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'Millions still watch the BBC' (Lessons from Manchester, episode 1)

Travelling makes you a better person. Everyone thinks so, and it is a great favour to be able to travel. A privilege to be able to do it. If you take the train to England, the last few minutes before you disappear under the Channel at Calais, you see more and more fences appearing. And we are not talking about the average Heras fencing used to secure a building site here in the country. We are talking metres-high shiny steel monsters with deadly spikes, rolls of barbed wire with razor-sharp spikes, three, sometimes four rows thick, watched by more cameras than the Eurovision Song Contest can pull off.

Those worried about the wall Trump is building right through the Mexican countryside can see how things could be worse. England closed, key broken. Those without a train ticket will not get in, the Channel Tunnel is not meant for pedestrians and cyclists. To put it nicely. For those who did manage it, a similar steel curtain awaits at the other end.


Still, I would begrudge everyone a train journey to Manchester. A good seven hours from Rotterdam Centraal, bar on board, plenty of legroom and a landscape that you can see gliding beautifully even at 250 kilometres an hour, right down to the flooded Midlands. Also handy when the storm has a name that keeps planes grounded.

I went to Manchester to learn things. Curiosity brought me, with around 20 entrepreneurs and managers from the cultural sector, to England's second largest city. Almost 3 million people make up the Greater Manchester Area, an urban region similar to our Rhineland: a 'public body' ruled by Labour since time immemorial.

In Manchester, the industrial revolution began, the railways were invented, and there are more 19th-century warehouses than in all European cities combined. Morrissey, New Order, Oasis, as well as The Hollies and The Bee Gees are the musical pride of the city, where a few big clubs existed (The Factory) and even bigger venues are being built (The Factory). We saw a performance at The Deaf Institute by Liz Lawrence. Beautiful venue, very nice band, and you're back outside after an hour of playing.

In the coming days, postings here will follow in bite-sized chunks. So that the knowledge gained is shared.


1: Millions of people still watch the BBC

It may be the epitome of journalistic independence, quality TV and good taste, but things are brewing at BBC headquarters. Because of an appeal to the Chatham House Rule I won't go into details. Suffice it to say that in that brand-new media park in Manchester's docklands, they are pissing their trousers for a variety of reasons, not least because the right's renewed attempt to scrap the broadcasting licence fee is more likely to succeed that ever in these times of Brexit.

We spoke, after the CEO, to Ian Forrester who heads the innovation department, where he invents amazing things with modular blocks and metadata. And television documentaries that adapt to viewers' tastes.

Cooking programme

It does not all come naturally, and what they come up with in those labs is not always to the taste of the management, or even penetrates them, but Forrester understands one thing well: complacency is the greatest enemy of the world's biggest broadcaster. When the boss says: 'Millions still watch the BBC', the innovator hears the soundtrack of Titanic. The world of media has changed: those who used to just watch now make their own and sometimes a lot sharper than you expect. What kind of news are you going to offer that generation? They haven't figured it out yet. What there is, comes out sparsely, sometimes hidden in an experimental cooking show.

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On the media dock, 10 floors of office garden glow. The strikingly small studio where the BBC's flagship Breakfast Television is recorded every day houses the UK's most famous sofa. You don't want to know how horribly it sits. That rotten seat, with a seat too high and a rock-hard backrest too far forward, serves a purpose: the presenters cannot help but exude activity and freshness. Those who slack off end up on the floor. So the comfort is clean, as is the view behind the presenters, where it is always slightly cloudy, even during storm Dennis.


They did try it once, though, with a live camera on the roof, or an open studio on the ground floor. problem was that then the undirectable reality could strike at unexpected moments: a curious seagull with diarrhoea on the roof, jolly passers-by with their own agenda behind the windows on the ground floor. After all, in a cosy news programme, you don't want surprises that distract from the message.

I felt an analogy coming on.

Next episodes:

Hide the books, if you want people in the library. (Lessons from Manchester, episode 2)

That's how you give your city a real vision. (How Manchester became a leader in international arts in just a few years)

Anfield's best pasties work against degradation. (Lessons from Manchester, episode 4, the Liverpool edition)

That's how you give your city a real vision. (How Manchester became a leader in international arts in just a few years)

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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