Role reversal 

3 July 2008 tbs.pm/918

Channel 4 ponders move into regional news as ITV retreats

Currently ITV plc has a big dilemma on its hands. Its share price is several times lower than it was three years ago, and the current economic situation means that hardly anyone is interested in a takeover that would make shareholders happy. (Though RTL might risk going for it if the share price was to become even more attractive.)

Therefore it isn’t surprising that ITV is looking long and hard at where it can cut back its operations, and any form of duplication that doesn’t obviously have ‘shareholder value’ – namely regional news – is going to be high on that hitlist.

Step forward Channel 4, which has little or nothing to cut back on and is instead looking to improve its public service credentials further in order to help safeguard its future in a competitive marketplace. Channel 4 has nothing to lose whilst ITV is desperately trying to move in the opposite direction.

Of course there’s another question which is immediately raised if ITV and Channel 4 swap obligations in respect of regional news provision, namely could Channel 4 become the next Channel 3? On its own, Channel 4 couldn’t afford to bid for Channel 3 licences but does have a privileged position as well as having the right attitude that ITV seems to lack.

If regional news is truly on the agenda for Channel 4, then adding regional programming might be the next logical progression. Given that Channel 4 is prepared to upset its current schedule for the addition of regional news, then the addition of regional programming might as well be considered at the same time.

However the addition of regional programming to Channel 4 would result in encroachment on ITV’s territory as a consequence, although it’s just as easy to argue that ITV is now intent on moving in the opposite direction of becoming just another commercial channel like Sky One or Virgin 1. This in turn could further jeopardise ITV’s Channel 3 status.

Alternatively getting Channel 4 to supply the regional news on Channel 3 could upset ITV, but ITV may not be able to argue with such a proposal if it wants to keep its Channel 3 position. Current Culture Secretary Andy Burnham seems to have adopted a relatively tough line on ITV’s regional commitments so this option isn’t entirely out of the question.

Perhaps the only real solution is to scrap all of the existing regional Channel 3 licences, drawing up new regional boundaries if required and readvertise them again, although to do so might indirectly imply a government policy failure so this may not happen until there’s a change of administration.

It all depends how valuable that much-coveted Channel 3 position is to ITV plc, and based on the current evidence it seems that ITV is only interested in the status it gives as a broadcaster opposed to the associated long-term commitments.