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NARM Report: Local Media, TOWIE, UK Exports

Jacob Harbord rounds up some of the highlights from last month’s Nations and Regions Media Conference in Manchester.

I was fortunate enough to attend the 19th annual Nations and Regions Media Conference (NARM) held in Salford’s Media Centre from 12 -13 March. Very much aimed at television’s big-wigs and industry insiders, it nonetheless provided this humble student with an invaluable insight into the issues facing the highest-tiers of the UK’s media sector. 

Opening Keynote

Given by Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport

Opening the conference was Jeremy Hunt’s slick and somewhat mesmerising speech. Painting a rosy portrait of the opportunities for growth in the media, Hunt outlined the Coalition’s key strategies for turning the UK into the ‘Silicon Valley of media production’ and supporting our stunted local media.

The primary driver of his vision for increasing competitiveness is superfast broadband, soon to be installed throughout the country. This technology, already widely available in cities across the globe, will facilitate new cost structures for local television channels. The UK has a relatively small local media sector in comparison with countries of similar size; for example, Italy has over 600 local TV stations. The demand is there, with over 90% of households consuming local media, and research from his department suggesting such broadcasters could be sustained by as little as £500,000 per year. As part of his plans for supporting local TV, Hunt was pleased to announce to the room, full of independent producers, that restrictions on ownership of local TV stations by independent producers are to be removed.

Concluding his speech in a manner which slightly dampened the optimism he’d roused in me, Hunt read out the apocryphal quote attributed to Shackleton: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” That this could currently be attached to many advertisements for jobs in UK media might not be something all members of the audience would so readily applaud.

Watching the Radio

Panellists: Nigel Smith (Radio 5 Live), Phil Clark (GMG Radio), Sunandan Wallia (Endboard Productions)

Certainly one of NARM’s more unusual sessions, it was also one of the most interesting. Surely, you might think, audio, plus visual, simply equals television? The panel set out to dispel this common misconception and made a convincing case for better integrating radio within a changed media landscape.

Central to radio visualisation is the notion of ‘glanceability’, that some information will be provided on the otherwise empty screens, now a ubiquitous feature of all devices. On the one hand, this makes a programme more engaging for a generation accustomed to a continual flow of visual media; on the other, it broadens the stagnant market of radio advertising by creating new spaces for sale.

As an aside, Nigel Smith was keen to point out that radio visualisation is nothing new and that, in fact, it had been part of radio broadcasting from as early as 1920 when those listening to football games would have cards with grids marked on them, and commentators would describe the position of players on the pitch in reference to the grid. For the etymologists out there, this is the root of the phrase ‘Back to square one’.

Structured Reality: The Inside Story

Panellists:  Helen Bullough (CBBC), Tony Wood (Lime Pictures)

I’d hoped this talk with co-creator of The Only Way Is Essex, Tony Wood, would clear up the confusion in my mind as to whether TOWIE is ‘real’ or not. Instead, Wood insisted that the whole essence of the show is to mix-up the genre of ‘reality TV’ with ‘drama’ and blur the lines between them. By taking real lives and post-producing them to look like glamorous dramas, Wood hoped to create a tension between fact/fiction that viewers themselves were forced to negotiate. Indeed, he knew the show was a success once people were saying: “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen… when’s the next one?”

From National to International

Panellists: Lucy Meacock (ITV Granada), Beryl Vertue (Hartswood Films), Maria Kyriacou (ITV Studios Global Entertainment), Alex Graham (Wall-To-Wall Television)

Certainly the most illustrious panel at NARM, this session was a real highlight for me. Considering that UK TV exports are already worth an estimated £1.4billion, it was exciting to hear that, after the successes of Downton Abbey across the pond, there had never been a better time to do TV business with the US.

Beryl Vertue, who began her career selling Steptoe and Son in the States, advised that, to translate shows effectively in other countries, one must have a firm understanding of what made a programme work in the first place. Pertinent comments were also made by Alex Graham, the man behind Who Do You Think You Are? and many other of the most innovative and successful reality formats of the last 20 years. He advised that, in the broadest sense, the key to successfully mass marketing formats is to tie specificities to universal themes; easily said but, of course, far more difficult to accomplish. 

Reminiscing about WDYTYA?, Graham described how nobody in the US was interested in buying the show before Jerry Springer returned from shooting and said it was one of the best experiences of his life. This drove buying agents wild and, the moral of this story is: don’t be afraid to leverage your talent.

‘If I Were Jeremy Hunt…’

Panellists: Tom Gutteridge (Standing Stone), Alex Connock (Oxford University & Manchester Business School), Gillian Reynolds (Radio Critic)

NARM concluded with a light-hearted affair in which various speakers took turns to impersonate the esteemed gentlemen who opened this year’s conference. For better or worse, some took the brief more seriously than others.

Gillian Reynolds began with a hyperbolic comedy routine in which she imitated Hunt and mocked him for his tan, smugness and general over-optimism. While this was greatly appreciated by the TV executives in the audience, the majority of her jokes went straight over my head and I feel it may take many years in the media before their comic value reveals itself. Alex Connock was less fun but delivered a compelling lecture on how tax cuts will help the media. Lastly, Tom Gutteridge bemoaned the failure of the government to encourage local media and told his personal story of a failed bid to cultivate TV stations for the North East.

BAFTA Youth Board member Jacob is currently doing an MA in Visual Anthropology with Ethnographic Film at Manchester University. Find him on Twitter at @JacobHarbord.

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