NUJ slams Ofcom move to relax ITV's regional remit

McLaughlin: “highly critical”

The public service broadcaster proposed by media regulator Ofcom would be an outlet for new current affairs programmes.

But while the new service may offer more scope for factual programmes, there is concern that proposals to reduce ITV1’s public service obligations will hit regional broadcasting.

Ofcom, outlining its blueprint for public service broadcasting in the digital age, said the new Public Service Publisher (PSP) would be able to commission and transmit three hours of programming a day.

PSP would not be a traditional TV channel but would operate by commissioning public service broadcasting content that could appear on a variety of outlets, including broadband and mobile networks.

Existing media companies (apart from the BBC) would be able to bid to run the new service. Channel 4 is seen as well placed to make a bid. The PSP would be paid for by direct taxation, a tax on broadcasters’ turnover or a supplement to the licence fee. It would have an annual budget of £300 million.

Ofcom’s other main proposals include: 

The BBC to remain the “cornerstone” of public service broadcasting, funded through a licence fee but with some subscription services.
Channel 4 to remain a primarily notforprofit, free-to-air broadcaster able to form alliances, joint ventures and partnerships with other organisations.
ITV1 to retain its commitment to national and regional news and current affairs. But it would be allowed to phase out its regional “non-news” obligations as well as ease its requirements to provide arts, religious and children’s programming.
Channel 5 to be a market-led public service broadcaster.

The NUJ is highly critical of plans to relax ITV1’s regional obligations.

The union’s broadcasting organiser, Paul McLaughlin, claimed it would be an “absolute disaster” if ITV cut regional programming to 90 minutes a week. “We will oppose the cut in non-news regional programming, which would be a highly damaging move should it go ahead,” he said.

The union has opposed plans to close ITV production centres in Maidstone and Nottingham.

McLaughlin said he would seek talks with Ofcom “as a matter of urgency”.

Ofcom claims that ITV’s regional obligations would be commercially “untenable” in the multichannel television world in the digital era. In its report, Ofcom stressed the importance of regional news. It said: “Regional news remains a central element of many people’s daily viewing, and is consistently placed among viewers’ priorities in audience research.”

The report added: “The BBC 6:30pm regional news is the most watched programme in the UK. And ITV’s regional news share, although it has struggled over the past few years, has begun to pick up: its audience has increased by around three share points in most areas in 2004.”

Ofcom’s proposals go out for consultation.

The closing date for responses is 24 November.

By Jon Slattery

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