Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Battle For Regional News

Today marks the 35th anniversary of my first day at the BBC. In 1973 I walked into Broadcasting House as a news trainee. Today I’ll be in Cannes, inside the enticingly named Palais des Festivals.

It’s far from palatial: a stifling conference centre set over a multi-storey car park. I’ll be in the basement with 13,000 international television executives. It’s basically a giant farmers market, except that some of the sellers have spent millions promoting their wares with extravagant advertising and lavish parties in the seafront hotels. I’ll be carrying a few DVDs of the show we’ve spent the last fortnight editing in Newcastle, and staying in a self-catering apartment behind the main drag. At least I can save the cost of drinks in the bars on the Croisette, where a tonic water can set you back ten pounds.

Television sales markets are dispiriting places for producers. The programmes that we’ve spent months or years crafting are dismissed as mere “product”, counted in hours and bundled up to be sold to broadcasters for you, the viewers. Well, not all of you, only those in the ratings charts.

I passed out of America’s “key demographic” on my 50th birthday. There the charts only count people aged between 18 and 49; three quarters of the population may as well not exist. Television isn’t about producers, or viewers; it’s about advertising revenue and demos and survival in a world where a new channel launches every day. How the industry has changed since my first day in 1973.

There were six of us trainees. We were given staff numbers and our first lecture. We were told we were destined for the top, Director-General even, and would be guaranteed senior jobs in the Corporation for life. That is, provided we didn’t commit either of two cardinal crimes: bounce a cheque at the BBC cash office, or forget to pay our licence fees. Three of the six must have toed the line, for they stayed for most of their careers. Tony Hall was runner-up when Greg Dyke became Director-General a few years back, and Chris Graham eventually left to run the Advertising Standards Authority; Bill Rogers is still there in charge of Radio News. Broadcast journalism was indeed a career for life. As secure as banking.

Last week, ITV announced that more than 400 jobs in regional news would have to go. The kind of television made locally up here in Newcastle has little connection with the television sold in Cannes. That market is about canned products produced to fill the schedules; regional programming is about what people really want to watch.

The writing’s been on the wall for our regional structure for some time. In four years our analogue transmitters will be switched off: we’ll only have digital television, so ITV will have no more command of the airwaves than Dave or Living. We viewers will be in control and by then one of the most popular parts of the schedule, our regional news, will have gone forever.

Which is why we need to join the battle to keep it now: not on ITV – its path to become a solely commercial broadcaster is already set. We need ITV to supply us with big expensive family shows like The X-Factor, so commercial sense dictates it should be relieved of the regional burden. But if you, like me, believe that local programming is important, we need to start lobbying now for an alternative to the BBC offering. If Channel Four really wants a slice of our licence fee, it should use it to axe Big Brother, stop targeting the same youth audience that every other network is courting, and instead offer a service for the rest of us. Starting with local news and regional programming made for the people who pay for it, not for the salesmen in Cannes.

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