Regional rollercoaster 

1 September 2001

Out of all the channels that currently exist, only 3 channels provide a terrestrial regional service to the English regions, BBC-1, BBC-2 and ITV. Every other service available is national, pan-European or even international in focus.

So why are there so few regional services? The short answer is money. To provide a basic regional service, for instance to the West, South, East, Midlands, North, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, you have to find eight new locations for studios. To run the entire service from your broadcast headquarters, at least eight new transmission suites need to be built and suddenly we’re talking hundreds of millions of pounds. Currently only Sky could even consider something like that.

The BBC offer a 14-region terrestrial service, covering the South West, West, South, South East, East, East Midlands, West Midlands, North West, North, North East and Cumbria, Channel Islands, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and are in the process of carving a 15th region out of the South East for London. A comprehensive service like this is the most expensive route to take, with the pick of the regional bunch, ITV, having 27 regional divisions operated by 15 licensees in 14 regions. A 27-region service requires 27 transmission suites, at a time where ITV tries to consolidate into a single company.

Even without consolidation, regional output has already suffered. The BBC used to produce some great regional feature programming, including “Floyd on Food” and “Secret Nature”, both from the Southwest. The BBC picked up these shows nationally as well as many other programmes from the regions. The three main regional production centres for the network, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester, specialise in certain types of productions. The only things the individual regions produce are local news, weekly topical news documentaries and a regional parliamentary programme. All are news based with no feature-based material at all – no fun stuff.

You might have expected ITV to pick up the slack here but the picture is similarly bleak. For instance, Westward and TSW had been great providers of regional programming, some of it being shown on the network. Successor company Westcountry, however, have produced only news and factual programming, with a tiny amount of entertainment-related material produced by local independents. Even after Carlton rebranded Westcountry, things did not really improved. Although the “Carlton Production” slide is seen a lot, the great majority of these productions are from London and the Midlands.

So regional programming has already suffered on television, and it looks like it will continue to suffer under a single ITV company coupled with light-touch regulation. Because being regional eats up money and profits, expect to see even less in the future.

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