ITV should be replaced as a public service broadcaster if it is unwilling to continue providing regional news, according to Liberal Democrat media spokesman Don Foster.
If people decided they wanted current levels of regional programming to continue then some “quite radical solutions” would have to be considered if it pressed ahead with planned cutbacks, Foster told MPs yesterday.
Media regulator Ofcom is currently consulting on the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) but has indicated that ITV should be able to reduce the amount of local programming it makes as it struggles to cope with a downturn in advertising revenue.
ITV has announced large-scale job losses as part of a drive to save £40m a year, with chairman Michael Grade saying the company could not afford to maintain public service commitments “at any price”.
In a Westminster Hall debate, Foster said it was important to look “more carefully” at what the public wanted in relation to regional programming, including whether they identified with current ITV regions.
He added: “If we are determined to continue with regional news in something like the arrangements we currently have and if ITV are not prepared or are unable to provide it, then we certainly ought to be looking at others to do it.
“But we have got to start looking at some quite radical solutions for a way forward.”
His comments came after Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George suggested ITV should lose its position on channel three if it could not commit to regional programming.
It receives a good slot in the channel line-up and space on the broadcasting spectrum for free in return for fulfilling PSB requirements.
This is currently worth around £200m but the value is expected to drop to around £40m when the switchover to digital is completed.
George suggested ITV should be moved if it abandoned its commitment to PSB.
He said: “If what we are trying to achieve – and I believe that we should be trying to achieve – is a good quality, well-resourced public service broadcaster in the independent sector, then if ITV is not prepared to do it then we offer channel three to someone else.”
Junior media minister Barbara Follett said the Government was committed to retaining PSB but that there had been big changes to traditional funding models.
A move to multi-channel television was “eroding and fragmenting” ITV’s market share of advertising, Follett said, and its share price had fallen dramatically in recent months.
“The question for us as legislators, for Ofcom as the regulator and for the broadcasters is how we can create a sustainable model for public service content, particularly for commercial broadcasters in the future,” she told MPs.
“ITV spends more than £100m a year on news provision alone and the key question for all of us is how sustainable that is in the light of competition from multi-channel television and the proliferation of new media.”
She said the Government would make a decision on the future funding of PSB after Ofcom concluded its consultation.