Election rush deals blow to broadcast news pilots

The prospect of independently funded consortiums replacing the channel 3 regional news currently provided by ITV was dealt a blow today as the Government admitted it would be unable to get its plans for a series of pilots through ahead of the general election.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport confirmed to Press Gazette that it had been unable to sign off the contracts necessary to validate the three proposed pilot projects in England, Wales and Scotland.

The DCMS spokeswoman said: “DCMS must comply with the Cabinet Office general election guidance and any further detailed contract discussions cannot continue until after the election.”

The media companies selected to run the pilot schemes must now wait until after 6 May to see if a Labour victory can save the proposal. The Conservative Party has pledged to scrap the scheme should it win the election.

The Government has also been forced to drop a section from the Digital Economy Bill which would have paved the way for the scheme to be rolled-out nationally in 2012.

The clause was dropped as a way of gaining Conservatives support to rush the bill through during the “wash up” period of parliamentary business.

Should the Labour Party now win the election, the clause would have to be introduced into new legislation to secure state-funding for IFNCs from 2012.

Last month, the DCMS selected its preferred bidders for pilot process. They were:

  • Scottish News Consortium – a group consisting of Johnston Press, Herald and Times Group, and D C Thomson along with independent TV production company Tinopolis – as the preferred bidder to run an alterative channel 3 local news pilot in Scotland.
  • Wales Live – a collaboration between UTV, the current Channel 3 licence holder in Northern Ireland and regional publisher NWN Media – was selected for the Welsh pilot.
  • News 3 – a consortium lead by Trinity Mirror with the Press Association and independent TV production company Ten Alps – was named as the partnership to run the remaining pilot in the Tyne Tees/Border region of England.

Each of these companies will now have to wait to see whether the scheme to provide public funds for the three local news pilots will exist on 7 May.

The proposal would have seen funding for the pilots come from a £130m underspend in the licence fee which had been set aside for the digital switchover, with longer-term funding provided by ring-fencing part of the licence fee.

The Conservatives see no benefit in the IFNC plan and have instead proposed the introduction of a series of city-based TV stations which would be privately funded with the aid of a proposed a relaxation of cross-media ownership.

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