Move to Leeds 'the biggest transformation in Channel 4's history'

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It is little over 12 months since the news broke that Channel 4 had selected Leeds to be the home of its new headquarters.

However, sitting in a freshly carpeted meeting room, replete with Channel 4 branding, the broadcaster’s managing director for nations and regions says that it is already up and running in the city.

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Speaking to Yorkshire Vision, Sinead Rocks is clear about the scale of the undertaking.

Read more: All today's Yorkshire business news
“This has been described as the biggest transformation in the organisation’s history. This is a massive deal for Channel 4. Channel 4 has essentially been based in the same building from its inception. But we have well and truly landed in Leeds.

“This week has all been about moving into our next temporary home. We have tried to make it feel like a proper Channel 4 office rather than just somewhere where we are lodging.

“We are in a brilliant position in that our staff are either entirely new to the organisation and just really excited about doing something new, or are staff that have relocated from London and made a really big choice to come and be a part of this. There is a great atmosphere here.”

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

The move began at the start of the year from a small presence in Leeds’ Platform building.

But last month Channel 4 officially began its relocation in earnest from its Horseferry Road home in London to Leeds.

Read more: How C4 move to Leeds can stop talent drain to London
More than 100 staffers will be based in Leeds by Christmas. They will be based in temporary offices in West Gate for the next few months before it sets up home permanently in the Majestic offices.

The move will breath new life into the former theatre and nightclub, which has been derelict for more than a decade and was gutted by a massive fire five years ago.

Alex Mahon and Sinead Rocks in front of the broadcaster's new home.

Alex Mahon and Sinead Rocks in front of the broadcaster's new home.

"Holy Grail"

Ms Rocks says the move to the Majestic represents “the holy grail for the broadcaster”.

Yorkshire Vision can reveal that Channel 4 will take over the third, fourth and fifth floors of the building.

However, the new television studio that will allow it to co-anchor its Channel 4 news programme from both London and Leeds may not be based there, and work is underway to identify a potential suitable location elsewhere in the city.

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Read more: Channel 4 and Burbury moving to Leeds show how HS2 is already proving a game changer for Yorkshire
“We are really excited,” says Ms Rocks. “It is an iconic building, it will be brilliant place to work, it will be a brilliant place for us to invite other people in. We don’t want to be walled off – we want to very much be part of the city. There will be no excuses for our colleagues from London to visit – you fall out of the station and it is there.

“The decision was initially to have a studio in the Majestic. We are still working through things but that is looking slightly unlikely now. We have looked from top to bottom. But the commitment remains and we are now looking at where the best place to have a studio will be.”

The staff there will cover the full range of what Channel 4 does, with everything from sales, finance, content management, listings, publicity and key commissioning roles all being based in the city.

Ms Rocks said that the mass relocation was very much part of the plan to move its operations out of the capital and that the precedent set by other large organisations that have relocated operations northwards had made the process less of a shock to the system.

“The really good thing about the Channel 4 move is, rather than moving and shifting departments in their entirety like the BBC did, the decision has been taken to bring an entire cross section of the business. People are more used to this happening now because of the BBC move and other companies like Burberry.

“Moving out of London is now much less unexpected than it was eight or nine years ago.”

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

New blood

Along with the change in surroundings has come an alteration to the personnel.

The vast majority of applications for the new roles being created in Leeds have been from people living in the wider Yorkshire area.

The employment of local talent prevents what Ms Rocks refers to as a “lift and shift” of its pre-existing London workforce, something she claims would have made the whole move “a bit pointless”.

Read more: Steph McGovern to get her own daily Channel 4 show - and it will be broadcast from Leeds
“The region as a whole, and I am including Bradford in that, is one of the most diverse in the whole of the UK and with a very young population.

“Channel 4 has always prided itself, and was in fact set up, to give diverse opinions and new perspectives to provide an alternative voice to the rest of the mainstream media and public service broadcasters. If we are going to do that successfully we need to make sure that we have a staff base that is reflective of the UK as a whole.

“There is always a bit of scepticism and we saw this when we moved as part of the BBC, this idea that ‘the talent we need doesn’t exist outside of London’. What I think about both the BBC move and the Channel 4 move is that we now have the potential to break the cycle.

“People of my generation always had to go to London to grow their careers. I think that will be one of our measures of success – if people in the creative sector can choose to have a fulfilling career in the city that they chose to live in or that they are from. That is one of the prizes on offer.”

Work is already underway to engage with the production companies in Yorkshire and beyond to increase their involvement in Channel 4’s content.

The organisation has pledged to have 50 per cent of its commissioning spend outside of the capital by 2023, making the need for this kind of engagement vital. “If there was no eventual manifestation of this on-screen the whole thing would be pointless,” says Ms Rocks.

“So for us this is about making sure we never get trapped in a London bubble.

“In an era of real globalisation, when it comes to broadcasting and media we must make sure that there are still voices that reflect life in the UK back to the UK and show a diverse range of opinions and lives on screen that people can recognise themselves in.

“We will be able to tell stories that we simply would not have been able to tell if we did not have commissioners in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol.”

Lessons learn from BBC move to Salford

The decision by the BBC to relocate some of its programming to Manchester in 2011 resulted in months of stories concerning disgruntled staffers unhappy about leaving London.

Read more: Channel 4 recruit MTV and Unilad highflyers into Leeds
Ms Rocks said, while the move for Channel 4 has not been without its challenges, that the success of Media City in Salford and the subsequent further trend of broadcasters moving north had helped to ease the situation.

“It is always difficult for any organisation who makes the choice to do that because you are talking about real people’s lives, and with the best will in the world, not everyone’s role who is in scope to move is going to be able to move,” she said.

“But from the Channel 4 perspective, those that have moved have really embraced it as an opportunity to increase their work-life balance, to have a totally different way of life.

"Some people are actually from the North of England and needed to go to London for their career. Some of the new staff are currently based in London but are from Leeds and have used this as an opportunity to come home. So I don’t think we have had the same kind of sniffy reaction, but I think that was potentially because a precedent was set with the BBC.”

Ms Rocks also paid tribute to the work done by the public sector in the Leeds City Region to help them with their transition to the area.

“They have worked with us at every step of the way, not just on the logistics of getting here but introducing us to the people we will potentially be working with.”

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty

Sinead Rocks - picture by James Hardisty