At the November 2000 meeting of the RTS North East & The Border Centre, it was intended to gather views as part of the ITC Consultation on the Future of Regional Programming.
Unexpectedly, the day before the meeting, it was announced that the ITC planned to close the Newcastle office, together with four other offices. The watchdog function would be retained, but working from home supported by infrastructure elsewhere. The details were being discussed that afternoon at a meeting in London attended by the North East and the Borders officer Bob Conlon, who was originally intended to host this RTS meeting.
Given these circumstances, an informal meeting was held to exchange views about the future of regional programmes and the new ITC proposal. As Bob was not able to be there to hear the comments, it was agreed they would be noted and sent on.
In a further meeting, on February 20th 2001, Richard Peel (ITC Director of Public Affairs and the Regions) came to the ITC offices in Pilgrim Street to give a presentation, and to answer questions.
Summary of Points Raised
- Regional and local identity are particularly strong in the North East and the Borders area - far more so than most other parts of England
- Programming to reflect this area back to itself and to the rest of the UK are therefore particularly valued by local people. They often register far higher audiences than the network programmes they displace.
- ITV has provided a high level of regional programme making - for regional and national viewing - hence it was recognised that it was important to maintain a strong ITV. However any changes to the commitment to regional programme making should be as minimal as possible.
- The ITC has been a valuable watchdog. Concerns were expressed at the proposed reduction of effort in the region - it was thought unlikely that it could be as effective a watchdog under the new arrangements.
- There were mixed views on the conditions needed to help ensure a spread of production effort around the UK and in this region in particular. The 25% commitment to independent production was of value; however there was also a view that new media might gradually create new markets and reduce the importance of regional commissioning by the broadcasters.
- In general, a spread of programme making around the UK reflected the diversity of the UK. Any changes to regulation should not undermine this - if anything, at a time of devolution, the Government should aim to improve the likelihood of programme making moving out of London, around the UK and around the regions in English.
Detail of comments
1. IMPORTANCE OF CURRENT POLICY MAKING
- "At risk is the whole future of regional programme making on ITV".
- "The White Paper is the last throw of the dice for regionalism"
- The new licences are signed - there are commitments for the number of hours of regional programmes in ITV franchise areas
- Awareness of local communities, reflected vigorously and imaginatively by the local media, is part of the creative culture of the UK - a culture envied around the world.
2. IMPORTANCE OF REGIONAL PROGRAMMES TO THE LOCAL POPULATION
- Recent BBC research had shown a far greater sense of regional identity in this region than others. 39% of people linked themselves with their region first and foremost, above links with England or Great Britain. That contrasted with 7% - 10% in the South.
- As a result it wasn’t always possible to generalise across the UK about the value of regional programmes. They were likely to be particularly relevant to lives in this region.
- Interest in regional programmes was very high - regional programmes often achieved higher reach and share than network programmes in similar slots.
- Regional programmes truly in touch with local people and local issues enriched cultural life and the diversity of the UK.
- From that base, network programming too could be fresher by bringing well-grounded regional programmes to the attention of audiences across the UK.
- A centralised outlook missed a vital point about the quality of life in the UK. To advocate a single ITV without making adequate arrangements to protect regional programme making, was like recommending the superior efficiency of getting everyone to support the same football team - it missed the point about local roots and local loyalties.
3. IMPORTANCE OF REGIONAL PROGRAMMING TO PROVIDING CAREER OPPORTUNITIES AROUND THE UK
- Writer: " Why should I have to commute to London? If we do, it’ll kill off people like us"
- the 25% independent quota helped create a solid foundation for local production companies. It’s vital to build for the future.
- More narrow focused broadcasting is now possible because of new technology - there are new career possibilities
- Regional hours might be guaranteed - but programme makers need the budgets if they are to stay in business
4. IMPORTANCE OF A STRONG ITV
- ITV knew that one of its unique selling points was the spread of its regional production base - reflected in both network progs made around the UK and also successful regional programmes
- however this shared success could only be sustained if ITV itself remained well-funded and viable
- in a media market in which competition was increasing from other TV channels and also new media, the regulator, the owners and politicians needed to frame policies which help ITV to remain well-funded - otherwise it would not be able to afford to continue the past track record of levels of programme making made in regions.
- It was that reasoning which led to suggestions that there should be some relaxation of the rules of regional programme making, just to the extent that it avoided ITV being handicapped by constraints which were too onerous.
- Advertisers did not believe regional splits helped generate as healthy sales earnings.
5. FACTORS INFLUENCING POLICY MAKING
- democracy benefits from MPs being able to communicate direct with local voters. This may encourage them to defend regional airtime.
- the devolution of powers is a growing trend - this political shift is the important factor
- Re closure of ITC office in Newcastle: "It’s the symbolism I don’t like - it’s eroding this region"
- the only way to influence this current debate is to write to MPs - ultimately this is a matter of public policy
6. IMPORTANCE OF STRONG REGULATOR
- the ITC clearly monitored the Christian Channel closely - it issued warnings
- the ITC intervened forcefully after YTV merged with Tyne Tees - to strong effect
7. ITC REGIONAL CENTRE CHANGES
- "Bob will do his best to make it work - but Bob in a back room in Byker can’t hope to be an effective watchdog"
- "This is simply a move by the ITC to become the single regulator - it’s very sinister and I’m very worried".
- "Patricia Hodgson is positioning the ITC to do well under the new arrangements proposed in the White Paper - but for what purpose?"
- "It was strange to announce this important change before the closing date for consultation of regional programmes"
- "It looks like regional programmes are being sacrificed to the ITC’s ambitions"
- "If the ITC means business - it needs teeth"
FEBRUARY MEETING, WITH RICHARD PEEL
(Director of Public Affairs and the Regions)
Richard Peel identified a number of issues that the ITC would need to address, in order to make it the leading forum for debate about the new media industry and to be publicly accountable. The Commission needed to reinforce its role as the content regulator; to encourage public comment and feed back, and to demonstrate ITC responsiveness. It was necessary for a cohesive strategy to be clear and apparent across all the Regions.
Richard identified a number of initiatives that would come into play, including a total investment in new technology and community initiatives costing £112K. He could see a future where ITC receptions would be held at local hotels, to promote communication between the ITC and the regional consumers, and 'Citizens Juries' would be formed to comment on content and range of programmes.
Alongside that would come a possible collaboration with Northern Arts and the Northern Screen Commission; the formation of Special Interest Groups, and such initiatives as working with Young Offenders to raise 'Media Literacy'.
An essential part of this new strategy would be the establishment of fewer (but better equipped) Centres for the North, Midlands and the South, based in Manchester, Birmingham and Winchester respectively.
The discussion that followed this presentation highlighted many of the issues that were raised at the previous RTS event (where there was no ITC representation). By far the most significant was the underestimation by the ITC of the strength of the community culture that exists in this region.
Many of the audience felt that the ITC Regional Office was more than the physical building, and now established as a symbolic presence, which was accepted as part of the Media Scene. To take it away sent very strong negative signals to the general population, who were the very people that the ITC was trying to contact. Durham Councillor John Shuttleworth expressed the view that the ITC were behaving as many organisations had done before by removing their presence from the region. This was, in his view, unacceptable. Bob Lorimer, (former ITC Regional Officer) added that the proposed strategy was similar to the one adopted by the IBA some years ago.
Generally the audience were supportive of the aims and objectives of the ITC as outlined in their presentation. However, Annie Wood expressed her concern that it could be a step too far in attempting to achieve all the aims within the near future. The view expressed by many (including David McGeachie and Graeme Aldous) was that the removal of the existing regional infrastructure of the ITC would limit the achievement of the stated aims.
Brendan Quayle raised the issue of cost savings by this plan. Richard responded that anticipated savings would be of the order of £100K to which Bob Lorimer commented that on a ITC turnover of £16M this sum was paltry.
There were several recommendations for the resolution of this matter. Graeme Thompson (TTTV) suggested that the Offices could be housed within the RDA and Northern Arts. Tony Edwards felt that the North East region was worthy of being treated as a special case - it was noted that other regions of the ITC affected by closure had not raised as vociferous and reasoned case for reconsideration as the North East region.
Alistair Balls summed up the view of the meeting in stating that in his view the ITC had grossly underestimated the strength of feeling this matter had provoked in the North East Region. As a Commissioner of the ITC he felt that now was the time for the ITC to reconsider its strategy for this region .
Richard Peel responded with an assurance that he had listened intensely to the views expressed. He felt that there was a need to examine this matter again in light of the many comments that had been stated and this would take place in the very near future.