The developers of MediaCityUK say its cutting-edge facilities mean it is ready for the digital big hitters. So are those big hitters ready for MediaCityUK, asks Adrian Pennington.

In two years' time the doors will be thrown open on MediaCityUK, the multi-billion-pound Manchester construction project intended as an international centre of digital business. But what awaits its first employees and residents?

If the vision of the 200-acre site's owner Peel Holdings holds true, MCUK will be a vibrant living and working environment exploding with new media and creative industries.

“We're attempting something that's not been done before, which is to build a city from scratch in the heart of an existing community,” explains Bryan Gray, chairman of developer Peel Media. “We are creating a cultural community rather than just a media community.”

The Salford Quays development, which is modelled on media cities in Seoul and Zaragoza in Spain, proposes a waterfront piazza large enough for 9,000 people, with shops, restaurants, purpose-built and off-the-shelf office space and room for start-ups.

Culture equals cash
“The north-west is transforming from heavy manufacturing to a balance of industries of which culture and media are a huge part,” argues Gray, pointing to the £800m generated by Liverpool 08. “Culture is not simply nice to have but a very important driver in the national and regional economy.”

Given these lofty ambitions, the developer has been rather silent since the BBC announced its relocation northwards of five departments and 2,500 staff in June 2006. Construction of the initial 38-acre site is, however, on target and the BBC will begin outfitting its first building in September.

A new management team has been in place since November, headed by Gray, (also chair of Liverpool Capital of Culture and the North West Regional Development Agency) and, director of operations David Carr, Sky's former head of production. They arrived after the departure of managing director Brian Greasley. With the imminent recruitment of a new chief executive, MediaCityUK can be expected to sharpen its marketing message.

“We want to crystallise the offer to companies before we go out and sell it,” claims Carr. “We're designing facilities for the future capable of making any type of content - from 3DTV to converged internet and broadcast. We are only now coming to a point where we have to make those infrastructure decisions.”

Peel Media will act like a “city authority”, providing managed services for tenants, says Gray. Services include the UK's largest HD facility, containing seven studios, two audio studios and a technical block with post facilities to be leased by the BBC, among other organisations. At its core will be fibre-optic cabling for high-bandwidth connectivity.

“There's no reason why you couldn't use a studio here and have control in London,” says Carr. “The specifications will be at least 1080i, and depending on manufacturers' roadmaps will be 1080 50 P capable. The infrastructure needs to be constantly scalable, otherwise the perfect studio in 2011 will be out of date by 2012.”

Blank canvas
As the anchor tenant, the BBC was intended to attract an array of old and new media business to the site but so far the canvas remains largely blank. Despite lengthy and ongoing negotiations, the region's largest producer, ITV, has yet to commit, even though a development across the water from the BBC has been earmarked for it.

Carr says he would like to see all UK broadcasters - from BSkyB to Channel 4 - having a presence, alongside US broadcasters such as NBC and ESPN. Select Soho post-production houses have been enticed to explore the options and production companies are next on the agenda.

Peel's owner, John Whittaker, holds a 20% stake in Pinewood Shepperton and this relationship could be exploited, although discussions are at an early stage. US film studios are also on the wish list, as are advertising agencies, video-game creators (23% of worldwide console games are generated from developers in neighbouring Liverpool) and digital media giants such as Google.

The Pie Factory, on the MediaCityUK lot, is already a busy studio base in which Cold Blood, The Royle Family and The Street have been shot. It is also home to a dozen production services including Lemon Casting, 24-7 and Purple Crew.

“Production isn't waiting for 2011 - the community has already started,” says Andy Sumner, who manages the studio for Peel Media. Sumner also owns the largest independent broadcast facility in town [Sumners] although he, like managers at other local post houses 422 and Flix, feel it is premature to consider relocation. There is arguably less need for them to consider it, given that their established bases are just a few miles away.

For the project to succeed in sustaining a wide range of media, MediaCityUK must act as a catalyst for a critical mass of production talent. The region's creative industries already contribute £15.8bn per year, which Alice Morrison, chief executive of funding body Northwest Vision and Media (which moves into MediaCity this summer), reckons can grow tenfold.

“MediaCityUK is an opportunity to make a real step-change in this sector, not just for the north-west but on a global scale,” she says. “The first thing an international company asks is: ‘How much does it cost?' The second is: ‘What is the skills base?'

“Manchester has one of the largest student populations in Europe which can feed media companies wanting to source new forms of content and new methods of distribution.”

Northwest Vision runs a £3m digital media skills programme to tackle the skills shortage facing the regional digital industry. Targeted at directors, producers and writers schooled in traditional production, the course provides a head start in multi-platform development.

The University of Salford has announced it will build a higher education centre, linked to its four main faculties, over 100,000 sq ft opposite the BBC. Facilities will include broadcast and digital media zones, a virtual laboratory for 3D experimentation and a digital performance space for exploration of motion capture and real-time animation.

Time trouble
John Holland, a former head of interactive TV at the BBC, who is leading the university's initiative, explains: “The centre will be used for academic teaching across all four faculties, not just for media studies. We will also collaborate with media partners in applied research. We can devote people and facilities to particular areas of interest.”

Not coincidentally, parts of the BBC's Future Media & Technology group, and notably the teams working on IPTV and convergence, are also being headquartered in Salford Quays. But will the poor economic outlook inevitably delay the site's population?

Danny Meaney, the founder of New Media Partners and an adviser to MCUK, is optimistic the project will achieve its goals but believes the developers have underestimated the timeframe needed.

“MediaCityUK is trying to achieve its vision in five years, whereas a media city currently being planned in the Middle East has 10 times the funding but a timescale of 50 years.”

“It would be unrealistic to say it won't be challenging,” admits Carr. “But this project is uniquely conceived and well thought through. It will work.”

Gray believes that by the time people come to work and live in Salford Quays the UK could be on the other side of recession. “People are consuming more cultural experiences and MediaCityUK can be the engine providing that.”

Space odyssey: MediaCityUK

  • Phase one is a £500m investment over 38 acres

  • Phase two sees development of a further 160 acres

  • The combined project has space for 1,150 businesses

  • The BBC is relocating five departments and 2,500 staff
    by 2011

What is being built now?

  • Offices - 700,000 sq ft

  • Studios - 250,000 sq ft

  • Retail/leisure - 60,000 sq ft

  • Apartments - 378

  • Hotel - 218 beds

  • Five-acre green park, including a piazza for 9,000 people

MediaCity and the north-west creative economy

The creative industries in the north-west contribute 16% of the region's economic output (£15.8bn per year) and employ 320,000 people in 31,000 businesses. MCUK will add £1.5bn to the regional economy, with employment opportunities for 15,500 people and 1,500 trainee posts per year. The north-west is the most prolific area of network programming outside London.

Source: Pact and MediaCityUK