Salford's MediaCity complex is the north-west's best shot at becoming a rival to London, with the development hatching plans to become a global media hub. But its success still rests with commissioners.

Manchester and its surrounding area continue to be a popular base to locate drama, aided by a regional infrastructure which has been built largely on ITV Productions' drama output. However, the great white hope for wider indigenous TV production is MediaCity:UK, now rapidly emerging from the ground in Salford.

It's still three years before the building opens in 2011 and Manchester indies are not expecting a deluge of new commissions but it would be fair to say that excitement about the prospect of a global media hub on their doorstep is building. “It's created a real buzz,” says Nicola Shindler, managing director of drama stalwart Red Production. “Although it won't directly affect drama, it will help bring in more business and is a really positive thing.”

“The region has suffered from not retaining talent but putting the spotlight on Manchester should bring a lot of people back here,” argues Angela Smith, managing director of factual specialist Turn On TV. “Both those like myself who went to London to find work a few years ago, and others attracted by potential new work.”

MediaCity:UK is intended as a catalyst for the creation of a critical mass of production talent and infrastructure in the region with which to sustain a wider range of TV genres and media productions, from feature film to computer games.

Andy Sumner, whose studio The Pie Factory is based at MediaCity:UK, agrees it will put the city on the map: “[Director general] Mark Thompson said 50% of BBC content will be made in the regions by 2016 but you can't wait until the end of 2015 to make that happen which is why this hub is being built here, now.”

It's premature for indies or facilities to commit to moving across town into the Salford Quays lot but site developer Peel Holdings has begun talking up its merits. For Peel that's imperative since it needs a number of groups to rent space alongside anchor tenant the BBC - which is taking up only 10% of the 700,000sq m site.

The BBC is set to move 1,600 staff and five departments north (including sport and children's) into its facility, which includes three HD studios. Other candidates include advertising agencies, broadcast playout facilities, local universities and computer game developers. There's even talk of a large film studio being enticed to erect sound stages on site. The logical candidate would be Pinewood, of which developer Peel Holdings owns 20%.

Regional development agency Northwest Vision and Media (NWV&M) views its role as making the project relevant to local TV indies. “We're not asking anyone to rent space but we need to engage local producers with Salford as a place to work,” says the agency's production, trade and investment director, Chris Moll.

From early 2009, NWV&M will establish a Media Enterprise Centre (MEC) adjacent to MediaCity:UK as a venue to house meetings for local indies with commissioners and to familiarise both parties with the project. “The MEC will be a one-stop shop for independent production companies,” explains NWV&M chief executive Alice Morrison. “There'll be BBC commissioning events, and opportunities for people from within all industry sectors to meet and work together. There will be development funding available. Hopefully this will lead to new commissions within the north-west.”

“We've seen the first wave of big indies set up here on the back of broadcaster requirements for regional production,” notes Moll (among them are Shine North, Zig Zag North, October North and Channel K). “We're about to see a second wave of investment as indies understand the value MediaCity will be to them.”

He underlines the importance of the BBC to the area's aspirations. “MediaCity will live or die on the BBC's ability to help scale up available talent and the only way that will happen over the next three years is by commissioning more production from the region. There are signs the BBC's ambitions here have now been communicated to commissioners and others at an editorial level.”

Former Doctor Who producer Phil Collinson moved to the city in April, tasked with ramping up locally sourced in-house drama production alongside former ITV Productions producer Hilary Martin as development executive. The move has fuelled speculation that a long-running BBC series such as Doctors could be relocated there.

“Look at the impact Doctor Who made on Cardiff,” observes Moll. “They've not sent someone with his track record up here without a serious drama commitment and half an eye on building production capacity for MediaCity.”

The move is a return home for Collinson, who started his television career in Manchester as script editor for drama serials at Granada.

“Locating a major BBC drama here will be an engine for talent but MediaCity is about more than that,” argues Moll. “We need 21st century talent based around converged media. It's no coincidence that sport and children's are at the vanguard of the BBC's 360-degree approach to commissioning.”

Equally significant, he suggests, is the arrival of BBC Future Media and Technology, including the development teams behind iPlayer and forthcoming broadband project Kangaroo. “That represents the future direction of the BBC and it's not sited in the capital,” he says.

Peel is modelling the project on global creative industry hubs in Singapore, Copenhagen and Dubai and is pitching to an international audience. Manchester has one of the largest student populations in Europe and is home to two of the UK's four main internet exchanges - both factors which might influence the decisions of large digital media companies like Google or Microsoft to establish there.

NWV&M and Skillset are pumping£2.8m into funding courses to develop the digital skills that it's hoped will feed new employment opportunities. The two-year programme will be aimed at employees and managers of small and medium-sized creative media businesses, freelancers and new entrants to boost media skills.

“What we traditionally think of as the TV indie sector is changing,” says Morrison. “In a few years it will comprise companies and personnel with a different set of skills working across a variety of media. MediaCity:UK can be the creative cluster for that new breed.”

This is also the rationale behind a new Media Festival, co-sponsored by Broadcast publisher Emap, held in the city this November. It aims to mix and match delegates across TV, film, advertising, gaming and online, and uncover the latest thinking in the digital world. “A lot of these festivals happen outside the UK at Mip, for example, but the UK is an important enough market to hold a serious festival of its own,” declares Erik Huggers, group controller for BBC Future Media and Technology. “It's a place where technology, editorial and content meet for a discussion about the future.”

Says Mediacity:UK managing director Brian Greasley. “It is as much about infrastructure and facilities to support production as it is about basing creative media here. MediaCity is designed to be the jet propulsion for UK media. We haven't seen convergence yet but we will see it soon. When a studio director mingles with a software architect, who mingles with a mobile phone operator you will get something fundamentally different. The process of generating multi-disciplinary skillsets will be organic.”

Moll adds: “We're trying to make media convergence a little bit more mainstream. That's why the Media Festival is trying to draw together large companies [such as Endemol UK, Sony Computer Entertainment, MTV, Nokia and Ogilvy UK] rather than it happening on the fringes. This is part of the process of turning Manchester from a broadcast TV hub into a broader digital production hub for a global market.”

It's clear MediaCity's success depends on wresting the centre of gravity away from London by connecting with other regional centres such as Liverpool and Leeds. Says managing director, Red Vision VFX Dave Mousley: “MediaCity needs a wider environment of production companies, talent, broadcasters and ideas originators to orbit it so that it doesn't become an island but an aspect of regional and national focus.”

The project would receive a big boost if ITV Productions rehoused its activities there. Although the ITV board is expected to announce its decision this year, it is not certain that it will opt to sell its central Quay Street studios to fund the move. There's a lot riding on the decision because ITV remains the region's production powerhouse, spending£100m on over 700 hours of programming annually.

“The reality is that the BBC is only bringing a£5m facilities spend whereas we invest far more than that into the region,” says ITV Productions director of northern resources Paul Bennett. “It's important to get the scale of what ITVP is already doing here in context.”

Currently in production at 3SixtyMedia [ITV's studio and facility complex in which BBC Resources holds a 10% stake] is ITV and Globe Productions' Britannia High, touted as a 10 x 60-minute mix of reality, documentary and musical. Lion Eyes' Peter Kay comedy Pop Factor has also commenced, the first full HD production to be shot at 3Sixty's Manchester studios.

“We are in the process of switching our three main TV stages to high definition,” says Bennett. “At the moment the majority requirement from ITV is SD but we'll be ready as demand increases.”

The other genre which is strong in the region is comedy. BBC Comedy North, currently headed by outgoing executive Kenton Allen, is the home of Ideal, sketch show Scallywagga and new sitcom Massive.

“In-house comedy is increasingly robust, coupled with a healthy independent output. It could be the busiest time ever for comedy here,” says Cheryl Taylor, who has run the BBC's out of London comedy division since 2005 and been based in Manchester for a year.

Her department is behind Sunshine, a three-part comedy drama starring Steve Coogan - the first project from Craig Cash and Phil Melay's Jellylegs Productions - and Stratford-based Hanrahan Media's 6 x 30-minute hip-hop sitcom Trexx and Flipside for BBC3, both of which were filmed at the Pie Factory and posted at facility Sumners. Taylor also championed The Cup, a 6 x 30-minute series from Hartswood Films destined for BBC2 and shooting in Manchester and Bolton, plus The Gemma Factor, a pilot set in Hebden Bridge from local indie Freeform Productions. She also backed Admin, a BBC3 pilot from Channel K, the Manchester wing of Modern Toss producer Channel X.

“We set up 18 months ago to tap into north-west talent,” says Channel K director of programmes Matt Tiller. “Drama was established here and a lot of those production skills are applicable to scripted comedy. You can develop a project here and find all the writing and performing talent you need and there's no problem finding crew. But some of the key roles of producer or director are at times more difficult to source. If MediaCity can attract more people [like this] to the region, that's good for everyone.”

But not every city has prospered with comedy. Hat Trick closed its Manchester office, citing a lack of commissions, indicating it will switch its focus to drama in the region.

The most recent entrants to the city are Impossible Pictures, which acquired Manchester animators Firestep last November, and graphics and design house Mainframe, which launched Mainframe North last month. Mainframe owner Adam Jenns says: “We're looking to work with Manchester ad agencies and broadcasters but we also have clients who prefer to work with non-London companies. We're very well placed to win future work from BBC children's and sport.”

Impossible Pictures managing director Jonathan Drake says: “We don't want to turn Firestep into Impossible North but to retain the personality of the original company run by directors Jon Doyle and Steve Maher. With their talent we hope to bring new visual approaches to factual and drama and to tap opportunities in the children's market.”

With attention focused on the city's future ambitions it's easy to forget that for some local indies, particularly factual and entertainment specialists, commissions are currently thin on the ground.

Moreover, much of the BBC's activity in the region in comedy or drama is as a location rather than placing commissions with local indies. For example, BBC school drama Waterloo Road from Shed is shooting a fourth series of 20 hours in Rochdale, although the producer staffs no permanent northern office.

“It's been quite a difficult six months and my impression from other indies is that there's a hiatus in commissioning,” says Scarlet TV managing director Paula Trafford, whose recent work includes Sky's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. “If indies are going to survive anywhere out of London they need to attract key talent and that means having something substantial like returning series. Unless the BBC starts to commission in volume, there may be some tough times ahead.”

Manchester post-production
Manchester's post-production scene has stablised around a handful of well-established facilities, each offering a slightly different mix of equipment and services. So much so that Soho post houses sniffing about for business opportunities there have failed to find a sizable gap in the market to exploit.

“There have been a few Soho facilities looking around up here but I think they've found the market well catered for,” observes Flix managing director Leo Casserly. “I'm sure if they see a massive increase in work they'll come flooding in.”

Flix is one of the fastest growing facilities in the country, expanding from a core of finishing Cosgrove Hall animations, including the current series of Postman Pat, into factual and current affairs such as three weekly five-minute features for The One Show. It is also a BBC preferred supplier.

“It's been very up and down over the past 12 months in Manchester,” says Casserly. “I haven't noticed any signs of greater production due to MediaCity:UK.”

422 recently completed the titles for the BBC's Glastonbury coverage in HD but draws 65% of its work from commercials.

“We work with a fair spread of indies and broadcasters here but we have good relationships with London clients and certainly don't see ourselves as an exclusively Manchester service,” says business development director Richard Wallwork, who believes business will “really pick up” toward the end of the summer.

Editz, which like 422 specialises in graphics, commercials and broadcast design, has spent over£350,000 on kit upgrades in the past year and plans to expand its digital department and re-equip its sound suite.

For long-form work Sumners and 3SixtyMedia tend to have a lock-in with ITV Productions steering toward its in-house department and Sumners delivering BBC Manchester programming such as Mastermind and Dragons' Den. Founder Andy Sumner concentrates on The Pie Factory these days, with partner Janet Sumner running the post facility. It is also launching a freelance crewing agency called Sum Talent.

“It is ostensibly about putting editors, producers and production staff in touch with local jobs, but with the launch of MediaCity in mind we are also developing a crew database,” explains Andy Sumner. “We are particularly seeking freelancers with a background in sport and children's programming.”

Bellyfeel wins webby
Manchester start-up Bellyfeel offers an example of the cutting edge blend of “TV meets internet producer” that Northwest Vision and Media aims to encourage. Run by Krishna Stott and Andrew Lim, Bellyfeel recently won a globally coveted Webby Award in the experimental category, beating MTV, Razorfish and National Geographic in the process. It won for interactive drama serial Crimeface which uses innovative interactive techniques to communicate both the story and further information on characters and events.

Bellyfeel was also the recipient of the New IPTV Concepts Award at MipTV, subsequently landing a development deal with the BBC.

Stott says: “We work in the divide between film, TV and new media developing content-led interactive projects. We've had interest from Channel 4 and the BBC in what we're doing. For the BBC, for example, although it is early days, we are exploring ways to build interactive templates so that any BBC web producer could make their IPTV content as interactive as Crimeface.”

Crimeface, which was funded by Bellyfeel and Arts Council England, was intended to act as a calling card for what the company could do.

“TV production has changed in that people are expected to produce more for less money and along the way make it all interactive. There are bound to be more crossover projects and that is where we come in.”