BBC NI gets its act together with drama

Network TV targets set for region are a “challenge”, but drama production is thriving

BBC Northern Ireland’s contribution to network television programming for 2013 will be boosted by two dramas: The Fall and the second series of police corruption drama Line of Duty, which was wooed to Belfast after filming its first series in Birmingham

BBC Northern Ireland’s contribution to network television programming for 2013 will be boosted by two dramas: The Fall and the second series of police corruption drama Line of Duty, which was wooed to Belfast after filming its first series in Birmingham

 

When RTÉ executive Steve Carson re-joins BBC Northern Ireland at the end of the year to become its head of productions, he will find an organisation that has stepped up its involvement in drama, is seeking to commission more non-drama output from the independent sector and is “entering a more stable phase”, according to its director Peter Johnston.

The man with overall responsibility for BBC NI – and Carson’s new boss – says the division wants to “find the things that we really want to be known for” and “be realistic about the things that we have in our favour” after a period of cutbacks that saw the closure of 100 posts.

Wider BBC network
As well as spending BBC NI’s local programming budget – £54 million in 2013 – Carson will be charged with growing the contribution that Northern Ireland makes to the wider BBC network.

The broadcaster wants to increase the amount of network television programming (shows that are broadcast not just locally, but across the BBC network) that it sources from each of the “nations”, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But in Northern Ireland’s case there is some way to go. In 2012, content from Northern Ireland accounted for just 1.3 per cent of the total network television spending. The target is to increase this to 3 per cent by 2016.

“The target remains 3 per cent and it is a challenge,” says Johnston . Indeed, it represents a 600 per cent growth rate from its starting position. There has been “rapid progress” in some years, but in other years – including 2012 – its percentage share of network spending has fallen back.

Projects lined up in 2012 bode well for the future, however, and the region’s contribution for 2013 will be boosted by two BBC Two dramas: The Fall and the second series of police corruption drama Line of Duty, which was wooed to Belfast after filming its first series in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, BBC comedy Blandings, produced by Mammoth Screen, is filming its second series in Northern Ireland, “which is a bit surreal”, says Johnston, given the “very English” nature of the PG Wodehouse adaptation, while first world War dramas The Wipers Times and the yet-to-be-aired three-parter 37 Days were both shot in the North. “Once you get some momentum, you start to build up skills,” he says.

The success of The Fall was an important moment – one quarter of the population of Northern Ireland watched it, according to Johnston. But BBC Northern Ireland’s contribution to BBC drama output did not begin with the serial killer five-parter, he points out, citing the slightly less sadistic 1996-2001 Sunday evening staple Ballykissangel, which was shot in Co Wicklow.

“Drama output has gone through peaks and troughs, as things do,” he says. Beyond drama, the division’s contribution to in-house current affairs (it targets 10 editions of Panorama a year) and in-house factual (this means segments on The One Show, Sunday Morning Live and Wanted Down Under) have stepped up.

But it is the non-drama commissions from the independent sector where it has been “harder to make progress”, and it is working with Northern Ireland Screen and the network television commissioners to improve its record in this area, Johnston says.

Audience plurality
For the BBC, the targets for regional contributions to network-wide television spending are designed to make its output more reflective of the plurality of its audience – so that it isn’t the case that Northern Ireland and its people only ever appear on screens in Britain in the news headlines.

The BBC’s Audience Council for Northern Ireland observed in its report in July that audiences want “a more authentic portrayal of a modern and changing society in Northern Ireland on the BBC’s networks” and lamented the fact there had been “relatively few transfers” of programmes made by BBC NI to the wider network to date.

A more representative public service broadcaster is “absolutely at the heart” of the network television spending targets, says Johnston.

“It’s also a recognition that the licence fee is collected in every region. It’s about returning the investment of the audience through the economic impact of the productions filmed here.”