Regional programmers struggle to hold on to their local identity

Poor cousins of television, with lower budgets than ever, regional stations now face reduced ITV commitment. Nick Higham is the BBC’s media correspondent

Regional programmes on television used to be, in the words of the director of programmes at Westcountry Television, Jane McCloskey, “a sleepy hollow where programme-makers went to die”.

They were also, to be fair, the place where promising youngsters got their first break. Jim Manson is a 20-year veteran of the business. He’s worked at Scottish Television; Central (as producer of The Cook Report); Tyne Tees (as controller of factual programmes); and latterly at independent company CST which used to run the cable-only channel, Wire TV.

Manson tells a story of his first job as a young researcher at Scottish. He’d just finished work and was having a quiet pint of

McEwans in the company bar. At the next table was a party drinking champagne. Who were they Manson asked his boss, an old salt of a regional producer. “Ah, laddie,” came the reply, “they’re working on a network programme.”

In those days network programmes had champagne-sized budgets and the prestige to go with it. Their regional equivalents were poor cousins, cheaply made and with precious little kudos attached to them.

Yet ITV was designed as a network of regional companies. Part of its usp is its regional character. The huge ratings achieved by regional news programmes – especially as you go further north and west from London – are testimony to the importance of locally produced programming which reflects the character and concerns of the ITV companies’ regions.

Regional programmes also give credibility and coherence to ITV’s commercial positioning. Not only does it claim to deliver the biggest and most representative national audience, but it is the most powerful regional advertising medium, outstripping local radio and local newspapers in its impact – even if its costs are high.

Yet despite the significance of regional programming, with its high ratings and the esteem in which it is held by viewers, it seems constantly under threat. Manson is unequivocal when he says he believes regional values in programmes are being endangered in the push for profits and market share.

In Manson’s view, budgets are being reduced to the point where even the most creative programme-makers struggle to make original, watchable programmes of defensible quality. And the range of subjects, styles and approaches is inevitably limited if less money is made available.

It is undeniable that budgets are tiny. Ten years ago, a half hour regional documentary might have had a budget of about 20,000 – the equivalent of around 30,000 in today’s money.

At Westcountry today McCloskey says she seeks to commission programmes at an average unit price of just 12,000 a half hour. But she strenuously denies that quality is suffering, maintaining that inventive producers can make programmes of comparable quality to network productions, even with so little money.

Other critics of ITV’s new lean and mean approach to regional programming point not only to small budgets but to the demise of old-fashioned “built” programmes. Yorkshire-Tyne Tees for instance has a new magazine programme, Tonight, into which have been decanted the contents of a number of pre-existing specialist shows. The idea is to make programmes which still cover specialist subjects but do so more cheaply, and in a way more attractive to the general viewer.

In the long run a question mark must remain over the future of regional programming, though since it remains a condition of ITV companies’ licences, the existing programmes will continue, at least until the end of the present licence period.

Commissioning editors like McCloskey are driven increasingly to commission programmes with half an eye on the possibility of a future sale to the network, or as co-productions with other ITV regions or cable and satellite. She says viewers are better served that way because budgets can be bigger and programme-makers strive to make programmes of network quality. The sceptics argue that the specifically regional character of the programmes may well be diluted.

If there is a reduction in ITV’s commitment to regional output, it could have important consequences. Already the network’s regional character creates tensions. The Network Centre is about to embark on a 5m rebranding exercise for the channel, with improved on-air trails (plus off-screen advertising) created by M&C Saatchi.

The effectiveness of any such rebranding is undermined by the continued strength of ITV’s sub-brands – its marquee programmes, and all those individual local licensees, each with their own distinctive logo and presentation style.

Regional programmes already often find themselves shunted off to the margins of the schedule. There is pressure to emphasise the appeal of the network schedule at the expense of regional diversity. But if regional programmes were to suffer, it would be harder to turn ITV’s regional character to commercial account.

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