Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 18:11 UK

Analysis: Ofcom's regional news proposals

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

A screen grab from ITV's London Tonight
ITV has 17 regional newsrooms but intends to reduce this to nine

Ofcom has unveiled a report looking at the future of public service broadcasting.

The media regulator has proposed ITV should provide fewer regional programmes.

So what do Ofcom's proposals mean for viewers?

Across the UK - if the plans go ahead - ITV1 will drop its mid-morning regional news bulletins.

The lunchtime ones at weekends will also go, but the peak-time regional news programmes, which get the most viewers, will remain.

Overall, the amount of regional news will fall from five hours 20 minutes a week to three hours 45 minutes.

Each ITV region will also cut its non-news programming, including regional current affairs, by 50%.

Merged

And ITV's quota for programmes made outside London will fall from 50 to 35%.

The changes also affect companies such as Scottish Television and Ulster TV, which are not part of the ITV group but share much of its programming.

And there will be greater changes in some areas than others.

We're trying to prevent the death of regional news
Stewart Purvis, Ofcom

In ITV's Border and Tyne Tees regions - in the north of England and Scottish borders - the news programmes and teams will be merged.

When ITV first put forward this plan, viewers and councils in Cumbria launched a campaign to save Border's local news programme, Lookaround, which has been on the air since the station began in 1961.

Around 14,000 people sent postcards to Ofcom to protest.

ITV has modified its plans and there will be 15-minute opt-out programmes for Tyne-Tees and Border.

'Sad day'

The Lookaround name has been saved, but viewers and ITV news staff are not mollified.

"It is a sad day for this region because the regional news will be poorer for it," said presenter Adam Powell, who represents the National Union of Journalists.

"There is no getting away from the fact that this is a step backwards."

Emu and Toby Hull
Children's programmes are an integral part of public-service broadcasting

In Wales there has also been criticism.

Though peak-time news and current affairs programmes will be maintained, off-peak news and non-news output will be cut.

The channel's Welsh programming will shrink from the current four hours a week, to an hour-and-a-half after January.

The Heritage Minister in Wales, Alun Ffred Jones, said: "It is a matter of huge concern to me that cutting the services offered by ITV Wales will deprive Welsh citizens from receiving a diverse range of programmes which reflect their everyday lives."

Ofcom said it has had to relax the rules because the financial model underpinning ITV's public-service programming for the past 50 years is broken.

The switch to digital television and a deep fall in advertising revenue are taking their toll on ITV's profits.

Lucrative franchise

Ofcom said it can only get worse as the digital switchover approaches, between now and 2012.

ITV's roots are in the regions.

It was set up in the 1950s and 60s as a network of regional companies, such as Granada and Scottish TV.

ITV logo
Peak-time news must stay at the heart of ITV's schedule, Ofcom said

Fifteen years ago, there were still 15 of them, separately owned and run, in cities like Manchester, Cardiff and Leeds, as well as London.

Each made programmes and sold their own advertising, a business so lucrative that one early ITV boss described his franchise as a "licence to print money".

In return, the ITV companies were obliged to show high quality news, and other public-service programming.

Arts programmes like the South Bank Show, religious and children's programmes and regional news and current affairs were required, to provide competition for the publicly-funded BBC.

But as hundreds of other channels began competing for viewers and advertisers, the right to broadcast became much less valuable.

Several of ITV's public service obligations have already been lifted and Ofcom said ITV's public-service focus should now be on what viewers value most - original British programmes, network news, and news for the nations and regions.

Ofcom rejected claims by union leaders that this will be the death of regional news on ITV.

The NUJ claims up to 500 jobs could be lost.

"We're trying to prevent the death of regional news," said Stewart Purvis, Ofcom's partner in charge of content.

The former editor-in-chief of ITN, added: "By reducing ITV's obligations to provide regional news in mid-morning and at weekends, and letting them restructure, we are helping them maintain a high-quality service in peak-time."

The proposals are open for consultation between now and 4 December.




SEE ALSO
ITV 'can cut' regional programmes
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26 Jun 08 |  South of Scotland
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