Stripped of its finest assets

The BBC has a proud history of in-house broadcast design, but that hasn’t deterred it from winding down. Mike Exon commiserates the end of an era

It feels a bit unfair to question the design integrity of the BBC. Over the years the Corporation has led the field in so many disciplines across the whole gamut of design, in and out of house. But recent events threaten the supremacy of the BBC’s broadcast design heritage. There’s no escaping the fact that the halcyon days of in-house screen design are in decline.

It’s hardly surprising maybe, given the external pressure on the monolithic broadcaster in the wake of the BBC Charter Review. Costs, jobs, governance, and funding are under such scrutiny right now that anything non-core, loss-making, or desirable to buyers is fighting for its status. Sadly, the in-house expertise that gave rise to legends like Ridley Scott & Co in the 1980s looks set to become another footnote in the Corporation’s history.

Last week the BBC formally put its biggest single design unit up for sale. The design team inside BBC Broadcast’s Creative Services unit totals 80 people all told and ranks as one of the global heavyweights in broadcast design. Take the rebrand of the Discovery Channel – which is set to be fully launched in the US in a month’s time, and then rolled out globally. It’s about as big as they come in terms of screen design jobs and long may the success of Jeff Conrad’s team continue. But times are changing. Despite meeting the challenges of endless departmental switches, organisational restructures (remember Media Ark), charter restrictions forcing its design teams to pitch for every BBC job; despite rising to the challenge of becoming profit-making concerns, there is no escaping the fact that the award certificates will soon be coming off the walls at west London’s White City.

Perhaps this is a melodramatic reaction. It’s true BBC Broadcast designers can look forward to seven years of guaranteed work with the BBC under their new owner (BBC Broadcast holds a ten-year contract to supply creative services to the BBC, of which only three have elapsed.) They aren’t exactly strangers to change. Just as important is the fact that the idea of the BBC having an ‘inside’ has never been straightforward. Design hasn’t sat in the BBC’s public service domain for years and ‘its designers’ work on numerous non-BBC projects. As Conrad points out, BBC Broadcast already splits its design work 50/50 between BBC and non-BBC work.

BBC Broadcast is very open about its future plans and the official management line is upbeat.

Conrad is bullish about the future and probably rightly so, given a clutch of recent project wins. ‘As far as we’re concerned it’s completely business as usual. We’ve just won a big channel branding job in Japan for an interactive channel, which is really interesting,’ he says.

But privately there is concern among some BBC Broadcast designers about what life outside of the BBC will mean, not so much in terms of work flow – that’s not the issue – but certainly in terms of professional credibility. The fact that its next owners are not yet known is of potential concern. There is an acknowledgement that within BBC Broadcast as a whole, the design component probably won’t be the main attraction. If potential bidders for BBC Broadcast – WPP, Aspect Media and Thomson have been thrown into the hat so far – are most interested in buying BBC Broadcast for its ‘playout’ backbone, then there is a lurking possibility that its design services could come under pressure to secure their future worth once again, over the longer term.

A spokeswoman for the BBC underlines the fact that the sale is about selling ‘the whole company’ and hence design jobs will be preserved with all the others. She also BBC Broadcast divisions

• Playout: programming and on-air content

• Creative Services (300 staff, 80 designers)

• Access Services (Teletext, for instance) stresses that the unions are fully in the loop too.

‘We are talking to a number of possible buyers, from broadcasters to venture capitalists and we expect to have a longlist of between eight and 12 by the end of April,’ she says. ‘We should have a final bid in place by July and the transfer will probably happen by the end of the summer,’ she explains.

The real issue as far as design is concerned is that this is the latest in a line of unlinked disposals of BBC broadcast design services. Last week’s sale advertisement in the Financial Times fell almost a year to the day that the BBC quietly informed another key ‘in-house’ design resource, BBC Post Production Design Bristol, that it would be closed. The 20-strong team, which scooped a special award in the Design Week Awards 2004, was shut down by the BBC at the end of last year. Under creative director James Hall, who was the last to leave in November 2004, the high profile unit was known all over the corporation for its prolific conceptualisation and dramatic on-screen work. The team knew how to use design not just as a valuable commodity, but as a process and a problem solver for so many creative puzzles.

Fortunately, most of its creatives went on to set up their own groups in Bristol, such as Mammal Create, Node, Dark Horse and Kiss My Pixel. Many still work closely with the BBC, including Hall, who is working as a consultant.

All that remains in-house at the BBC in terms of broadcast design is a 60-strong team at BBC News, whose future ‘inside’ the corporation seems assured for the time being. There may be up to a couple of hundred print designers still dotted around the corporation, but somehow without the clout of the broadcast aces, you can’t help feeling this is the end of an era. It won’t be forgotten.

The BBC in Flux

BBC Broadcast up for sale

BBC board of governors will be disbanded

2900 BBC imposed job cuts across the organisation

Cost-savings of 15 per cent imposed on TV and radio budgets

Savings of £360m anticipated

Licence fee will be retained

Fee may be shared with other broadcasters

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