Television for local communities 

18 January 2021 tbs.pm/72102

 

Manchester University Press

From a symposium at Manchester University in 1968, edited by E G Wedell and published in 1970

I propose to deal specifically with Border Television and its area, not out of immodesty, nor out of a desire to grasp a public relations opportunity for my own company, but in order to illustrate my argument by reference to a specific case of a television service in a local community.

I do not propose to discuss the problems of Border — I assume that half my audience would not be interested and the other half would be glad to hear that I was getting what was coming to me — but I propose to talk about what we do, how we do it and why.

Border has an area which is geographically large but thinly populated. It stretches from Stranraer on the west coast to Berwick-on-Tweed on the east coast, through Dumfries on the Scottish side, Carlisle on the English side and the Border towns, again on the Scottish side, of Kelso, Hawick, Galashiels and Jedburgh. The area takes in Cumberland and Westmorland and the Isle of Man. Its population is 592,000, of which the English make up 57 per cent, the Scots 35 per cent and Manxmen 8 per cent. When Border Television was set up seven years ago it was thought by most of the existing Companies not to be viable. The assumption was that one could not run an ITV station with a population of less than a million. My predecessor, in Border’s first three years, proved them wrong. On issued capital of £125,000 [£3m now, allowing for inflation] he broke even in three years. Since then, Border has made a profit in each year, and in 1968 expects to make a profit before tax of about £100,000 [£2m].

 

Regional map

Map of the Border region, 1961

 

All that by way of background. What do we do by way of serving the local community?

First, we take seriously a part of the country which would be taken less seriously, to put it mildly, if Border Television did not exist. The area had not been taken seriously before we began to do so. The Scottish part of our area is not taken seriously by Glasgow and Edinburgh because it is as far south as you can go in Scotland. The English part of our area is as far north as you can go in England. And the Isle of Man is — the Isle of Man. We take all three seriously. Border, like most regional television stations in ITV, does a daily half-hour news and current affairs programme called news and lookaround [sic]. We regard this as much the most important programme we do. It happens to be very successful, if I may be forgiven for being immodest about it. It is, in fact, the most successful of all regional programmes of its kind, regularly getting 70 per cent of the audience which can choose between BBC and ITV when it is transmitted. It could be an introverted local programme dealing with local trivialities. It is not. It covers events and opinion in the area without being condescending on the one hand or indecently parochial on the other.

 

Lookaround studio

News and Lookaround

 

Secondly, we work with other regional television stations in order to relate our interests to theirs. By this I mean that we regularly exchange material with our neighbours Tyne Tees Television and Scottish Television, with Granada and Yorkshire occasionally. Their equivalent of News and Lookaround may well be dealing with the same news story or feature in their terms. Our feature becomes less parochial and better understood when related to the same feature as experienced elsewhere.

Thirdly, we do the kind of programme that anyone can do; the after-dinner-conversation type programme. But we do it without, again, being parochial about it. Border Forum has local and national speakers in it, together with, as chairman, our own staff man who is already familiar to viewers and who can persuade people to become interested in subject matter which might well not interest them when it is offered from London. In the programme, earlier this year, we persuaded Cecil Day Lewis to talk about poetry and the Poet Laureateship. Thus it had its effect on more people than another kind of programme on poetry would have had.

 

A steam train

A Rail Tour train at St Boswells Station in 1961.
View northward, towards Galashiels and Edinburgh on the Waverley Line (Edinburgh – Carlisle) and towards Greenlaw and Reston on the branch to Greenlaw. Image source: Ben Brooksbank, Geograph, CC-BY-SA 2.0

 

A man with a collection of gramophones

As Good As New: Caldbeck farmer Sydney Cole appearing on the series about collectors and their collections.

Fourthly, we offer a platform from which our area can express itself. For example the Border Area has recently been engaged in a fight which was comparable to that about the proposed Stansted airport. The Ministry of Transport had decided to close down the railway line — known as the Waverley Line — which runs from Carlisle to Edinburgh through the Border towns. The case for and against closure was argued, and reported by us blow by blow, for twelve months. As reporters of this argument we, like everyone else, found it extremely easy to state the case for keeping the line open and next to impossible to get the facts which led to the decision to close the line. I therefore invited the Minister of Transport to give the facts in a half-hour programme in which he was confronted by the people who needed to have the line kept open. In the event the decision was not rescinded, but Border Television was the means whereby a local community was enabled to express itself effectively and to demand to be taken notice of.

The four conclusions I draw from all this are: (1) It is possible to serve a local community effectively, mixed though it may be even in terms of nationality; (2) It is possible to do so without going bankrupt in the process; and (3) It is possible to justify the existence of a station the size of Border, if it regards its primary aim as that of serving its area with programmes for that area. Its primary aim should not be to do programmes only about its own area. There is no reason why Border should devote its locally originated programmes mainly to material about Hadrian’s Wall. Nor should Border fool itself that it is entitled to get its programmes networked simply by reason of its existence. If it gets a programme on the network, that is incidental. It is not the object of the exercise.

 

Three people against an expanded-foam backdrop

Late Night Friday: Annabelle Bostock with John Packer (left), a tweed manufacturer, and Arthur Johnson, a Cumberland architect.

 

Our job, I believe, is to foster local pride and self-awareness without pandering to local triviality. That is done by dealing with local matters intelligently and by relating them to matters national and even international so that they cease to be trivial.

My final conclusion (4) is that staffing is bound to be a problem. A large turnover of staff must be expected and accepted because a small station is bound to be a training ground for larger companies and for the BBC. The answer, particularly on the creative side, is to go for young people with potential, give them a job beyond their present expectations and not to expect them to stay for more than a couple of years or so. When they are ready to go, the last thing you should do is to stop them.

Finally, Border does not delude itself that it knows what are the needs of the people who live in its area. Any community consists of an agglomeration of minority interests. I put it another way — it is not quite an original thought — I wish it were. There is no such thing as the average viewer. There is only you and me and we are both peculiar. As long as we remember this, there is some chance that we can be of service to a local — or any other — community.

James Bredin (1924-1998) was Managing Director of Border Television from 1964 to 1982.

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: The slow decline of regional broadcasting in the UK began in the 1990s. It was so slow that most people didn’t even realise it had gone until it had well and truly gone, at the point when ITV began combining previously distinct regions (Border and Tyne Tees) or reducing what had been fully fledged regional sub-services (Central News East) to mere pre-recorded inserts.

By the time that happened, we seemed to have collectively forgotten that regional television was more – so much more – than just local news. As James Bredin points out, local production at a tiny ITV station like Border included talk shows, documentaries, current affairs (distinct from news), poetry, and, although he doesn’t say so, even light entertainment (Mr & Mrs, for instance).

There was, of course, much more variety in regional programming on the bigger stations, since they could afford to do more. But for almost the entire second half of the 20th century, even if we lived in “far away” places like Carlisle, Plymouth, Mold or Aberdeen, we would get something local besides just news on most nights of the week. It helped bind communities, counties and regions together. Heck, such programmes helped bind the United Kingdom together.

They’re now all-but gone, from both ITV and the BBC. Television by and large comes from London or its environs. The management are in London. The presenters are in London. The stars are in London. The attitudes displayed are in London. The other 75% of the country – including the home nations – are pretty well left to get on with London writ large where once they looked to Manchester or Newcastle or Leeds.

I understand the economics of it, and I understand the (failed) experiment at local television was meant to step into the gap, but my personal feeling is that the centralisation to London has damaged UK broadcasting and the UK itself.

You Say

1 response to this article

Richard Jones 18 January 2021 at 6:57 pm

I beg to differ with your view of the BBC, in television, in the likes of documentary, drama and many vox pop, the world may stop at Watford, but it starts again around Chester and Sheffield… Peaky Blinders (set in Birmingham, shot in Belfast and Liverpool) is pretty much the only long term drama to be set in the Midlands this decade, and this century I can only think of one drama set in the East Midlands, one about a haulage company that I’ve forgotten the name of… As for the lands of East Anglia… Norwich is all too often part of the quiz question of the week, if Nicholas Parsons is the answer. Comedy seemed to fair a little better, but much of Citizen Kahn and all bar a few flavour shots of C4s Raised By Wolves didn’t leave Manchester for taping. Why? Because the crews and producers didn’t want to travel down the M6? Only the BBC could open a production training school in the site they just stripped network production out of, leaving a diminished shell of a regional news programme, a regional radio station and fragments of Asian Network (the move to reduce programming from London, originally not part of the Asian Network set up, led to less rather than more programming coming from Birmingham and Leicester)… The move to make more television outside of White City led to the creation of the White elephant of BBC North, which successfully rehomed Sport (proving things don’t need to be in London) but much of the rest hasn’t been as successful, with much of the growth in English regions stemmed and diverted to sustain Salford and Bristol over so many other teams and creatives across the country… London might still be part of the problem, but moving en masse to Salford has not increased representation across England and the nations, it’s diluted it to two places instead of the London and 6 network production centers around the 4 realms. ITV and BBC are failing the diverse communities in too many ways, and calling drama set either side of the pennines regional drama (when regional voices in Southampton, Derby, Gateshead, Walsall and so many other places haven’t been heard outside of aging repeats on commercial classic chancellery) does no service to viewers. The public might have lost interest in King’s Oak, but was that because they did or the executives didn’t want to spend on keeping viewers interested..?

I live in the faint hope that one day someone will realise that either, or both, BBC and ITV will move their centre of gravity out of one location and spread genuinely across the nations with maybe religion from Norwich, science features from Oxford, music features from Newcastle… But maybe that’s just a dream I’ll have to keep having…

As for Border Television, small it may have been, but eat a heart and what a passion for its viewers near and far… You are missed Border, as much as proper regional news and programming outside the dull current affairs magazine format… 😔

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Tuesday 21 September 2021