ITV news: A high-stakes game of poker

Back in June, one of those regulatory papers appeared that probably went all but unheeded in television newsrooms up and down the land. It was from Ofcom, and watchdog strategist Peter Phillips launched it at a conference I chaired. Buried in his pitch was a price tag on the losses ITV incurred producing regional news – £50m.

What could bridge this funding gap, he asked? Government money? Perhaps the BBC and new local content from newspapers and other groups might meet the viewers’ needs? There was another suggestion. Perhaps ITV could rationalise its regions or merge them into bigger production hubs? Regulators, of course, are not allowed to wink.

Fast forward three months, and Michael Grade’s entertainment-led vision for ITV in England and Wales has a plan to rationalise the regions from 2009, and lop up to £40m off a budget Ofcom says is just shy of £100m. What stands in his way? Ofcom.

So what hope for journalists whose livelihoods are held hostage in a high-stakes game of poker? Three points.

First, the ITV1 licences run until 2014. Producing a set number of hours per week of ‘high-quality’regional news is written into all of them. In July, Grade had his own suggestions on how ITV might bridge the ‘funding gap’for regional programmes – an arrangement that would let the channel run more advertising. This is a negotiation, not a done deal.

Second, Ofcom’s own figures on ITV’s regional news ‘losses’don’t reflect the true picture. Sunk into ITV’s regional news costs are a few million quid’s worth of equipment and personnel that are vital to anyone wanting to call themselves a national broadcaster. It would be a very surgical £40m cut that didn’t cut into that.

Recording that spend as part of the cost of national news – which Ofcom reckons is pretty reasonable – wouldn’t hit ITN too hard, nor would it be creative accounting. It’s actually wrong not to recognise it.

Thirdly, Ofcom insists that ITV1 licensees provide high-quality regional news. How do you measure that? Well, to use the lingo – maybe through independently-organised, highly-contested, stakeholder-reviewed processes? You might know them as the Royal Television Society awards, or the Baftas.

This May, for the first time, a regional team picked up the Bafta for best news. Richard Frediani and his colleagues at ITV’s Granada Reports were rightly recognised for their coverage of the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy.

But keeping the money coming to report on the deaths of a bunch of illegal Chinese immigrants who were worked like dogs and left to drown is not what City analysts were looking for. Baftas won’t pay Michael Grade’s bonus. Cockling tragedies are not what ITV Regional News boss Mike Jermey meant by ‘content that celebrates the life of our regions”.

If Ofcom wanted encouragement to start considering more than just numbers, James Purnell gave them cause last week when he declared that public service broadcasting ‘is about improving the breadth and quality of what is on offer.’In case Grade missed it, the word was improving.

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