A national future 

1 Feb 2002 0 tbs.pm/1801 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

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Ian Beaumont summarises a debate between members of the TBS Writers Forum about regional branding on ITV

‘Twas late December at Transdiffusion, and a rumour was circulating on the ‘net about ITV1 losing regional identities from 6 January 2002. At the EMC Writers’ Forum, this rumour started quite a discussion. First into the fray was Phil Paterson, who sarcastically said, “Oh, great! At last, we won’t be confused by all those Granada-owned regions all having different names. All we need now is someone to tie up our shoelaces in the morning and we’ll be set. And after all, ITV1 really rolls off the tongue.”

Jon Bufton then started to cause quite a stir, announcing “I’d have to say I prefer having “ITV1″ idents all over the regions than the name of one company in a corporate Kleenex-fest (a la Carlton). Because that’s the name of the channel, after all.”

Then, our voice of sense and reason on the Forum, David Hastings from the Historical Television Website, came in saying “Full marks to Granada for being honest, though, as it accurately sums up the current status of “ITV1″ at the moment. The problem is that it’s then all too easy to subsequently scrap regional voiceovers as a cost-cutting measure and then all programme playout will switch to some automated server stashed in a Leeds broom cupboard.

“The removal of visual local company branding may also have a knock on effect relating to the ‘cosiness’ of ITV1 – something that has been long regarded as a trump card – this may make the channel (apart from appointments to view such as Corrie and Emmerdale) a bit impersonal in overall feel. Branding everything “ITV1″ and nothing else apart from the announcer mentioning “Meridian” (for example) is arguably just as bad as calling everything “Carlton”; if this goes ahead it will be interesting to see what eventually happens to HTV Wales and West – will it stay the same or become either Carlton or ITV1, and there will also be the London conundrum where Carlton gets deposed by ITV1 each weekend with a voice possibly claiming that it’s LWT!”

Transdiffusion’s founder, Kif, then added, “ITV is destroying its USP because the people running it are obsessed with the idea of becoming a single national channel. It’s called “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. It doesn’t have to be like this – these executives are just infected with the brain equivalent of a computer virus, which gives them a fixation that people don’t value regionalism.

“But they wrongly think of regionalism as just local news and continuity. That’s where their corporate ignorance gets the better of them. What about regional drama, music, concerts, documentaries and features? You still get quite a lot of this on HTV Wales, but TV executives in have not bothered in recent years and don’t now remember it.

“It was the backbone of old ITV, with only the primetime as national, and not always even that!”

Jon Bufton came back into the discussion, stating that “…I’d love ITV to have most of a regional emphasis again, with proper idents and presentation. What I don’t like is the half-way, can’t-be-bothered regionalism that dominates ITV1 today.”

It was then that David Hastings from HTW made a point that had us all thinking. “Broadcasting regulation – or lack of it – is only partly to blame for the messy consolidation tactics that have occurred recently. It’s true that the ITC has been regarded as a ‘soft touch’, but when the ITC suddenly discovers (with recent government support) that it wants something done then the broadcasters sit up and listen. The driving force behind consolidation isn’t primarily deregulation as such – a lack of regulation has just speeded up the process and/or made the idea workable. However, it has largely resulted from a falling audience share which has been principally blamed both on either more digital channels (equalling fewer viewers) and changing viewing habits. This produces a smaller share of advertising revenue.

“However I’m deeply sceptical as to the severity of the ‘falling audience share crisis’; roughly two-thirds of viewing in households with access to extra channels is that of terrestrial, so what would be a potential audience of 12m viewers now becomes a potential of 8m – still a very sizeable market for advertising a product. The BBC has been doing well recently as well, capitalising on a relatively weak(er) ITV, which goes to show that ITV are themselves to blame for at least part of the audience decline which in recent years has been far faster than the take-up of Sky Digital or the internet.

“Ironically regional programmes are aimed at slots with low audience figures, e.g. opposite EastEnders, which may be impacted less proportionately. The one big advantage of the regional franchise system – for all its faults – is that it helped to maintain diversity in terms of television production; indeed Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm are probably the two least likely ideas for a soap opera that would have been commissioned in 2001 (being originally highly regional in nature) but have been hugely successful.

“They were conceived in a era when there was only two or three channels available but are still going strong today. The issue with ITV at the moment is that it may be the wrong solution that is being used to solve a (possibly theoretical) problem. Here are three more imaginative solutions to a possible revenue problem:

  • Pooling contractors’ peak time ad revenue for the production of peak time programming.
  • Channel 4 subsidising ITV. (No I haven’t gone stark raving mad!)
  • Using the 2am-6am slot on ITV1 for public service broadcasting, with any ad revenue going to the contractors. (It would be a very trivial revenue source but it would help.)

“The loss of regionalism – whilst not going to happen ‘some time soon’ – will be accelerated by any move to a single branding (even if only on a visual level) by the Granada-owned franchises. It is essentially degradation of identity by stealth, which although won’t affect the programming one jot on its own it basically helps to engender a more ‘sterile’ image for the channel. Less regionalism for ITV would make ITV1 be far more like a big budget version of Sky One as a result, and a share price decline for Granada would mean an erosion of programme making facilities outside core regions (the Anglia daytime programming division has been under threat for some time as an example).

“Less staff equals fewer people making big decisions about programme commissioning and production, and a smaller pool of people commissioning fewer programmes. And it would only take two or more big budget flops like “Survivor” to leave what’s left of ITV1 dangerously exposed, so the remaining producers dare not gamble with new ideas in peak time. Meanwhile bored viewers end up rapidly channel switching as never before…

“The moral of this is plain and simple: it is never too late to stop the decline of ITV, no matter what has been done already. The franchises can and should be put up for renewal, even if the boundaries have to be radically redrawn as a result, but further deregulation is certainly not the way to go at this present time. Although expectations and values have changed in twenty years, there are numerous ways and means of achieving similar objectives – the television landscape has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years and that reason alone is sufficient to re-evaluate the ITV franchise system, but it should be retained albeit in a different form.

“Company takeovers are for the sole benefit of companies and their shareholders, and do not take into consideration viewers, regionalism or programme quotas which were prime factors in deciding whether or not a company was originally fit to run a television service.”

Robin Carmody followed that up with another good point, “I think it’s mainly down to ITV’s dependence on a recurring stable of ratings bankers that have gradually got more and more predictable and outmoded the longer they go on, and have slowly alienated the audience. If they’d been prepared to take more chances and refresh their programming stable before now they may not have been in this mess”

Carl Ellis followed this point up by saying that “this merely echoes the position of the US networks ten years ago when they complained about falling audience share and the rise of cable channels. But what’s happened in the intervening decade – they’ve got into the multichannel playing field: ABC with Disney, ESPN and the former Fox Family Channel, Fox with FX, Fox News, Fox Sports, The WB with the various Turner channels and CNN, CBS with the various Viacom channels. ITV’s audience share might have fallen over recent years, but it’s still the most popular commercial channel in the country, and it could be doing far more on the multichannel front that the half-thought-out ITV2 and the various Carlton/Granada channels… Instead of using the fact that it’s the biggest commercial channel in the UK (and, until recently, the biggest channel outright) to develop new programming ideas, it sat back on a select band of audience bankers that are now well past their sell-by-date.

“‘Under The Hammer’ predicts this, saying that, as in the US, successes on ITV post-1992 will run for longer. But the point is that in the US, they don’t run for anywhere nearly as long as half of ITV’s current schedule. The longest running current primetime US series is Law & Order, which is in its 12th season, but the likes of Corrie, Emmerdale and The Bill have all been on for longer (and they’re mostly all year round instead of 22 new episodes a year).”

Kif then came back with another good point. “It is not just a de-regulation issue, it is a paternalism versus populist broadcasting ideological divide. It is really about “what broadcasting is for”. Making money for shareholders (and keeping BBC going for sake of it) or returning broadcasting to its role as a tool of education, enlightenment, and entertainment; by admitting the unspeakable, politically incorrect fact, that some people are better educated than others, and thus have more appreciation of matters cultural; and it is the obligation of those of us who enjoyed a better education to provide enlightenment for those who missed out.”

This brought in a swift rebuttal from Robin Carmody. “Just because you believe that something can’t be done doesn’t mean you don’t believe it should be done. It is just that you develop a sense of what can be done, and that isn’t always what you really want to happen.”

But Kif was not to be deterred. “The latest thing is “give the people what they want”. This is a disingenuous way of saying ‘let us Free Market broadcasters make more money for our shareholders, by having less programmes of paternalistic enlightenment, and more WWTBAM and Corrie’”

Meanwhile, Carl Ellis jumped back in. “In ITV1′s case I think the consolidation has meant that bankers tend to go on for far longer. In the past you had the element that each of the majors (and the odd regional) had to be given a crack of the whip, so successful series tended to end before their sell-by-date. You couldn’t really say that any of ITV1′s current line-up is likely to go out on either a critical or commercial high.

“Personally, I’d like to see Carlton and Granada forbidden to merge into a single company and forced to go their separate ways on digital. They could run ITV Digital and ITN as joint ventures, but that’s it – everything else would be separate. On analogue you’d still get ITV1, but on digital you’d get a Carlton network and a Granada network. Letting them merge, especially when they’re bleating about failing audience share as a reason for it, is a reward for failure in my opinion: not only could ITV1 be doing better than it is, but it could have made a better attempt at multichannel television as well.”

Yes, an interesting debate came out of that rumour, and we all decided we’d wait until 7 January, the date suggested that the ITV regional identities would disappear, to see what would happen. Well, cometh the day, cometh the proof that the rumour was just that, a rumour. The regional names were still intact, and the idents hadn’t changed.

   

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