OU looks to indies for content

February 26, 1999

The Open University is to invite independent producers to make programmes for the channel in competition with its own production department.

Under its new agreement with the Higher Education Funding Council for England up to a quarter of the Pounds 9 million programme budget will be offered to producers outside of the BBC production department at the university's base at Milton Keynes.

But the "indies" will have to compete against the BBC's production teams. The proposal was made by the OU and is a voluntary concession. The OU was legally excluded from the terms of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, under which the BBC and ITV companies were made to offer a quarter of their production budgets to the independent sector.

The final list of courses and required programmes has not yet been agreed but first programming areas will be announced next month and will only be up to 5 per cent of the programmes budget.

"We are keen to get independents in here," says Paul Gerhardt, head of commissioning for BBC/OU. "But over the years we have built special relationships with the OU staff and we are not sure how they are going to take on having new people coming in."

"We want outsiders to come in and keep our standards up but we are not going to do that at a pace that will jeopardise what we have built up here. There are special circumstances. This is not just any old production centre," Mr Gerhardt said.

A spokesman for the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), the trade body representing independent production said: "Obviously we would like to see all of that 25 per cent being guaranteed to the independent sector and the OU production department not allowed to compete for the work."

Invincible Films, which won a Royal Television Society award in 1997 for its programme in the Short Circuit series for BBC Education, shown on BBC2, is looking forward to making programmes for the OU.

"I'm not upset at the limited opportunity for independents at this stage," said independent Invincible Films managing director Hugh Mason. "Milton Keynes is a lovely place and is the last bastion of the old BBC. But Paul Gerhardt is keen to get independents in."

Universities could also make programmes for the OU, according to Gerhardt.

"In the fullness of time I see no reason why the higher education sector cannot make material for the OU. We make programmes that go out on BBC2 right through to non-broadcast audio tapes. We will be tendering for the full range of educational material."

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