Monday, December 19, 2011

Hunt's Folly

The entire audience was hushed: the play had reached its climax. Suddenly the silence was pierced by a lone shrill voice: “Daddy, I want a wee-wee”. Izzy was enjoying her first live theatre show.

Northern Stage’s slick, fun production of “Shhh…A Christmas Story” managed to hold an audience of toddlers spellbound for well over an hour. Izzy’s eyes lit up from the moment she saw the lights, moving scenery and jolly actors.

She sat transfixed, apart from one unscripted moment when, fascinated by some prop snowballs that had been flying around the stage, she ignored our pleas to sit down and strode onstage to retrieve one for herself. The actors merely paused, watched her walk round them, and then carried on. I’d love to have a video of that precious moment.

I guess that’s the sort of home video that will be the mainstay of Jeremy Hunt’s new local television plans. I can’t imagine what else we’ll be watching. Last week the Secretary of State announced that Newcastle had been chosen as one of the first “pioneer” cities to be awarded licences for local stations. Quite why he thinks there’s any demand for this in Newcastle is beyond me. None of the people who are capable of making local television work have agreed to get involved. Perhaps some wannabes have been seduced by the lure of showbusiness. They are about to get a rude awakening.

Jeremy Hunt’s plans are based on his mistaken belief that if cities like Birmingham, Alabama have their own thriving local television stations, then so should Birmingham, West Midlands. And Newcastle, Tyne and Wear. Evidently our Secretary of State doesn’t know how American television actually works. Over there all the successful local stations, which do have strong local news outputs, are owned by or affiliated to the main networks, which supply them with expensive and highly profitable primetime programming. Every big city has at least 5 local stations, carrying shows like Dancing With the Stars and the X-Factor. They transmit network daytime shows and high budget “syndicated” talk shows. They also carry local news in the morning, early evening and late night.

Sounds familiar? We’ve actually had that system in the UK since the 1950s. It’s called ITV. Until it was systematically ruined by Thatcher’s disastrous reforms, we had good local programmes through our own Tyne Tees Television, which also carried all the hits of the ITV network. Sure, it was regional, not local, but at least it gave our area a sense of identity, was independently owned, and supplied us with quality regional news.

In 2010 the Labour government tried to turn regional into local, by creating a local news pilot scheme. The concept was simple, and probably economically sound: give the ITV regional news to new local providers to create an integrated operation working on a regional, local and hyper-local level. In the North East, the licence was won by a consortium that included the daily newspaper I write a column for: The Journal. The newspaper’s newsroom would have become multi-media, enabling users to enjoy not only better regional news on ITV, but also enjoyed layers of information in print, on the web and on your mobile phone – you could even type your postcode into a computer and find information about your own community.

It was a 21st century solution that would also have been sustainable. As in America, network shows would have driven audiences to the regional output; just two commercial breaks around the regional news would have funded most of the cost and the service would have been built around a proven and profitable newsgathering operation. Good journalism requires investment, training, rigour and professionalism. You are reading the proof of this right now. Sadly, Jeremy Hunt stubbornly axed this bold experiment and replaced it with his own harebrained, old-fashioned plan for local stations.

I can’t imagine a single advertiser supporting an amateur station with cheap low-quality videos. Shots of Izzy running onstage to collect snowballs may be fun viewing for me, but it’s hardly going to compete with Strictly Come Dancing, is it? Without expertise, viewers or advertisers, Hunt’s Folly is bound to fail.

1 comment:

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Perfect insight, Mr Gutteridge - Thank you!