30th May 2021
Regional Television receives proportionally less funding as a share of Britain’s Gross Domestic Product than it did thirty years ago when the only choices of television were BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4. Few would deny that the digital age has opened up a wealth of choice of different television channels, particularly with the arrival of Sky Television; the arrival of the arrival of the Internet (and with it, You Tube) has further revolutionised viewing patterns. Britain’s Regional Television services are still, however, based around the BBC and ITV.Plc, both of which have seen a decline in viewer numbers (and, with it, advertising revenues in the case of ITV). There is increasing pressure for the BBC to be stripped of its funding from the Television Licence fee as more and more people watch Sky, view material on the You Tube. If the BBC has to rely on private income- streams via subscription it is certain that the BBC will have to adapt, cut costs and shed unprofitable operations.
All of which has a bearing on Regional Television provision in North West England- and indeed elsewhere in the country. It will become much more market- led and it could well be that the BBC would decide to shed some of the local services (such as BBC Radio Cumbria and BBC Radio Lancashire) if it deems these to be unprofitable and they may even decide that to survive it cannot duplicate those Regional news- services provided by ITV.Plc- or it may try to offer something for those gaps in the Regional Television news market left by ITV (i.e. the provision of a Regional News service for northern North West England and the Isle of Man).
The worst scenario that could affect Regional Television across Cumbria, northern Lancashire and the Isle of Man is a combination of cost-cutting measures from a newly- privatised BBC (effectively, this is what no TV License revenues will mean) and from ITV.Plc cutting costs after further loss of Market share and advertising revenues- leading to the loss of BBC Local Radio, the mothballing of ITV1 Border through it being merged fully with ITV1 Tyne Tees (if Scotland votes for Independence it could hasten this process if the Scottish Government won’t let English- based ITV1 Border broadcast to southern Scotland after Scotland becomes a sovereign nation) and the axing of the BBC Regions. It goes without saying that were such a scenario to be fulfilled it would result in a much-poorer Regional and Local news- service available to any part of North West England north of Wigan and the impact on the ability to receive geographically-appropriate Regional news-coverage in Cumbria would be devastating!
Viewers in Lancashire would suffer markedly without BBC1 North West Tonight providing a somewhat more local alternative to ITV1 Granada Reports. Of course, BBC1 North West Tonight is far from ideal, especially in that it will not cover anything northwards of the most northerly communities in its transmission area but normally there are two or three news-items about Lancashire. ITV1 Granada Reports does not offer that- over 80% of its coverage is Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City area, Cheshire or north-west Derbyshire, so if BBC1 North West Tonight goes then ITV1 Granada Reports would be the only main North West Regional News service for viewers in Lancashire, the Isle of Man and large parts of South Cumbria! For central and northern Cumbria, a new ITV1 North Regional News- service will provide mainly North East England based coverage much as BBC1 Look North (North East/ Cumbria) provides to northern Cumbria today. Cumbria would get 20% of news- coverage maximum compared to the over-50% of Cumbrian news- coverage on ITV1 Border’s flagship local news programme Lookaround.
Viewers in Lancashire and South Cumbria could simply refuse to watch ITV1 Granada Reports just as viewers in northern and central Cumbria could refuse to watch the new ITV1 North News Tonight. Viewers in Lancashire and South Cumbria could make a point en-masse to try and tune in to ITV1 North News Tonight because it provides some Cumbrian coverage whilst viewers in northern Cumbria could make a point about hating the new ITV1 North News Tonight by watching the new STV (Glasgow/ southern Scotland) News at Six. However, “Cutting off Your Nose to Spite Your Face” is never a strategy with any realistic chance of success: For the Programmers at ITV1 Granada or ITV1 North to be convinced of the need to provide better, more localised Regional News viewers have to be able to demonstrate that they have realistic alternatives to go to- and of being able to persuade others to likewise vote with their televisions. For example, if viewers in Millom or Ulverston don’t like the 85% coverage of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire from ITV1 Granada Reports they are not going to be persuaded to switch over to a Regional news- service providing 85% coverage of North East England- just on the off-chance of getting 10% more coverage about Cumbria in response! It is possible that That’s TV Cumbria and That’s TV Lancashire (Freeview Channel 8 at present) will have evolved into viable local news- services, when and if the choices for Regional Television News become limited in the North West. There may be other local news- services (Internet based) like the You Tube Isle of Man TV (see here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCIWwfPM2JDFBa_dj3OykOg): If so, then viewers can credibly put pressure on the Programmers at ITV1 Granada by demonstrating they can watch credible alternatives for Local/ Regional News coverage that is more geographic- appropriate.
If, should the time come and ITV1 Granada and a new ITV1 North (covering most of Cumbria and North East England) are the only Regional Television News- services in town as far as Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man are concerned and there are no other credible local (digital) alternatives then there is just one further option: Its called Community Regional Television. In essence, this involves an entire community (or communities across northern North West England) coming together to start a community- based enterprise. This involves people across Cumbria and Lancashire with the prerequisite skills setting up a new Regional Television service and with the business running it operating as a Not For Profit organisation. Not For Profit community organisations, where local people identify a community need and set up a Not For Profit business to run it have increased in rural areas in recent years. In the village of Nenthead, near where I live in the North Cumbrian Pennines there are two- a local Community Shop and a local Community Snow-plough organisation that serves the local community by clearing snow and gritting the minor roads in winter that are not on Cumbria County Council’s priority list. The provision of good quality, reliable Local and Regional News- as is relevant to an area- could be provided in a very similar way.
The good thing about a Cumbria and Lancashire Community Television service is that, whilst it would be expensive to run, those operating it come from the communities they serve and are motivated by the local needs: Community-run enterprises are not worried about making lots of money, paying shareholders and dividends, the only need is to secure enough funding to stay solvent. All those who would benefit from a Cumbria and Lancashire Community Television service can buy shares in the company to start with and then to pay enough to cover running costs in order to benefit from the service. If the Community organisation is short of money, it can of course quite legitimately engage in fund-raising whilst reminding Cumbrians of the appalling Hobson’s Choice on offer were the Community Television Service have to cease owing to insufficient revenues- Raffles, the Go Fund Me website, Fêtes, etc. are all legitimate avenues for raising funds for community causes. Manx viewers could set up their own Manx Community Television service to provide a dedicated Isle of Man News service which they just don’t have today.
There are some Public services that are vital for local communities that do cost money- which if left to Market Forces would result in a much poorer quality of life- and could even leave folk in danger. For instance, if provision of Education, Policing, emptying bins or the provision of an Armed Forces were left entirely to “Market Forces” it is clear that only the rich would be able to afford them- and the entire country would be left vulnerable to domestic and foreign threats to it’s well-being: One can believe that the Free Market provides the best conditions for economic growth (as I do) whilst also being aware of the clear limitations of this principle as exist. Taxes are necessary to raise the funds for those things that are required that no Private Sector organisation alone will pay for- like keeping Britain safe from internal and foreign threats, educating children and providing health-care for those who fall sick free at the point of use.
The provision of timely reliable local news and information on the television is another of those Public services (an essential one) that should not be left entirely to Market Forces. Community-led enterprises may well have a vital role in the provision of timely, geographic-appropriate local news-coverage in future years. However, legislation should be passed requiring the BBC and ITV.Plc to provide this rather more rigorously than at present as too many areas fall through gaps in coverage: This is certainly true for one the million inhabitants of northern Lancashire, South Cumbria and the Isle of Man.
Other (largely rural) parts of North West and North East England that do not get geographic-appropriate coverage and suffer by being close to Regional Television transmission boundaries (so they never know what happens in some places less than 20 miles away) include the Rochdale/ Burnley/ Oldham areas close to the Yorkshire border, South Cheshire/ northern Staffordshire/ northern Shropshire, north-east Wales/ western Cheshire and Northumberland (particularly close to the Scottish Border). The Buxton area of Derbyshire would certainly benefit from one of it’s Regional News- services coming from the north-east- probably getting the BBC Leeds- based version of Look North to complement ITV1 Granada Reports.- for the simple reason that BBC1 Look North (Leeds) covers much of northern and eastern Derbyshire in output whilst also covering West and South Yorkshire- much of which is still Regionally Local to Buxton. If and when the time comes, and the offerings of Regional Television News for all these locations diminish further communities in all these areas might seek to collaborate with a view to launching their own Community Regional Television News services. In any geographical area with a population of one million people there will certainly be folk with the skill-sets and resource-generating skills required to make more geographic-appropriate Regional Television a reality.
Only when the existing Regional Television News providers in the North West and North East of England see a large number of their customers threatening to forsake them for a more geographic-appropriate Local and Regional News-service is it likely that the Regional News providers will endeavour to rectify the poor local coverage that many thousands of viewers at the periphery of their transmission areas suffer. It will probably take a threatened loss of viewers (and revenue) greater than the costs of providing opt-outs before either BBC1 North West or ITV1 Granada provide these, but they will strive to improve coverage in other ways if just a few hundred folk write in and announce their intention to switch channels. That said, for the threat to have any chance of working it has to be credible, and if two big ITV/ BBC Regions (one for the North East/ Cumbria, one for the North West) ever become the only shows in town then large numbers of Cumbrians and North Lancastrians coming together to successfully set up their own Community Regional Television station will be necessary to move the dial at the ITV1 Granada and ITV1 North Head Offices.