TELEVISION / Outward bound to Shepherd's Bush: Mark Lawson examines the BBC's training policy and concludes that you can't make programmes without breaking eggs
Wednesday 03 March 1993
I take this phrase from BBC Management Training - Programmes 1993-94, an interesting manilla booklet, copies of which have been arriving in most of my recent posts in plain brown envelopes, presumably from bemused BBC producers. There was a time when a BBC booklet with the words Programmes 1993-94 on it would have told you what would be appearing on the screen. But to think this is to misunderstand the modern broadcasting environment. Programmes 1993-94 lists 29 management training courses available to BBC employees.
The top-of-the-range course is 'The Executive Leadership Programme' (Course EL0193), open to heads of department and their deputies. This involves four days' residence at somewhere called Brathay Hall, Cumbria, which sounds like nice non-work if you can get it. 'The programme', the brochure discloses, 'focuses firstly on developing a coherent personal style and secondly on creating and transmitting a vision to the department.'
My feeling is that, if I spent four days in a Cumbrian country hotel, my personal style might become a little incoherent, my vision a little blurred. But to think this is to misunderstand the modern broadcasting environment. During their rural awaydays, the executive leaders will be receiving 'personal skills sessions' on 'negotiation, coaching and mentoring'. But they will not be trained merely to mentor indoors. 'The programme includes an element of outdoor activity which both men and women will find equally challenging.' So now you see why John Birt Limited might have spent so much on clothing. You have to wrap up well for television management these days. The promotional write-up tells us little about what the executives will be expected to do at Brathay Hall, but a senior BBC man who went on a prototype of the course last year reports being organised into a team and asked to lower an egg out of a window on a piece of string without breaking either thread or cargo.
Also lasting four days, but less pleasantly situated - participants are offered the choice of their own office, Elstree and Wood Norton - is 'Leadership Development' (Course MD0393). Aimed at producers, or 'resource managers' as they are known within the new BBC, this course is billed as involving 'the use of psychometric instruments' and includes a session on '360 degree feedback', which I assume is that crackle, so irritating to radio listeners, which occurs when guests lean too close to the microphone. Given the promise that delegates will return to their jobs with 'greater energy and enthusiasm', I wonder if these 'psychometric instruments' are not something to do with brainwashing.
'Developing Management Skills' (Course DV0193) - a four-day course, again on offer in your own office, Elstree or Wood Norton - actually includes a specific segment on 'managing creative people.' Here, the mind boggles even more than elsewhere. I have a vision of a trainer solemnly informing his roomful of producers: 'The management of creative people involves particular management tactics. Useful approaches include The Hug, The Proferred Hankie, the Name Of A Good Dealer. On no account say that, on balance, there are far worse problems in Bosnia.'
A few examples of the other, smaller courses must suffice. Why not cancel all your meetings and come to 'Managing Meetings'? At this one-day Elstree seminar, the topics include 'planning to ensure that the right people are present' (how to use an internal phone book, presumably) and constructing an agenda (how to use a pen and paper?). And any BBC employee with a day to waste can enrol for 'Managing Time', another Elstree seminar teaching the art of 'controlling interruptions' (how to buy a door and an answerphone?) and an element called 'tackling personal time-management 'blocks' ' (Buy a watch?).
Lowering an egg out of a window on a piece of string might have practical applications to broadcasting in a particular set of circumstances - like, say, a studio fire during a recording of a Timewatch on 1,000-year-old ostrich eggs - but I remain sceptical that better programmes will result from this approach. It is fine to send your producers to Elstree for two days to learn how to 'manage creative people', but what has happened to the television idea that your managers might be creative people?
If you asked Denis Forman, late of Granada, and Jeremy Isaacs, late of Channel 4 - the two great television executives of recent decades - to lower an egg out of a window on a piece of string, you would probably have ended up with the egg on your face pretty quickly, but they had an instinctive understanding of their industry. Alan Yentob has always been celebrated at the BBC for 'personal time-management 'blocks' ' (some of his Arena films were completed minutes before transmission), but personal disorder has never precluded his ability to organise talent or, latterly, schedules. Art is a messy business and is not always made by neat people.
And the BBC Management Training schemes are undermined by a basic, and vast, paradox. The courses are largely intended to prepare staff for a new cost- conscious BBC. For example, a module like 'Budgeting' - offered in variations of one to five days at Elstree - teaches how to save and allocate money. As part of this new fiscal discipline, every element of expenditure of a BBC department is charged directly to it, rather than, as in the past, hiding under general overheads. These training courses will similarly be paid for from individual departmental budgets. The four-day 'Executive Leadership Programme' in Cumbria, for example, costs pounds 1,540. 'Managing Time' spends pounds 190 per person per day, 'Budgeting' pounds 290. If I were a BBC 'resource manager' attempting to control a budget, I would ban my staff from attending these expensive courses. But, apparently, this particular economy has been discouraged from higher up.
This is merely, though, another example of the curious current attitude to the management of what was once a creative industry. The present executives of Granada, for example, if they handed you an egg, would not expect you to lower it out of a window. They would expect you to poach, fry or grill it, having been seconded from Granada's catering side.
But perhaps we are being too cynical. Many of the BBC management programmes are truly demanding courses, designed to assess whether a participant has the executive right stuff. For example, the Cumbrian jaunt, attractive as it sounds, has hidden traps. The programme is not over when you drive away from Brathay Hall. An invoice arrives in your office for the pounds 1,540. You pay it promptly, of course. But how? You have the bill sent on to a limited company, run from your home, of which your wife is a director. Well done. You have passed the final initiative test and will go far.
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