Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Ofcom has today published its thoughts on the future of public service broadcasting and makes specific mention of regional broadcasting. Right at the top it states the following: "More than seven in 10 viewers place importance on regional news..... They value PSB content made about the UK, and take pride in seeing their own area on screen"
I almost choked on my cereal. It is something I (and I think most broadcasters working in regional TV in England) have known for ages and it seems remarkable to me that in recent times this message has not really been understood by the bosses at BBC and ITV who, dare I say it, are mostly based in that there London.
Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland are able to hold their own ground and get the funding to enshrine lots of bespoke local content in their schedules, but not so the English regions.
Whilst regulatory controls insist a proportion of regional programmes have to air in primetime, in practice channel controllers can honour that obligation but conveniently also use it to fill a slot they know they will lose in the ratings war.
Regional programmes have been offered up as the sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered by the Leviathan soaps.
Much like football fans who stick with a relegated team, those viewers who do enjoy local progammes have a passion for seeing the stories, people and places they recognise on the telly - just as Ofcom has found. The PVR and on-demand world means households can now watch the soaps and also catch-up on regional programmes. They can watch England and their local team with equal fervour.
Whilst the technology is improving, the usablity for viewers is lagging behind. Regional programmes are often difficult to find on services like the iPlayer and don't get me started on live TV where viewers are confronted with the red graphic: "Retune to BBC One SD for your local programme". In fact as long as local programmes are shot in HD but transmitted in SD, then regional broadcasting will always be the country bumpkin of the TV industry.
Ofcom is consulting on its findings and I urge you to submit your views. It has some interesting thoughts on the future: "There is also potential for cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local investigative news."
Their findings note: "Audiences also value public-service content that the market is unlikely to provide." There is market failure in regional programming - but there is also a failure of faith. Network supremos either don't get, or simply don't value the regional loyalties of their audiences.
As ITV found, when advertising money dwindles then the first cuts will be to regional output. The BBC is now shrinking and following suit. Plans for a replacement to the award-winning current affairs programme “Inside Out” will merge exisiting regions - so in future viewers in parts of Lincolnshire and Cumbria will be watching the same "regional" programme. It's hard to see how that will resonate with viewers.
Audiences across the World love "Vera" and in the North East we take a certain pride in seeing our landscape on the box. But no-one should consider programmes made in a region - be that drama, children‘s or factual - as “regional programming”. It’s not enough to see your area on screen or pretend that it will keep regional audiences happy. Each region needs a voice, that speaks to itself, about itself and holds those making local decisions to account. It’s not too grand to say it is a vital part of local democracy and identity.
Whilst regional production teams have always been adept at making top notch programmes on smaller budgets, overall, regional progamming doesn't come cheap. But it’s not a luxury... It’s an essential.
The regulator needs to ensure the voice of the regions is not only heard but encouraged and public service broadcasters may need a forceful reminder what that obligation means outside of the M25. You can add your voice to Ofcom's consultation here: https://www.smallscreenbigdebate.co.uk/consultation