The end of local television?

Last week Ofcom gave ITV the go-ahead to cut regional output by 50%. Today ITV have duly gone and cut 1,000 jobs, almost half of which will come from regional news. ITV plc looks set to reduce the number of its regional news areas from 17 to nine.

It does make you wonder about the future of regional television, if it even exists. I have personally never been a fan of regional television, and I say that even having lived all my life in a very distinctive part of the UK. I might be the wrong person to ask though. I’m no fan of the “idiot box”. Next year, when F1 finally goes back to the BBC where it belongs, I will probably be able to say that I do not watch commercial television at all.

But regional television, it is fair to say, is not exactly pain-free viewing. More often that not, you can tell the programmes were made on a minuscule budget, and they are generally pretty naff.

Of course, back in the day, most ITV programmes were “regional” in the sense that they were made by one of the ITV franchisees. But the best programmes went out on the network and were therefore aimed at a national audience, with UK-sized aspirations and UK-sized budgets. As such, programmes that were aimed to serve a particular area were, almost by definition, sub-standard. I do wonder quite what the point of such programmes is.

It is slightly different for regional news. I can understand the appeal of having a separate bulletin dedicated to the news in a particular area. But the thing is that the regions are always too big for the bulletins to have a truly ‘local’ feel.

The ITV region I live in, STV Central, stretches from approximately where I live to Fort William while encompassing the massive populations of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde. Watching the bulletin, you would get the impression that hardly anything ever happens outside of Glasgow apart from the politics stuff which happens in Edinburgh. Even many of the political programmes, both on STV and BBC Scotland, are made in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. If you live anywhere else, it can feel pretty alienating.

The BBC has never even attempted to split Scotland up into regions and Reporting Scotland essentially aspires to be a national news bulletin. The problem with even this is that there either isn’t enough news to report or there isn’t enough budget. Even Scotland, with its large area and separate institutions — most importantly, the Parliament — apparently doesn’t have enough going on to properly justify taking up 30 minutes of the schedule.

Whenever I watch Reporting Scotland, they seem to spend about five minutes per programme trailing what’s coming up later in the programme. Around five minutes into the programme, they are already talking about sport. And then they are normally only talking about football. Jimmy McPhee is in the airport today ready to depart for his meaningless match. Big whoop!

Another problem with regional news — especially on ITV — is the fact that the regions do not seem to be very logical. I’ve already talked about the huge area covered by STV Central. At some arbitrary point in Glenrothes, probably depending on how far behind the hill you are, you stop receiving STV Central and start receiving STV North / the old Grampian. Why is that then? Is Glenrothes more relevant to Aberdeen than to Glasgow? That’s not clear to me. Bearing in mind the fact that much of the population of Glenrothes is or was Glasgow overspill, it doesn’t seem quite right.

Of course, that is nothing compared to the abominable “Border” region which straddles England and Scotland and takes in the Isle of Man for good measure. That is an anachronism if ever there was one. You can tell the ITV regions were originally drawn up about sixty years ago because that would never wash today. I am no nationalist, though I am a little bit of a conspiracy theorist, and one has to wonder if it was a deliberate choice to have one ITV region that took in these three political entities — a 1960s equivalent of saying “North Britain”.

It is probably wrong for me speak for residents of the ITV Border region when I don’t live there, and I can well believe that there are many people who, having grown up with Lookaround, feel very attached to it. But for me, if I lived in the south of Scotland, with legislation affecting my life being made in Edinburgh, I think I would prefer to get my news from a Scottish city rather than Carlisle.

Of course, as Cllr Fraser Macpherson points out, that situation will be even worse under ITV’s new proposals. If ITV get their way, the Border and Tyne Tees regions will be merged. So Scots living in the Borders will not be getting their news from Carlisle — they’ll be getting their news from Gateshead.

The problems of the ITV Border region are recognised, with the existence of a ‘Border Scotland’ opt-out. From what I gather, this incorporates a news segment dedicated to Scotland and editions of Scotsport. What a faff that is though. Would it not just be more sensible to go the whole hog and recognise Scotland as a distinct entity? Every so often SMG express an interest in buying the Scottish bit of the ITV Border franchise. I kind of think they ought to get on with it, particularly if it’s only going to merge with Tyne Tees otherwise.

There are two big reasons why the situation is such a mess. One is geography. I am sure there are bureaucrats somewhere or other whose dream is for the ITV regions to be transformed so that they match the government office regions of the UK. At least that would be neater, and at least that way Scotland would have its own ITV region.

The problem is, those pesky hills get in the way. There is a clever map of the ITV regions on Wikipedia, and as you can see you can’t actually draw many meaningful borders between regions. The map looks like a mess.

The big reason, though, is of course money. Maybe back in the 1960s and 1970s owning an ITV franchise was a license to print money. Today, ITV leaks money like a sieve. Richard Havers traces the change back to the introduction of satellite television. This sucked advertising revenue away from ITV and spread it thinly across hundreds of smaller channels.

Since then, the ITV companies have merged and merged and merged until they became CarltonAndGranada before becoming the ITV plc we all love to hate. Scotland was not immune either as Scottish Television swallowed up Grampian to become SMG (now STV Group) and subsequently almost merged with UTV.

It now no longer makes financial sense for ITV companies to pour money into making news programmes. Economies of scale dictate that the regions will become fewer and bigger until they cease to be regional at all (and as I argue above, perhaps that has already happened).

I think it is time to give up on the idea of regional news programmes, at least on ITV (though Scotland can probably sustain it thanks to its status as a nation, relatively large population and separate political system). But if regional news must stay on television, perhaps it would be better to think of it as a public service that the BBC alone should carry out. I know that ITV is a PSB too, but they are considering giving that up because they think it costs them too much now. The writing is on the wall.

Besides, if I want to know the local news, where do I go? I certainly don’t watch Scotland Today if I want to find out what’s going on locally. I would buy The Fife Free Press or just visit a local news website. These options are probably far more cost-effective way to get local news.

Apart from that, dare I say that local news might be one arena where people turn more and more towards citizen journalists?


  1. I’m a Border TV viewer living in South West Scotland and I must confirm your fears that it’s pretty crap.

    Roughly 95% of Lookaround and other news output features items on the English side of things, but then that may be because not very much happens which is newsworthy in this quiet little corner!

    It’s only fairly recently that they started to have a Scottish opt-out for things like football – in the past if Celtic were playing in the Champions League for example, this would be on STV and the rest of Scotland however we would have to watch Liverpool or Man Utd like our English cousins.

    To be honest, I’m not too sure about the news opt-out though – I’ve certainly not noticed any sign of news segments aimed directly at Scotland. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a regular Border News watcher though – and that could be the problem, just how many people actually watch it?

    As a guess, I’d imagine it will be mainly Carlisle residents – ie those who find it most like a “local news” bulletin.

    For some strange reason, perhaps due to the lack of coverage, it’s still quite an event to see a Border TV newsvan driving around this area – that’s normally when you try to ensure you watch the news that night to see what they have been up to!

  2. Craig — It’s funny you should mention the Champions League. I think my dad would prefer to see ITV1 rather than STV on Champions League nights so that he could watch the English Premier League sides play rather than Celtic and Rangers!

    Graeme — That’s an interesting link. I believe Channel 4 News is similarly under threat. It could perhaps be that news is now too expensive. Imagine if the only players in television news were the BBC and Sky!

    Sara — I agree! David Robertson was the only Reporting Scotland newsreader that I actually liked. 🙁

  3. Back in the good old days of analogue Sky, you could add stations if you knew the frequency they operated at – I remember sitting for ages going through a list I found on the internet so I could watch basically every regional ITV station just so I could watch whatever football match I fancied!

    Unfortunately Sky Digital doesn’t let you do this, but it does include all the different BBC regions so if you take offence at watching Rangers or Celtic in the Uefa Cup and fancy watching Everton or whoever is on BBC England then that’s a possibility.

    Sorry to hijack this to talk about football!

  4. It does, they’re just a little bit fiddly to access and you don’t have any decent EPG functions with them.

    You have to add them manually tand they appear on a list of “Other Channels” through the services menu.

    And for the record, you’ll find the regions and their frequencies here.

  5. “I think my dad would prefer to see ITV1 rather than STV on Champions League nights so that he could watch the English Premier League sides play rather than Celtic and Rangers!”

    Well, yes and no, Duncan.
    I pretty much despise the Champions League as a whole – being a competition that has been so gerrymandered. The EUFA cup is less so but still basically a rich teams’ plaything.
    But it depends on who the opposition is. Celtic or Rangers v Barcelona or Inter Milan is a better bet than Man U or Arsenal or Chelsea or Liverpool v Steaua Bucharest
    Having said that I don’t really much care who beats Celtic or Rangers – in Scotland; but I would want either of them to beat any English club in a European tie (some hopes these days) just because the English commentators are so obnoxious.
    None of it is real football; the odds are too stacked against an outsider club.
    Now, if only Dumbarton were in Europe I might change my mind.

  6. I live in the Yorkshire area as far as the BBC is concerned – but the Central area starts a few miles south. How few depends on the hills. This may explain why news about my hometown is pretty sparse.