The end of the Border line
9 Sep 2010 0 comments. tbs.pm/2248
February 2009 saw two ITV companies bidding farewell to the network and the TV audience after 48 years. After years of corporate takeovers, identity erosion and cutbacks in resources; viewers lost their unique services through shotgun marriages to their mid-size neighbouring companies. One of those companies was Border Television, the contractor who historically served a region encompassing most of Cumbria, southern Scotland, north Northumberland and the Isle of Man.
Despite being a native Northern Irish man, I felt I could identify with viewers in the Border region; served by a small ITV company with scarce network exposure, a company with a mandate to produce programming for various communities, a company serving a geographically rural region. For me, the sight of the Border logo on a television programme was the sign of an underdog station standing on its soapbox declaring its wares to its bigger brothers – a company seizing time from its domineering siblings. I recall the excitement I felt when staying with family on the Antrim coast as a child and finding myself watching a snowy Border signal drift across the Irish Sea – my first experience of watching another ITV region than my native Ulster Television.
I’m certain the casual viewer would associate Border Television with one person – Derek Batey, the host of two of the company’s prominent networked series Mr and Mrs” and Look Who’s Talking, and indeed, an eventual member of the station’s Board of Directors alongside Lord (Melvyn) Bragg. However, Border also provided a training ground for presenters and journalists such as Richard Madeley, Fiona Armstrong and Penny Smith who would go on to develop broadcasting careers on a national basis.
Creative staff at the company filmed in and out of the region and the United Kingdom. The landscape of the region was showcased regionally in series like Border Heritage and Way of the Lakes, and nationally in Land of the Lakes. Documentaries and series on the topics of anthropology, history, science and religion were made by the company; as late as the end of the 1990s, Border produced a religious series, Blessed Are They, for the ITV network. You’d be hard-pushed to find a religious programme on the third channel these days.
A programme strand Border Television focused on in the 1980s was the children’s programme, with concerted efforts in producing offerings for networked Children’s ITV slots. The era saw Border provide The Joke Machine, with various hosts including Basil Brush and Jimmy Cricket; Crush a Grape – essentially Crackerjack: The Return with Stu Francis, BMX Beat, Krazy Kitchen, Coconuts, Krankies Television and contributions to Saturday morning series Get Fresh and Ghost Train. It wasn’t just the younger viewers Border endeavoured to serve around this time; pop music series Bliss and offbeat Jools Holland vehicle “The Groovy Fellers were two surprising ventures aimed at catering the older, and more diverse, Channel 4 viewership.
One of Border’s competitive advantages came in its provision of regional news. With the BBC offering its magazine from Newcastle (and briefly, Manchester) for non-Scottish viewers and Reporting Scotland for Scottish viewers, Border’s own news service afforded a more local, more accessible service than its opposition. Lookaround, known affectionately in the region as “Crack ‘n’ Deek-about”, covered events in towns and communities whose events would be less of a priority for their BBC rivals, and consequently, received consistently high ratings and local appreciation from Border’s audience.
The company’s coverage of the 1988 Lockerbie disaster and the regional impact of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic brought the station’s coverage to the ITV network and beyond via ITN. A portent to the station’s future arose in January 2005 when severe flooding in Carlisle left the Border studios inoperable, leaving viewers temporarily served by the news service of neighbouring Tyne Tees.
The roots in Border’s gradual demise began in 2000 when the station sold its radio interests to the Capital Media Group, paving the way for the Granada Media Group to purchase the station the following year. Almost immediately, the new parents began outsourcing technical operations to the GMG northern transmission facilities in Leeds, alongside Yorkshire, Tyne Tees and Granada. However, it should be noted transmission control for Border had been facilitated in Leeds before GMG purchased Border.
Staff announcers at Kirkstall Road usurped those in Carlisle, the team of weather presenters familiar to YTV, TTTV and Granada viewers became familiar with Border audiences, and the studio cameras on Lookaround were now controlled at the GMG Leeds base. Border Television’s on-screen identity ended in October 2002, and by the end of 2005, Border’s regional news magazine boasted a similar studio set and graphics layout than their English and Welsh colleagues in the newly-created ITV plc.
Border’s carrying of the Tyne Tees regional version of Soccer Night (with the rare shoutout to Carlisle United, and no reference to football teams in the Scottish leagues) held up a further mirror to the station’s future; July 2006 saw Border’s audience served by the Berwick-upon-Tweed ancillary transmitter passed over to the now-Gateshead based Tyne Tees.
The first indications of the death knell were made in 2007. Michael Grade, ITV plc’s recently appointed chairman and nephew of a figurehead of one of the original ITV companies, suggested at an industry conference a review of the ITV regional structure to sustain future profitability of the consolidated company. Regulator OFCOM duly launched a consultation on the strategy Grade and his colleagues put together to layout ITV’s immediate future – which included a plan to merge the Border and Tyne Tees services – as part of a general review of public service broadcasting.
A passionate and vociferous campaign to maintain the separate Border service, led by the company’s staff and supported by responses to Ofcom from local government, unfortunately had no impact on the regulator’s objectives. Ofcom would not lay out any obstacles for ITV to implement its regional restructuring, with the changes to the map to come into effect in 2009.
The final edition of Lookaround as a stand-alone regional news magazine broadcast live from Carlisle and for the Border Television region was transmitted on 24 February 2009. The following day, an 18 minute bulletin for the same region was recorded for broadcast in Gateshead as part of a combined evening news magazine with viewers in the Tyne Tees region.
The Border name may live on in the name of pan-regional news bulletins, but the loss of a discrete Lookaround studio and the sale of the Border Television studios in Harraby means, for many people, the end of 48 years as the broadcaster and regional contractor for the part of the British Isles that spanned national frontiers and incorporated an island outside of the United Kingdom. The ITV company which truly crossed borders and survived against the odds ironically became a victim of the perceived needs of the network it always strived to be a greater part of.