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Is regional television dying?

Some people lament the loss of the old regional television brands in the UK. In the old days, we had a choice of three channels. The privately-operated channel, ITV, was made up about 15 regional companies working together as a network – companies like Yorkshire Television, Thames, and Tyne Tees Television. Since the mid-90s, there has been a move towards a single ITV company. All the mainland English ITV regions are now simply known as “ITV1”.

What did these regional brands mean? They meant that before national programming like Coronation Street and The Bill, you got told you were in Yorkshire or wherever. Big deal. Lest anyone get the idea that ITV was once some haven for regional programming, it should be noted that ITV has always been criticized for too little regional programming. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, ATV (later Central Television) kept on getting its knuckles wrapped from the regulator for its regional output being too poor.

The reality is that with fifteen different companies making up ITV, the channel was unfocussed and bloated. That was fine in the analogue world of a handful of channels, but ITV execs knew that ITV has always been a popular, national channel. They realized that in a multichannel world – competing with global players – it needed to be a lean machine with a single, strong channel identity.

Regional programming is still done by ITV – regulation has always required that. But it may be that national television stations are not a good environment from which to do regional programming. Arbitrarily cutting up the country into a dozen or so regions makes it difficult to do meaningful community programming. Regional programming has always been about ticking boxes, rather than about democratized bottom-up community programme-making.

But the digital age has brought with it more than just competition for ITV. It has massively cut the cost of distributing moving pictures. The ten year old who two decades ago would dream of having his own TV station can now borrow his dad’s £200 camcorder and put a programme up on the web or on a peer-to-peer network for his friends to watch. The digital world that has pulled regional ITV branding from our screens gives us the technology for real, bottom-up local television. Because such programming is not a box-ticking exercise, the programmes are likely to be far more meaningful for local communities than ITV has ever been.

And it is not just on the internet that we are seeing more local TV. In June 1999, Six TV was launched in Oxford bringing local television. In October 1999, c9tv started broadcasting in the North West of Northern Ireland. Technology – like digital editing – is making low-cost broadcasting a reality.

7 comments to Is regional television dying?

  • Julian Taylor

    Actually if you research this you find that there were not that many companies. Yorkshire and Thames were merged well before the 90’s shake-up, Granada and Central TV merged in the late 80’s and HTV was merged with Granada some time before that, as was Tyne Tees. Southern went through numerous reincarnations before eventually emerging as Meridian. About the only “regions” that stayed intact were Anglia (still going strong) and London Weekend Television (now amalgamated into Carlton). Well before Carlton/Granada came on the scene you could easily achieve multiple ITV channels by simply either changing the direction of the aerial or having another installed.

    To simply state that,

    All the mainland English ITV regions are now simply known as “ITV1”.

    is slightly erroneous, those regional channels all have a pretty good understanding of their community ties and responsibilities and do have impressive local programming above and beyond the standard 5 minutes after the ITN News and the 6.00pm dead zone – perhaps not as in-depth as their BBC cousins might, but then again they don’t enjoy the lavish bottomless pit of state funding that the BBC does.

    By the way, those channels you refer to? Passion TV is most definitely NOT a local or community broadcast channel – it’s a cable music video channel only. ClubSixTv seems to exist only on paper and a website (which didn’t load for me) and it doesn’t come up on Media UK at all. C9TV is a fairly basic community service broadcast group and certainly not in the same category as something like The Community Channel. I agree that the technology is now placing digital broadcast in the hands of amateur local programme makers but it is nowhere near the competence and ability of the US cable system and doesn’t look like achieving that level for some time to come.

    Perhaps it might be better to slam the BBC for using state funding to push out local and commercial programme making than to lament Carlton/Granada’s reduction in regional quality programming.

  • Sam B.

    Julian: a quick google search would show you that everything you have just written about ITV companies’ ownership is total bollox.

  • Julian Taylor

    Okay, not that I go for posting Wiki links but for a quick summary here you go


    Check YOUR facts first before saying things like that, ok? Cheap insults are dead easy when you hide behind a fake email address and can’t even be bothered to check your own facts.

  • I still can’t believe that you guys have to pay a tax just to WATCH television over there. It just doesn’t compute on this side of the pond. If I was FORCED to watch the BBC I would throw my TV out the window.

    Is it really true? You guys pay like $300 a year tax to have a TV getting local stations? Or is this just some myth?

  • Sam B.

    “Yorkshire and Thames were merged well before the 90’s shake-up”

    No they were not.

    “Granada and Central TV merged in the late 80’s”

    No they did not.

    “HTV was merged with Granada some time before that, as was Tyne Tees”

    That’s not true.

  • HJHJ

    Alex makes a good point about regional programming.
    I live near Reading and my ITV and BBC regional programming mostly tells me about what is happening on the South Coast – really of no local interest to me. Ths shows how arbitrary the regions are. Small truly local TV would cater much better for those that want local TV.

    Tman, yes you do have to have a TV licence here. It is a tax to pay for the BBC which you have to pay whether you want to watch the BBC or not. Strangely, it also helps fund BBC radio (and web presence, etc.), but there is no radio licence fee. Many of us think that their radio output is far superior to their TV output.

    My free market instincts oppose the licence fee (and the coercion that goes with it) and the BBC’s position. However, I concede that the BBC does some things very well and most of us would miss at least some aspects of its output were it ‘abolished’. For example, its radio output is excellent in many respects – something I miss hugely when I go to the US. I adore listening to TMS (Test Match Special, i.e. cricket) – it is simply wonderful. Having said that, I thought their TV cricket coverage was excellent, but Channel 4 (a commercial broadcaster) has bettered it in the current series with innovative and intelligent coverage that has been a joy.

    Although I oppose the licence fee, I am relaxed about it for the simple reason that it will die naturally and the BBC will have to re-think its model due to different methods of delivery of programme material (e.g. the Internet) over the next 10 years. The current model is unsustainable.

    The licence fee, incidentally, has nothing explicitly to do with local or regional programming. The BBC does it as part of its ‘public service’ charter. ITV (as the original terrestial commercial channel) had (and still has) obligations as part of its broadcasting licence to provide local programming. As we are now in a multi-channel era and will move completely to multi-channel digital terrestrial broadcasting (the analogue channels will be switched off some time in the next 10 years) it is likely that this obligation will be dropped sometime in the relatively near future.

  • Oxford 6TV couldn’t be more local if it tried. I was on it in 2002, promoting my psychotherapy practice – in the talkshow format company of a woman from the local tourist board and a guy who collected cacti. The whole station was contained in what looked like an old NAAFI hut, and if I remember rightly, they owned one camera. The skill and enthusiasm, though, were unbounded, and they turned programmatic dross such as myself and cacti man into a funny, interesting and enjoyable hour.