The Future of ITV Local News – The Political View

ITV Regional News in the UK is a hotbed of debate in some quarters at the moment.

The discussion comes following proposals introduced recently that will see the biggest change to the format in 2013 since local television news began in 1956 with ATV.

Local news in the UK first hit the air in 1956 when ATV Network in the Midlands started a regular television service for the region. Back then limited resources saw the mainly mute film footage processed by a Birmingham wedding photographers store – as ATV didn’t have its own film processing unit until much later.

Produced with wind-up cameras – one of which was sound enabled, the rest being mute – the news bulletins were broadcast from the former ABC Cinema in Aston Cross, Birmingham. It would be a full eight years before the BBC in the area began their regular service.

Concerned that they – being a public service body – were falling behind commercial television the corporation rushed in a daily news programme for the region after ATV announced it was planning a full half hour of local news and features. Midlands Today aired just weeks before the ITV rival launched its flagship ATV Today in October of 1964.

Today technology and news sources have vastly improved and expanded, placing the very service that started UK local news under threat. ITV Central continues to broadcast local news to the region, but the question is for how much longer.

Different bodies have different reasons for the ‘decline’ in local ITV news, some suggest it is simply down to greed rather than lack of funds. Others suggest the advertising structure imposed by Ofcom has limited the funding options to the 6pm ‘news hour’.

Changes to the local ITV structure itself have played a part with both the Conservatives and Labour in succession allowing ITV to divert away from the regional structure that made it a success. Today we have somewhat of a battle between the “old ITV” who’s regional programmes and news continues to fair well with investment and commitment, while the “new ITV1” under ITVplc sees its regional output wither.

What is the future of local broadcasting outside of the BBC in the UK? Labour’s Sion Simon MP speaking to ATV Network says:

“Local and regional news is both valued by audiences and vital to our democracy. It is equally important that there is a plurality of providers – it cannot be right that only the BBC provides local news. Unless action is taken then regional news on ITV – already downgraded – will disappear.”

Labour have plans to introduce a ‘local news consortia’ which will see a new way of providing regional news to ITV. Companies such as UTV, TSW and ITN have teamed up with other local outlets such as commercial radio and newspapers to provide the news service for ITV. Currently the bids are in, but as yet no company has been awarded a local area to operate.

Sion Simon MP adds: “The plan is for independently funded news consortia to provide innovative sources of local news across the whole of the UK from 2013, once digital switchover is complete.”

However the Tories are not convinced. Speaking to ATV Network MP Ed Vaizey comments:

“We do not support the pilot schemes. The contracts are not due to be signed until May. Anyone looking to sign one should understand that we’ll do all we can to legally unpick them if David Cameron enters Number 10. And if they haven’t been signed, we won’t be doing so.”

Vaizy continues:

“The cost of TV news production has fallen dramatically thanks to changes in technology. But we will seek to lower the costs for new entrants to local TV even further by creating space for a new national network to provide prime time viewing for local TV affiliates. This means that local TV operators will only have to fund a few hours of local news daily, not expensive 24 hour news. It will also mean – critically – that as in America advertising on local TV franchises can be sold nationally as well as locally.”

The Liberal Democrats are concerned with the Tory stance on local news provisions as Don Foster MP told ATV Network:

“The Tories seem content to abandon regional and local news, and are willing to risk the jobs of hundreds of journalists. We oppose their complacency.”

The Liberal Democrats also, while supportive of Labours’ ‘news concortia’, have their reservations, Don Foster MP again:

“We’re concerned over the lack of clarity from government about how IFNCs will be funded in the future. While the pilots will be funded from the surplus in the account of the Digital Switchover Help Scheme, the only long term funding option from the government is by “top slicing” the BBC Licence Fee; a move which threatens the independence of the BBC.”

And of course what about the ‘Old ITV’ versus ‘New ITV’ or ‘Regional ITV’ versus ‘National ITV1’? After all it’s the government polices of the past 20 years which have lead to this situation in the first place.

The Conservatives have a positive outlook for the future of the ‘old ITV’ companies such as UTV, STV and Channel Television which continue to broadcast – successfully – outside of the ITVplc ‘ITV1’ nationalised structure.

“We believe deregulation will help the entire commercial TV sector, including that in Scotland. If we got rid of cross media ownership rules, deregulated commercial sector, STV or a new entrant would be able to do something commercially viable. The offer of public money has simply stopped this thinking.” – Ed Vaizey MP.

The Liberal Democrats Don Foster MP also thinks there is a future for STV alongside ITV despite their recent battles, with both STV and ITV becoming locked in legal wranglings.

“It isn’t a bad thing that STV wants to produce more Scottish made and Scottish based content, so as long as in doing so they don’t neglect their contractual obligations to others.”

Whatever the outcome of the next general election it is clear that whatever happens the local news on ITV will be changing in one form or another – and whether that is for better or for worse remains to be seen.