Local news is a source of profit for ITV, not subsidy

THE REPORTING of the London bombings on television was proof of the extraordinary health of television news in Britain.

Sky,
ITN and the BBC produced comprehensive, fast, accurate and sensitive
coverage which dominated the output of all five terrestrial channels,
and the three dedicated news channels also responded superbly.

It
was all the more remarkable if you consider that huge amounts of
manpower and technical resources had already been committed to the
coverage of the G8 meeting in Scotland and the Olympic Games
announcement in Singapore the day before.

In fact, I’m finding it
quite hard to remember a busier six months of news – starting with the
tsunami, followed by the general election, the Jackson trial, and now
these three major stories all happening pretty well simultaneously.

The
three-way competition between our main news providers has created a
golden era for television journalism and news production in the UK. A
decade ago we used to look enviously at the news operations of the US
Networks and wish we had a fifth of their firepower – now I believe any
one of our main news providers in the UK could put the US networks and
news channels to shame.

While our network news is thriving as a
result of healthy competition, I’m afraid the same can’t be said of our
local television news, where ITV has apparently decided to run up the
white flag of surrender.

local_news_is_alITV
chief executive Charles Allen (right) recently announced that, in
future, ITV would need a public subsidy to provide regional news. To be
honest, I find this declaration pretty depressing.

Regional news
and regional current affairs – once the USP of ITV – are apparently now
regarded as nothing but an expensive burden.

Having just won a
£135m rebate for its broadcast licence, ITV clearly believes it is
entitled to yet more financial concessions from the regulator, Ofcom.

Britain’s premier commercial network is quickly changing from a public service supplier to a public service supplicant.

The
argument ITV puts forward for this sounds logical enough: once the
mother channel, ITV1, becomes just another commercial broadcaster in
the digital jungle, then why should it shoulder burdensome and
expensive responsibilities such as the provision of local news or
religious programmes?

In effect it offers two scenarios – either
ITV is allowed to dispense with its local news, or it gets a subsidy
from the taxpayer or the TV licence payer to provide such a service.

There
is, of course, a third scenario that ITV hasn’t mentioned, which is to
continue producing local news and try to make it work for the ITV brand
and maybe even make it some money.

Regional news programmes such
as Granada Reports and news presenters like the late Richard Whiteley
are part of what made the ITV brand what it is today. As Melvyn Bragg
recently put it: from the start ITV liked people and people liked ITV.

The
trouble with putting a financial costbenefit analysis onto a public
service tradition such as local news provision is that it ignores the
brand loyalty value of that provision, both historically and
potentially in the future.

It’s perfectly possible that ITV could
make some money out of local news, if it chose to get behind it rather
than treat it as an expensive luxury from a bygone era. In North
America and in some European countries such as Germany and France,
local news is popular and profitable.

Allen’s claim that his
company is entitled to a regional news subsidy is a strategy of despair
and bodes badly for the future of regional news on ITV. I say this
partly because ITV has form in this area.

A couple of years ago
when Allen was lobbying Ofcom to decrease its regional nonnews
programming quota, one of the clinching factors was the lack of viewer
appetite for such programmes.

Ofcom’s own research showed that people didn’t value such programming on ITV.

At
the time, many observers pointed out that viewers might not value these
programmes because they were being starved of funding and weren’t
actually very good.

In the past couple of years, ITV has actually
been making significant efforts to improve its regional news
programming while also trying to cut its operating costs. This is a
very tough act to pull off, especially against the strategic background
set by Allen.

Why would ITV invest more money in regional news at the same time as lobbying to get a big fat subsidy to produce it in future?

Declaring
that regional news will not survive on ITV without some sort of
artificial life support is in effect a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It also sadly reflects the value the network places on 50 years of regional brand building.

Although local TV news in the US is relatively healthy, not all its viewers are happy with the content.

I
was interested to read about a group of self-styled “hacktivists” who
have been disrupting live news broadcasts. The “newsbreakers” are
protesting because they feel local news shows carry lots of trivial pap
and very little actual news.

Their tactic is to ambush news shows
by leaping around in fancy dress in the middle of a live two-way when
the hapless reporter is concentrating on answering a question from the
studio.

Members of the group include The Cheese Ninja, Dizzy Monk and The Reverend Snakewater, who performs live on-air exorcisms.

Of
course, the UK is no stranger to the deliberate disruption of live TV
by protesters. Who can forget Nicholas Witchell subduing a lesbian
activist by sitting on her after she invaded the BBC’s Six O’Clock News?

TV reporters working outside the High Court in London are especially vulnerable to live interruption.

I
remember an anti-smoking campaigner who specialised in cycling into
shot on his protest tandem and – my personal favourite – the naked
civil rights activist who waved his willy in a live broadcast from
Buckingham Palace. These gentlemen clearly had their own agenda and
understood the power of live TV.

Maybe Reverend Snakewater and the Cheese Ninja would like to invade the Granada Reports studio.

■ Chris Shaw is senior programme controller of Five Next week: Janice Turner

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