Page last updated at 16:27 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 17:27 UK

'Except for viewers in Scotland'

One of ITV's most popular programmes - the police series The Bill - is being dropped by Scottish broadcaster STV. It joins a growing list of network dramas which have been dropped in Scotland while STV tries to separate its fortunes from those of ITV. Jamie McIvor assesses the risks and rewards of this strategy.

 Inspector Smith, played by Alex Walkinshaw
The Bill is one of ITV's best rated programmes

Fans of the police series The Bill who live in Central and Northern Scotland have a new mystery to solve.

From next week the popular series won't be shown by broadcaster STV even though it is one of the channel's best-rated programmes.

The Bill is the latest casualty of a move by STV to drop many ITV network programmes.

STV insists it is taking control of its own schedule to better serve Scottish viewers. It says it wants to showcase Scottish programming and drop programmes which don't play so well with viewers north of the border.

Few in Scotland would argue against these sentiments.

But putting this strategy into practice is risky. Replacing network programmes which get poor viewing figures may seem sensible but what about popular programmes?

In recent months STV has dropped several big dramas including the Inspector Morse sequel Lewis, and the Stephen Fry series Kingdom.

While STV has recently increased the volume of Scottish programmes it makes, it also appears to be reducing its dependency on the ITV network.

The new episode of Midsomer Murders on the ITV network next Wednesday evening will be covered up by a repeat

In some cases, expensive network dramas have been replaced with films, repeats, and imports. Some elsewhere in the television industry claim the strategy is, at least in part, to save cash.

It's certainly true that next week's episode of The Bill will be replaced by a Scottish documentary. STV says it has a range of new, high quality Scottish factual programmes to show and expects them to do well.

But, for instance, the new episode of Midsomer Murders on the ITV network next Wednesday evening will be covered up by a repeat.

A spokeswoman for the company insisted the new strategy was working well.

She said: "STV's opt-out strategy has also seen the broadcaster introduce series such as South Park, to appeal to a younger audience on a Monday night.

Susan Boyle
STV recently opted out to show a documentary about Susan Boyle

"STV also recently opted out of the ITV Network schedule to show documentary Susan Boyle - 2 Weeks That Shook Showbusiness, a one-off programme which attracted over half a million viewers and outperformed the network by 10 share points."

The relationship between STV and the ITV network appears to be evolving.

ITVplc owns all the former regional stations in England, the Borders and Wales and pays the vast bulk of the cost of network programmes.

However STV in most of Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland remain independent companies with control over their schedule.

Since the current management team took over STV two years ago, the company has been striving to separate its destiny from that of ITVplc.

STV does not need to pay ITV for programmes it does not show and there is also a long-running disagreement between ITVplc and STV and UTV over the cost of the network schedule.

ITVplc claims that it is subsidising them. STV and UTV deny this.

There are potential risks to STV in dropping network favourites.

Financial arrangements

Hidden away on cable TV and on Channel 993 on Sky in Scotland is ITV1 London.

This service allows viewers to desert STV for its bigger rival.

The chances are that neither ITVplc nor some of STV's viewers would be happy with a protracted situation where many of the best ITV1 programmes were not seen in Scotland.

Theoretically, ITVplc could hand back its Channel 3 franchises in England, Wales and the Borders and launch a UK-wide ITV1 service. If this were to happen, STV would have to fill the whole schedule itself.

Another alternative is to change the financial arrangements between ITVplc and STV.

Or, perhaps, with STV currently valued at barely £20m, ITVplc may finally be tempted to consider buying the company - at least once the credit crunch eases.

It's becoming difficult to simply describe STV as "ITV in Scotland". The question is whether a more independent future for STV turns out to be the right one.

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