London Weekend Television: using the power of publicity to build partnerships

October 01, 1999

London Weekend Television broadcasts to nearly 11 million viewers in London and the South East, having held the ITV weekend licence for more than 30 years. Starting as an independent company in 1968, LWT is now part of Granada Media, alongside Granada Television, Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees Television. Together they are responsible for nearly half of ITV’s programme output. LWT flagship programmes include London’s Burning, The South Bank Show and Blind Date.

The whole broadcast media industry in the UK is changing rapidly. Gone are the days of a duopoly between the BBC and a single commercial company in each region. Competition from satellite, cable and now digital services has put pressure on costs; recently the industry consolidated around a few key players. Parent company, Granada also has shareholdings in GMTV, ITN and Scottish Media, and owns 50% of the new pay television digital service, ONdigital (co-owned with Carlton, which broadcasts London’s weekday ITV service).

Increased competition also makes a lighter regulatory framework possible, and as a consequence, fewer mandatory requirements to broadcast regional or community programmes. This raises the question whether the ethos of public and community service can survive, if it is not mandatory. The answer will depend on each company’s corporate values and culture.

Community broadcasts

One test of these is the extent of programmes made specifically for a regional audience. In its licence application, LWT committed to show an average of three and a half hours of regional programmes a week – a target it has exceeded: last year the average was over four hours, some 200 hours a year.

Another test is the approach adopted to ‘community service’ broadcasts: are these just traditional information announcements or is there a real enthusiasm to tackle difficult issues and engage viewers in taking practical action? LWT is trying the latter approach. Up coming this autumn is a series of five one minute programmes on skills and training opportunities aimed at sections of society who face exclusion, such as people facing long term unemployment. These are being produced with the London Employer Coalition, with additional funding from KPMG, Coca-Cola, British Gas, Camelot and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter . This extra support makes possible follow-up action beyond the actual broadcast, such as information packs, phone numbers and signposting to services.

Even though not a regulatory requirement, such broadcasts are seen essentially as part of mainstream activities, funded from programme-making budgets, not a corporate community involvement initiatives as such. Here the task for broadcast companies like LWT is to go beyond a simple donations budget and apply the power of TV to its community activities. LWT’s answer has been to devise a flagship project, using the allure of TV publicity to secure real commitment from partners, both other companies and agencies such as voluntary arts organisations and government bodies. This yields additional resources and makes for effective projects, following a model originally developed by Granada Television.

Talent Challenge

The LWT Talent Challenge began in May 1997 and has helped over 1,000 young people in five London boroughs to develop their skills, confidence and experience through participation in arts activity. Now the approach is being adapted for a second phase, to start in the year 2000. At the outset, LWT challenged other businesses in London to join in and five adopted one local area each. Activities included new youth arts projects, with workshops, training and a big summer festival in 1998. That year, the scheme won one of the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Awards for business involvement.

The local areas were chosen to reflect their need for regeneration and to offer opportunity to normally disadvantaged people. Activities were structured as a learning and development opportunity not just for the young people, but also for a team of staff from the supporting companies by tackling fundraising and local project organisation: those involved were Coca-Cola , Deloitte & Touche , Halifax and Thames Water with both staff time and money and IBM UK with funds only. Over fifty established arts, educational and community organisations joined in, often working together for the first time.

LWT co-ordinated the process and its cameras followed the projects, creating three half-hour documentaries and a special ninety minute programme on the final festival. LWT also offered a three month work placement to one person from each area in both 1998 and 1999, with special emphasis on outreach to minority ethnic communities. Also produced was Arts into Action , a practical careers guide for young people, detailing organisations, funding, qualifications and professional opportunities.

Our London

Building on the success of Talent Challenge, LWT is now preparing a broader and more flexible follow-on project, provisionally titled ‘Our London’. Still focused on the arts and young people, it will involve many more businesses of varying sizes. Each one will organise a creative workshop leading to a local performance, exhibition, short film or publication, all featuring perceptions of life as a Londoner. Contributions from business partners are limited to £10,000 with total project budgets capped at £20,000, to avoid diversion of effort into ambitious fundraising. Projects will be filmed for broadcast, coinciding with interest in the election of the Mayor of London. Again a practical information pack will be issued to help achieve longer-term sustainability.

One distinguishing feature of these challenge-type activities is the focus on evaluation. One in 15 young participants in Talent Challenge was asked for their assessment – broadly the scheme did meet its objectives but tended to benefit young people already socially included; so better outreach through the community projects is planned for next time. Also evaluated were the business teams; 24 individuals got involved and virtually all completed the evaluation. This showed they had gained both professionally and personally, nearly half referred to gains in confidence and motivation. Over 90% said improved relationships with team members would prove useful back at work.

Local community involvement

LWT’s focus on education and learning follows the overall theme of Granada Media as a whole, with a strong emphasis on developing personal and practical skills among the young and those who are socially excluded. LWT has added a strong link with the arts, felt to be a natural fit given its weekend, leisure-orientated, broadcasting remit.

LWT’s total community contribution in terms of cash only is around £300,000 each year, with staff time and in-kind contributions additional. (Not included in that figure are any costs associated with community programme-making.) Granada as a group neither collates a figure for total contribution nor prescribes a minimum level of involvement in each company, leaving it to local judgement. But chief executive, Charles Allen, is personally involved in the community, as chairman of BITC’s Race for Opportunity campaign, and this commitment undoubtedly acts as a spur for group companies.

Aside from its flagship ‘challenge’ projects, LWT is involved in local activities close to its office and studios on London’s South Bank, a near neighbour of the arts complex. It supports the education programme of the South Bank Centre (funding young people to attend live performances of works they are studying) and the Thames Festival (working with a local school to enter the pageant). Others activities are the London International Festival of Theatre, the local Coin Street Community Festival, the Royal National Theatre and the String of Pearls, an initiative to open up to the public buildings of significance along the banks of the Thames.

Responsibility for community affairs rests with Emma Mandley, director of regional affairs and a member of the main LWT Board (see separate profile) . She also chairs the company’s equal opportunities action group, which addresses both internal policies and on-screen issues covering gender, race and, increasingly, disability. LWT is a member of Opportunity Now and won an award in 1998 for its equal opportunities policies.

Until recently, employee involvement was not a strong component of community activities, but this is starting to change. Every Tuesday lunchtime a team of volunteers goes to local schools to help with reading and LWT is now involved in head teacher mentoring, through the Partners in Leadership initiative. Greater employee involvement remains a major objective for the future, but there are practical difficulties. Short term contracts are prevalent in the industry. (Of total staffing around 1,000, about one third are on freelance contracts at any one time.) Production deadlines and broadcast hours make long hours and shift work inevitable.

Still, this is a crucial test of LWT’s commitment – if community involvement is to survive the industry’s growing commercial pressures, it requires not just backing from the senior executives, but must become an integral part of “the way we do things round here”.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 48 – October, 1999