Anyone coming to this article hoping to read about green dales, coal mines and cobbled streets will be disappointed. Iconic scenery is certainly part of the fabric of Yorkshire. But it doesn't provide a marker for the media production market in modern cities such as Leeds and Sheffield.
“Other parts of the country might see us as some sort of creative backwater,” declares Sally Joynson, the chief executive of the regional media body Screen Yorkshire. “But the news is we've caught up. This region is every bit as contemporary, creative and brilliant as anywhere else in the country.”
Despite well-publicised cuts at ITV, Yorkshire and the Humber employs more than 10,000 people in television, radio, new media and games, working for over 500 different companies.
The independent TV sector is not huge, with about 30 companies, but those that are active do make some pretty important programmes for the networks. True North is responsible for BBC1 shows Sunday Life (until it relocates to Northern Ireland as part of the BBC's drive to move network production outside London) and Animal 24/7. Real Life Media is the single biggest indie supplier to The One Show. Yap Films is in production on Street of Dreams, a two-year project for BBC2 covering the design and build of a terrace of individual homes in Manchester. In drama, Kay Mellor's Rollem Productions made BBC1's The Chase and is famous for Fat Friends (ITV1). While Century North, part of Century Films, was responsible for Scams, Fiddles and Honest claims, a Channel 4 Cutting Edge developed, shot and edited in Yorkshire. The list goes on.
Having snared returning commissions and long-running projects, the indies are now starting to look at other opportunities, including cross-platform production.
“We have worked extremely hard to get two large long-running contracts for traditional broadcast work,” says Simon Schofield, creative director at Real Life. “That gives us a platform of known, transparent, quality work which means we can dip our toe in more interesting waters such as cross-platform.”
Until recently it has only been about dipping toes. True North dabbled 18 months ago when it worked with Sheffield-based digital agency Quba on the website for Sunday Life. Pitched as a seven-day-a-week brand, the site features blogs, video, email and interactive polls.
The indie has since started nurturing a couple of relationships with two or three digital companies. “We look at things all the time,” says creative director Andrew Sheldon. “But until now indies have struggled because broadcasters still focus very much on ideas in the context of a traditional TV output.”
“We're at that important crossing point,” says former BBC Out of London chief Ruth Pitt, now executive producer at Century Films. “When I set up my own production company in 1988 I didn't know what I was dipping my toe into. The way people felt about setting up indies in the 1980s is the way people are feeling about the potential of new media projects now.”
One reason that cross-platform hasn't been embraced fully is a lack of an obvious revenue stream. International formats and programme sales have a clear route to the cash, but not so new media. “We've got a web-based drama idea but it has been fairly difficult to find out where the money will come from,” says Beverley Doyle, head of production and development at Rollem Productions. “For six months we asked around, trying to find out who pays for this. Everyone just looked back blankly.”
Doyle also admits that not every drama proposal lends itself to cross-platform. “Maybe one in three of the pitches that we do has a genuine 360-degree element,” she says.
There is also a certain amount of contradiction at the broadcasters, according to Sheldon. “We're often stuck between a rock and a hard place with the commissioning editor and business affairs,” he shrugs. “Often there's a creative vision but the cash isn't there to support it. We need something that takes the risk away.”
Fortunately, there is something new on the horizon that could take away that risk, offer a revenue stream and make cross-platform production a more realistic business opportunity.
Four Innovation for the Public (4IP) is a catalytic fund being set up by Channel 4 and backed by regional development agencies (RDAs). Its purpose is to stimulate innovation in new forms of media that can deliver C4's public service purposes.
“It's quite a bold ambition,” says Tom Loosemore, head of 4IP. “What we're trying to do for public purposes and internet-based media is what the launch of C4 did for the fledgling independent sector and for television: bring voices, diversity and a whole new energy.”
David Squire, the creative director of DESQ, a digital agency in Sheffield that specialises in education and learning projects, can see the advantages of having that money set aside for Yorkshire-based ideas. “I've got a meeting with a London indie which wants to work with us on a project,” he says. “The great thing about that is I've got total freedom to say to them ‘if you want to draw down that money from Yorkshire it's got to come from us. It can't come from London.'”
While the fund is a real boon for the area, it is unlikely that indies will just be able to dive straight in. Television sensibilities will be useful for the storytelling, research and development of these projects, but the technical skills are going to have to come from within the digital domain. And that means working with agencies and interactive producers.
“I'm bound to say that they need to come and work with us,” says Squire. “But I do believe that that is the case. We have a full-time team of 11 techies permanently developing new interactive elements. [Indies] can't compete. In the same way that we couldn't just start making television programmes. They either have to buy interactive companies, merge or work with them in partnership.”
Squire points not to the differences in technology per se but the differences in user experience on something like Delicious, My Space or Flickr.
“The problem is the nature of the media,” he continues. “Sit back versus lean forward. If you look at the way it's constructed, TV is there to tell stories and it's of the moment. It's the opposite in interactive media which is personalised, random and doesn't follow a structure.”
Screen Yorkshire is keen to play matchmaker in support of these potential partnerships. Last year it funded Screenhouse and Real Life's access to the Research Centre (TRC) Cross Creatives programme which brings companies into contact with peers in other sectors.
“The relationships with the techie guys are absolutely critical,” says Real Life's Schofield. “It's fair to say there is one project that has come directly out of the relationships we formed there and it does not involve any broadcaster.”
Other initiatives include helping to bring the BBC Innovations Labs to the area and part funding the Crossover Labs in the run-up to the Sheffield Doc/Fest. In both, inter-disciplinary teams from indie and interactive media companies develop new ideas.
The collaborations are starting to bear fruit. Schofield says that, right now, 50% to 60% of his company's development effort is in cross-platform. “We will never forget traditional TV,” he says. “But we have started talking about joint pitches and development work where the narrative and people-finding skills of programme-makers are well complemented by some of the more hard-edged techie skills that are essential for cross-platform projects.”
Real Life now has firm relationships with two local companies and together they're working on a funded development project with C4 Education and another “future of user generated content (UGC)” idea that Schofield is keeping close to his chest. “Some UGC can just be a big dump of unmediated stuff,” he says. “The next generation is where the users are collaborating with content makers to make something that is more interesting.”
Yap Films co-founder and principal Pauline Duffy admits creating programmes for non-TV media is not her company's top priority but she does have projects under development that are new media-related or driven.
“We are about to launch a website for Finding the Fallen, a returnable archaeology/genealogy series that we produce,” she says. “And we are developing a site for a new returnable series that we are just about to start production on, plus we are talking to the BBC about new media elements for Street of Dreams.”
The digital companies are keen to make these collaborations work for them too, both with 4IP and for broadcasters. Numiko, a Leeds-based digital agency, has already got a strong track record, having worked on multimedia websites for the BBC's Britain From Above and The Culture Show, as well as Britannia High for ITV. The company is now developing its own ideas and planning further partnerships.
“Indies don't need a team of developers,” says Numiko managing director and founder David Eccles. “They need to be able to form different partnerships for different projects to give them flexibility in terms of cost, scale, style and audience.”
Eccles maintains that the best new media ideas are not bolted on to a programme. “The relationships that we are really interested in are the ones where you can sit around a table with the embryo of an idea that has interactivity as its core,” he says. “Our role is to work in collaboration so concepts that would run on TV are mirrored with a cross-platform offering.”
Numiko has already worked with Rollem on a project for the BBC Innovation Labs. “We worked up the drama element and Numiko worked up the multimedia angle,” says Doyle at Rollem. “It got some development money and we are waiting to hear back.”
Screen Yorkshire is also very keen to exploit the talent of Yorkshire's games developers, especially with 4IP.
One company that could benefit is Tuna Technologies, a Sheffield company that does contract games development work and also works up its own ideas. It was involved in the Crossover Labs and will certainly pitch ideas to 4IP, possibly partnering with another company. “The games industry is seen as a way of making money and not a lot of forward thinking is done,” says Tuna Technologies' Alex Amsel. “I believe that successful cross-platform projects should be built around the intellectual property rather than seeing them as a spin-off.”
It is fair to say that not all relationships between Yorkshire indies and Yorkshire digital agencies are fully formed yet, but at least the seeds have been sown. “Good content works on any platform,” says Schofield. “If we think we've got a good idea that lends itself to the internet or games, we'll forge partnerships to get that proposition onto the most appropriate platform.”
4IP - Backing innovation
Launched officially last week, 4iP will gather and commission digitial ideas that are rooted in collaboration and participation. It's certainly not TV on the internet.
“We're after a different scale of projects,” says 4iP head Tom Loosemore. “We'll be giving individuals their first break and also backing some big projects that bring different partners together. One thing to stress is we will not be focusing exclusively on the independent production sector, we'll also be looking at the digital marketing sector and more technical people.”
Importantly for the producers and people of Yorkshire, the local RDA, Yorkshire Forward, has committed£5m - which is being match funded by C4 - and there will be a Sheffield-based commissioner on board by Christmas. His or her job - working in conjunction with Screen Yorkshire - will be to pick the projects and spend that money in Yorkshire.
“It'll allow people to take risks and set up companies locally,” says Century Films executive producer Ruth Pitt. “Every year when I go to the Sheffield Doc/Fest I love the fact that the finest commissioning editors and documentary-makers consider it a must-go destination. To build on that with a big scheme like 4iP is fabulous.”
Planned cutbacks at C4 have prompted suggestions that its commitment to 4iP could be reduced. The broadcaster says this is “categorically not the case”, although it admits that some plans may have to be “phased”.