conference I had a central but quiet studio apartment, bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom, for £75. A few minutes walk to St Peter's Square for a 10-minute tram ride took me to Salford Quays and the Lowry Centre for a 9am start.
Last year I ducked out of a session to grab 10 minutes with a potential commissioning editor, because Salford never allows enough time for networking. It's all talk talk, and there's always at least one session completely divorced from the real world. This year's included the suggestion that regional public service, including news and arts, could be delivered by channels funded by the equivalent of local newspaper small ads. Mmm. I can hardly wait, as a viewer or producer, to experience that.
Timing was unfortunate. The conference was the day before Ofcom's PSB2 was published, and one of the keynote addresses was deputy CEO Philip Graf, who resisted Steve Hewlett's skilled probing with characteristic humour. There were hints of what was to come in the discussions about ITV regional news. Ofcom seems to think this is a priority, and that the cost of providing regional ITV news should be offloaded from ITV licensees while the publicly funded service should still be provided for their channel.
Personally I don't quite understand the obsession with regional news as a public service priority. I know viewers like to see their own local people and places on screen, but is a news agenda, quick hit, no depth, no resources given to analysis, really public service? Or is it just entertainment? Here in Scotland the fourth estate, guardians of democratic accountability, completely missed my city council's sailing blindly towards bankruptcy, and more importantly, missed our two big banks taking the entire nation to the edge. The signs were all there. Five years ago one economic writer offered, through us, a prediction of exactly what has since happened. But that would have had to fit in to a regional non news budget, not news. And according to Ofcom, viewers don't want regional non news as much as news.
But hang on, said Tom Harvey from the floor. What question did Ofcom ask? He had conducted a poll in the same area as Ofcom, but instead of asking about ‘regional non news programming' he had asked about programmes by name. His research delivered a much more positive result. So - beware accepting so-called evidence based policy until you interrogate the evidence.
The first was a session on representing the whole of the UK, which Stuart Maconie prefaced with some excellent clips which showed the ignorance and insensitivity of some representation of ‘Out of London'. He included that clip from David Dimbleby's Picture of Britain, in which Yorkshire was represented by a brass band trekking to the top of a hill to perform On Ilkley Moor. Surely one of the most patronising sequences in the history of television.
The second was Kevin Lygo's keynote in which he announced that there would be slots in all Channel 4's strands reserved for nations productions. Ten years ago broadcasters occasionally remembered the need to represent Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England. Since Nations and Regions formal targets were introduced, commissioners learned they could tick that box in Amersham and Oxford. The result has been decline in production in the most remote from London parts of the UK, hence political pressure from the small nations.
Decline in production means decline in relationships between producers and commissioners, which feeds further decline in production. By setting focussed targets in specific strands, and adding the catalyst of a £1m series pilot development fund to take producers to the next longer term sustainable stage, Channel 4 has a clear strategy to implement Nations growth. The target they have set, 3% from the Nations, is lamentably small by comparison with the BBC's 12% by 2012 and 17% by 2016 (itself an absurdly far off date by which to deliver) but at least there is a clear, immediate and easily measurable strategy.
New relationships in the context of a changed climate will bring progress. That commissioner meeting I had at Salford last year has now evolved into regular dialogue with my development colleagues, and he has this week pitched two proposals to a controller and had them warmly received.
It was at the first Salford Conference that Colin Cameron dared stick his head above the BBC parapet and use the phrase ‘forcing mechanisms'. Sixteen years on, it looks as though the argument has been won and the mechanisms are in place to deliver.
So - thank you Salford.
David Strachan is joint managing director of Tern TV based in Scotland and Northern Ireland and is Scotland Director on Pact's Board.