REGIONAL TV FUTURE (2005)

REGIONAL TV FUTURE (2005)

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WHAT HOPE FOR REGIONAL TV?

In the April 2005 issue of TRAILERS, Editor Roger Burgess gave some personal thoughts on the future for regional television, given the restructuring of ITV and the recent announcement of BBC cutbacks.

He invited readers' comments — and not surprisingly, they came in strongly, and at length... too long to be included in TRAILERS in full. The writers have agreed that they can be reproduced here complete, starting with Roger's original article.

[Note that the views expressed in these pages are those of the writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal Television Society, either locally or nationally.]

WHAT HOPE FOR REGIONAL TV? A personal view by Roger Burgess

The future for regional TV does not look good.

A combination of factors appears to spell the end of regional programme-making as most of us know it: a small core of staff journalists covering the North East and the Borders for television and radio broadcast in that area (and occasionally reporting to network news if the story is big enough) supported by a more flexible group of staff and freelance programme-makers turning out features and documentaries.

Plus the occasional nugget of network opportunity, especially in ITV.

This has been the situation since the early 1970’s.

But now Ofcom has recommended that ITV regions like Tyne Tees lose 90 minutes a week of non-news programmes out of peak. Tyne Tees maintains however that "the better-funded peaktime programmes like DALES DIARY, GRUNDY’S WONDERS and CRIMEFIGHTERS are not affected."

And now the BBC faces the loss of 735 jobs in its Nations and Regions — the biggest total losses in any of its departments.

Our RTS region — the North East and Cumbria in BBC terms — will suffer the worst job losses of any region as 31 jobs go in the region, more than 11 % of the North’s 270 staff.

A total of 2,050 BBC programme-making staff will be laid off in the next three years. This comes on top of the 1,730 jobs lost in professional services a few weeks ago and the 1,000 more lost when BBC Broadcast is sold off this summer. If a further sale of BBC Resources goes through the total job losses will reach 6,080 out of the BBC’s current 26,000 staff (source: BROADCAST magazine 24 March 2005.) Ten jobs will be lost on LOOK NORTH, 14 on BBC Radios Newcastle, Cumbria and Cleveland, and a further six from the BBC’s regional online services — only recently appointed.

And at ITV, Tyne Tees will lose up to 30 posts in the first half of this year, though according to Tyne Tees, most of these are related to the £6million technology rather than the reduction in non-news programme hours.

It is true that there are alternatives on the horizon. The Yorkshire Regional Development Agency is planning a new broadcast series of student-made programmes. The University of Humberside and Kingston Communications in Hull are well on the road to developing new systems of local broad-casting. Our own Northern Film and Media — who shouted loudly against Ofcom’s plans to decimate ITV non-news regional programmes — are keen to pursue alternative broadcast alliances following analogue switch-off in 2012. The BBC is piloting local TV at a number of locations over the next year: if successful this could lead to an expansion of a local TV service across England.

And ITV is also spending £9million over the next three years to encourage areas like Newcastle to make more network programmes.

But it still looks gloomy to me. What do you think? Is the future as bleak as I believe?

REGIONAL BROADCASTING — A BRIGHT FUTURE OR JUST A BRIGHT PAST? By Mark Scrimshaw

Everything that’s happened over the past few months — ITV’s increasing distance from its regional; huge job losses announced across the BBC including in the Regions — quite simply announce the long-expected destruction of the regional broadcasting template more or less in place from the 1960’s.

I arrived in Newcastle as a director in 1985 after two years working for the BBC in Bristol. I’d always wanted to return to the city I had loved immediately as a student in the 1970’s, and soon grew to love the whole region as I was sent from pillar to post by sadistic news editors keen to impress the new boy with visits to Whitehaven, Redcar or Ashington. In those days we made fewer news programmes (the idea of short bulletins throughout the day, and a late regional bulletin, were not yet sparkles in journalists’ eyes), but far more feature programming.

100 'opt outs' a year — 2 a week, one at 7.30, one at 11-ish which allowed more adult subject matters to be broached — under the eagle eyes of John Mapplebeck, the sternest but most kind, generous and honest of bosses. Subjects covered? Anything and everything any of us found interesting! There were two regular features producers and five directors, and we could pitch for spots according to our keenness and ability to find people to talk. Some of us were better at films, some at studio, and the whole mix provided that Holy Grail of regional broadcasting, a wide and rich blend of coverage which truly showed the region to itself.

Now some of that may be rose-coloured hindsight — but looking back at the library of films and programmes made from the 80s into the start of the 90s provides a catalogue of astonishing range.

And then came Birt, who decided that the simpletons outside London couldn’t be trusted, and metrocentric control-freakery began to erode regional features. Within a short time, everything except Current Affairs was to be banned, and journalists were in charge of features as well as news. I found the arrogance astounding, and personally destructive — I’d just finished THE NORTH SEA, a six-part international co-production about pollution which had won the prestigious European Environmental Film Festival, as well as a regional RTS award. I was preparing two follow-up series, for which we had international partners and co-funders, when Birt’s consul in the north, John Shearer, stuck his heads round my door and told me to "cancel all that stuff".

The reason was quite simple — never again would serious output be let out of the control of London; never again could regional broadcasters be trusted with budgets and ideas of our own — so our output was savaged, including the network pilots and programmes which had been the economic justification for the building of the new Broadcasting Centre.

Thus regional television on the BBC began to ghettoise itself into the now familiar News and Current Affairs agenda which the journalists in charge had convinced themselves were what viewers wanted. Tyne Tees meanwhile continued its tradition of high quality popular feature-making and wiped the floor with us in ratings. Which are never supposed to matter at the BBC — until they do!

Things at least settled down for a while, with the BBC’s efforts going into an increasing number of local radio stations (41 to date), and then latterly into the establishment of really innovative local ideas to connect with the communities around us — open access centres and community buses being the most high-profile instances.

Then last year Ofcom announced ITV would be allowed to halve its regional features output, and clearly the writing was on the wall, a couple of years down the line. But let’s not pretend that Ofcom was forcing ITV into something it didn’t want to do — it was simply responding positively to the commercial plea from the new company to be allowed to stop making expensive and not especially popular (other than in a region like ours) programmes. At the same time, Tyne Tees’ message couldn’t have been clearer as they announced their retreat from City Road to a business park.

And up in Fenham, what of the BBC’s plans for the future?

Clearly, the old-style documentary programmes all we old farts hanker after have gone for ever, other than to be occasionally glimpsed in clips in some archive series, a distant bright memory of a particular and brief period when regions and producers were allowed to get on with the jobs we’d been appointed to do.

But if the future is digital, then actually the future for the regions in the BBC is pretty bright. For the first time, regional programmes and services (and there is a huge difference — check out the websites, WHERE I LIVE etc) are at the centre of the BBC’s charter renewal bid. Previously you’ve had to struggle to find any mention. Moves of whole departments to Manchester may or may not help stimulate the regional freelance and indie market, but I’d sooner the moves were from London outwards than vice versa. A new state-of-the-art broadcasting centre in Manchester, combined with the University media project and the City Council’s enthusiastic support, send an unambiguous message, especially after the disappointment of the exodus from Pebble Mill.

And new genre network commissioners will be based in Glasgow (Comedy) in the exciting new broadcasting centre there, Bristol (Factual) and Birmingham (Drama) with the specific brief to commission from the regions and nations. Stimuli such as these should have significant impact across the whole independent sector, particularly in the north, but (as Greg Dyke said) the BBC doesn’t actually exist to put license fee money into the pockets of indie producers and shareholders.

Of course, the savage staff and budget cuts being inflicted by the zealot Thompson don’t help, but English Regions aren’t doing any worse than any other department in taking their share of the hits — although the levelling out of staff levels across stations means that historic extra funding for the northern regions is being reduced.

But still to come, the Big Idea of English Regions in BUILDING PUBLIC VALUE and the Charter Renewal bid — local TV!!

The next techno-stride toward the digital horizon, four journalists with their little digi-cameras in every local radio station putting together local stories for local people to be accessed through digital TV and online (and mobile phones and Blackberries and whatever other gizmos people have nowadays). Whatever we may think of the quality of the new style of newsgathering (and as a director who has worked with some of the finest skilled craftspeople this region has produced in the last 20 years, I think we’re selling our audiences short by dishing out such poor quality product while freelance contracts are not renewed) it’s a major commitment by the BBC in the regions. In England, there will be 30 new jobs in every cluster, and a total investment of £60 million. BECTU will be fighting to ensure that a good proportion of those jobs are for operational staff, and that retraining opportunities into the new technology are available to ALL staff, not just journalists.

There’s no point being Luddite or sentimental about regional programmes. The stuff we made 20 years is never coming back — and if you watch some of it, you’ll be thankful! It’s a myth regional opt-outs were all good, and it’s true they were hugely expensive and in most regions got poor audiences. Things change, and in an industry as driven by technology as broadcasting has always been, we’d be stupid not to welcome the new while trying to keep the best practices of the old. Battles over quality will always run in the BBC, and the introduction of mini digital cameras has exacerbated normal debate, with the implications for staffing and craft skills especially.

My one great sadness over what has been lost is that the new system no longer has room for the great voices of (and from) the North who told our story, our history and hopes. Where nowadays would we find, encourage and embrace those people — from Dick Kelly to Luke Casey, Ray Gosling to David Bean, Harold Williamson to Eric Robson?

And unless we have those eternally empathetic, knowledgeable and warm voices, the danger is that broadcasting becomes faceless, analytical and chill — the special stories regions can tell lost in a morass of identical reports.

But the important thing is that whatever the behemoths in London decide to inflict on the nation, a good (and larger) proportion of it should be inflicted by the regions! That’s the battleground for the post-2006 BBC, the 'Out of London' agenda, local TV and increased 'user access'.

MARK SCRIMSHAW, BBC North East producer, Chair, BBC Nations & Regions, BECTU

DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS By Paul Graham

So Ofcom has had its way, and regional television (as it has existed for the past fifty years) is no more. For those of us who have been employed for a significant period in the regions it seems more a mercy killing than anything else. The only puzzling thing is, why now?... when there is nothing to replace it, nor is there any digital switch-on imminent. The more cynical point to the grip that the Government has on the BBC over the Gilligan incident and Charter review, then point to the massive favour done for ITV by this report, and (as a consequence) do not predict great media problems for the Government during this election period. Regional cultural representation killed by politics? Could be, but how did we get here?

The history of Tyne Tees Television is a microcosm of all that has befallen Regional Television in this country. I started at Tyne Tees in 1982, just as Channel Four was being launched, and at that time there were Studio Dramas being shot, Film Dramas being shot, numerous documentaries being made both here and abroad, vibrant Studio shows and a very busy Outside Broadcast vehicle. In short, every genre of television production was being made. The region was being looked after in the same manner as the network in general.

Then came franchise auctions and Sky TV.

After the most bizarre period of miniscule and massive franchise bids from the multiple ITV licence holders, the various managements seemed to decide that the only way forward was to consolidate the fifteen companies in order to compete directly with Sky and Murdoch`s millions.

One of the first casualties was Tyne Tees when Yorkshire Television took control. This resulted in the loss of all Film equipment; the loss of our main Outside Broadcast equipment; the loss of our Regional Continuity Announcers and any direct access to Transmitters. This coupled with the drying up of Network commissions and minimal investment signalled the start of the running down of Newcastle as an ITV production base. The current ownership of Tyne Tees has continued this running down of the Newcastle production base, and the imminent move to Gateshead is to result in the loss of any audience-capable studio space; the loss of any dedicated post production facilities; a reduction in the number of crews and their capabilities and the redundancy of the whole audio department. 'Sound' as a core skill of television ceases to exist in regional ITV.

Given the reduction in facilities, budgets and investment experienced by Tyne Tees Television over a number of years, it is remarkable that its regional programmes continue, at present, to attract significantly higher viewing figures than the targets applied to those regional slots. It is also somewhat ironic that the greatest downsizing of the North East franchise holder comes at a time of greater commitment to regionalism from central government.

In Ofcom`s supporting document 'Reshaping Television for the UK`s Nations, Regions and Localities' one of the main conclusions is that the devolved nations deserve more research into their broadcasting needs because of their “distinct cultural and political identities”. The North East has always had its own unique cultural identity and has recently been consulted on the establishment of its own regional assembly. The resulting “No” vote was not due to any anti-devolution feeling, but was because the powers granted to that assembly were interpreted as insufficient. This is resulting in a great deal of debate into how the region presents itself, as a region, in a political form through its current MP`s without regard to their party affiliations.

These whole cultural and political scenarios align the North East with the devolved nations.

Looking at the figures (where they exist separately) for the North East in the above document we find:

  • 75% of North East people think that regional programming is important, but only 35% of people are satisfied with the current provision.
  • 68% think that there should be more programming made for the region about the region.
  • In terms of regional news, not only do we have the largest percentage of viewers who think that the choice of local news is important, but also the highest number who actually watch it. We are the only English region that values local TV as a source of information behind only the national news.
  • When it comes to the geographical focus of programs, ours is the only English region where people profess to prefer regional focus to national focus.
  • Our region is the only one that expresses the view that non-news regional broadcasting is personally more important to them than the social concept of it existing at all.

All of these figures align the North East with the devolved nations and should have afforded our region with the same considerations given to the said devolved nations.

There are also arguments relating to the financing of regional programs in the above document, but again when the figures are related to actual program budgets, we find that producing fifteen regional programs only costs the same as producing one network half hour. Given the opportunity to show regional programs in other franchise areas (not usually taken) at off-peak hours, they do actually represent good value for money. If we add the fact that a lot of regional programs are scheduled in 'difficult' slots, yet still outperform network for viewing figures, better scheduling may increase yet again their value for money.

It is not the programs per se which are not 'cost effective' but the maintaining of the technical infrastructure that provides the underlying problem.

As the ITV companies were allowed to own more and more franchises, the facilities and capabilities for each individual franchise holder dwindled with every concession. The pressures of finance, government levies and multi-channel viewing justified all this, but the end result was, and is, the lowering of the program spectrum available to broadcasters from 'in-house'. Alongside this were a number of changes in formats, ways of working from field crews through editors to MCR engineers.

Part of the concession process was the reduction in transmission hours, and as these decreased so did the opportunities to produce the full spectrum of regional programs — this (along with the downward pressure on budgets) gave a reliance on PSC location crews to produce the bulk of non-news regional production. Inevitably this resulted in minimum investment in studio equipment.

Finally, with the current Tyne Tees move to a server-based newsroom operation, we are losing the 'old' types of employment grades (sound engineer, floor manager, MCR engineer etc), to be replaced by 'multi-skilled' job descriptions.

Naturally over this time there have been job losses both voluntary and compulsory. These losses have formed the basis of a small freelance technical pool that exists in the North East. This pool at present has a great reliance on the franchise-holding broadcaster, as it is the only source, of any note, for program commissions in the area. This works at present, as extra personnel are required for certain shoots and any studio/outside broadcast work. If there is enough work to sustain this pool without the franchise holder, only time will tell and of course freelance work within Tyne Tees will become more difficult as the job descriptions most freelancers use will not be applicable.

All of the above can be justified in terms of market forces and returns for shareholders by the commercial broadcasters, but it is a great shame that successive regulators have not taken into account the cultural and political issues arising out of such downsizing and transmission hours cuts. It is also a great shame that these issues were not pointed out to the regulators as they happened by the television workforce. If this had been the case, then a lot of the problems arising from the 'analogue turn off' would have been addressed before this relatively late stage. Again there is a great deal of irony in all of the talk of the 'digital age' when it is merely the means of delivery, both locally (in terms of rushes) and globally (in terms of transmission methods) that is referred to, and not the erosion of the input stage in terms of crews, facilities and range of genres for programs.

Even though the cultural representation of the North East on mainstream television has, because of the above, been eroded over the years, it is with the closing down of non-news regional programs that the loss now seems obvious. The BBC locally does not have the infrastructure to assume the mantle of regional broadcasting (as suggested by Ofcom), even if we accept it as the sole provider, as it is a newsroom operation. Without this work there will be immediate job losses in the industry, which along with the corresponding work loss in the freelance sector may result in the collapse of the skills base in the region, or at the very least a great dilution of it.

The strength of British broadcasting in the past has been its plurality of PSB providers and the regional structure of mainstream television. Sadly successive regulators have allowed that regionalism to be stripped away and it is great credit to the regional provider that there still exists any 'brand loyalty' from customers/consumers/viewers. That loyalty certainly exists within the Tyne Tees franchise area, and it is tragic that even the modicum of provision that is left for them/us is to be cut even further. With this in mind, and the dreadful state of regional broadcasting, it can only be a positive step to form a new PSB publisher, provided it does have that regional structure and also addresses the region's skill base issues.

Any new PSB provider must have a regional structure with its main site away from not only London, but also any existing network production base. This plays to the historic strengths of British broadcasting and will also encourage the formation of 'media clusters' away from present sites, so spreading expertise and opportunity across the country. Each regional arm of the PSB could consist of certain technical facilities — small scale but comparable to network productions. This keeps the expertise level across the country on a level playing field, allowing talent to be trained and nurtured for high network standards. If we can establish the technical infrastructure by means of ring-fenced central funding (or even some form of PFI funding then we can not only keep the input to broadcasting, in its general sense, high but also the whole structure could be used as a high quality training platform across all media.

All of the above provides challenges to the general Television industry, in that there does seem to be a need to have a much wider debate about what is required from regional television and how, in the future, it can exist. The cultural and political implications of the route we are travelling down should be recognised by a wider audience than the one that seems to acknowledge it at present. Those people left in regional ITV have personal challenges ahead of them, challenges to adapt to the new function of purely 'news' and, for some, it may be a fulfilling experience — but when the City Road studios of Tyne Tees are finally closed down it will be not only a sad day for me personally; not only a sad day for our region, but a sad day for the Television industry as a whole.

PAUL GRAHAM, Sound engineer, Northumberland

FATAL SLUMBER By Bob Lorimer

Brushed by the ardour, pain and joy of thirty tumultuous years in broadcasting, I feel obliged to respond to your request for views on the future of regional. We have witnessed the inexorable move to rationalisation in ITV's regional service, and are now faced with a reduction of ninety minutes a week in regional production. This is the culmination of years of pressure from the contractors to cut the level of local programming. The old regulating authority fiercely resisted this move on the grounds that eighty five per cent of the audience live in the regions and we had a responsiblity to serve their needs. Ofcom has dismantled its own regional service so it not surprising that they have not only agreed, but recommended the reduction.

What is surprising is that the north east has allowed them to proceed without protest. We have fallen into the fatal slumber of treacherous tranquillity. We have pliantly shaped ourselves to fit their aspirations, and as a consequence the people of the north east will be denied the kind of service they have become accustomed to receive.

There are twenty seven labour members of parliament in the north east and borders — they are all members of the northern group of Labour Members. Several of them hold cabinet rank and indeed include in their number the Prime Minister. Their constituents will eventually ask what has happened to their television service — it would be interesting to hear their response.

Obviously the contractors, faced with increasing competition, demand as much freedom as possible in order to maintain their viability. Freedom, however does not always cause a thousand flowers to bloom — it may cause the safe, the cheap and the tawdry to sprout like weeds and herein lies the danger.

If your motor car breaks down, you do not instantly employ an architect to repair it, nor do you employ a mechanic to design a beautiful building. In broadcasting we seem to be guided by accountants whose knowledge of broadcasting is somewhat circumscribed. These days we are Canutes and the tide is coming in faster all the time.

If the Royal Television Society spent a little more of its resources on challenging these gravely damaging changes, its members might begin to feel somewhat more comfortable.

Bob Lorimer, Former ITC Regional Director

REGIONAL TV — TIME TO CHANGE THE DEFINITION?

Tom Harvey
Tom Harvey answers Roger Burgess' pessimistic thoughts:

In the short term I would share your despair. Regional ITV Public Service Broadcasting provided a voice and living for regional people. Northern Film & Media in partnership with One North East and Culture North East commissioned research showing this broadcasting was valued and watched. Ofcom have slashed the hours with little robust thinking on its real value or on what will replace it.

Perhaps it's time to change our definition of Regional TV. It seems to have come to mean only non-news programmes made by Tyne Tees and transmitted regionally in the opt out slots. With this definition, the future is indeed bleak.

However, surely regional television is also programming made by regional production companies and broadcasters reflecting regional views, lives and stories, that are of interest to regional and national audiences? With this definition you can look at the work of Media19, Northmen/Different, Yipp Films and to an extent Orion TV, Liberty Bell, Coastal and Zenith as all playing a part in the future shape of the new Regional Television. A refocused BBC and Tyne Tees will also be major contributors.

Local spend by companies shooting in the North East has more than tripled in the last 3 years, contributing a huge £9m to the regional economy last year. The Communications Act and new Terms of Trade have radically changed the market for independent producers, allowing them to develop formats and exploit rights in a way only dreamed of a few years ago. Industry skills gaps and shortages are being addressed through national and regional strategies. Development and production spend outside London are all increasing, and current government is supportive of regional agendas.

Commercial regional non-news opt out slots are on their way out. Regional Television is reinventing itself as a group of dynamic, focussed, creative companies producing a wide range of programming and formats for regional, national and international audiences. They are doing this within an environment that at last looks as thought it will support R&D and reward success.

I'm angry at Ofcom, but I'm incredibly excited about the future of Regional Television in the North East.

Tom Harvey, Chief Executive, Northern Film and Media

REGIONAL TV — INVENTING THE SQUARE WHEEL? By Graeme Aldous

Graeme Aldous

One day in 1973, I was sitting with a group of journalists in the Ballroom of the Majestic Hotel, Harrogate, as the wonderfully-named Filmer T.Paradise extolled the virtues of the latest new car from British Leyland.

Mr Paradise — a Transatlantic gentleman, in case you hadn’t guessed — talked enthusiastically about ‘the product’… “We have a product that will appeal to the British public; a product that will fill a niche in its sector…” We motoring journalists were surprised — we thought we’d come to the launch of a car, not a ‘product’.

Then came the Reveal — the lights strobed, the music swelled, the dry ice billowed, the wraps came off the shrouded cars… and we saw for the first time this new dream of Paradise. It was, undoubtedly, ‘a product’! The Austin Allegro was upon us.

This wasn’t a car. This had no tradition, no soul — virtually nothing that we recognised as having that spark that brought us into motoring writing in the first place. So bland a ‘product’ was it that the designers had been forced to fit a square steering wheel to give us something to write about. Out on the road it drove like a ‘product’, handled like a ‘product’, and had about as much soul as a box of cornflakes. As a car it was dismal, and even the Quartic steering wheel was quietly dropped after a few months in place of something that actually steered the vehicle comfortably. And this inability to find the soul of a car has led (ultimately) to the recent news from Longbridge.

So what’s all this got to do with Television? Well, more and more over the last decade I’ve been hearing the word ‘product’ used. It seemed to start after John Birt brought the journalists into power at the Beeb, and the bean-counters came in to ITV. All the broadcasting ‘soul’ flew out of the window.

In 1987, buildings conservation officer David Lovie wrote to the BBC in Newcastle. He said “We’re always seeing natural history on television (NORTH COUNTRY with Tom Kilgour was currently on the air), but when is somebody going to look at the human world — the world of our towns and cities, houses and buildings?” The letter was passed to Roger Burgess (NORTH COUNTRY’s producer), and TOWNSCAPE was born. We — I was honoured to be one of the presenters, along with Wendy Gibson, Howard Langton and John Grundy — looked at what made the region s

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