All together now 

1 January 2002

For those of us born in the 1970s or later, it’s hard to imagine a world where there were fewer than four television channels to choose from. Those who grow up now with pay-TV will no doubt find the thought even weirder.

Of course it all started with one channel broadcast by the BBC, followed by the launch of independent television in 1955. The method chosen by the first regulator to start independent television is well known – a series of franchise areas were created and advertised for a fixed term. After that period of time, the franchise was either renewed or given to another company. Whilst being tweaked over the years, the same overall system is still in use today.

Since 1955, the television market has changed dramatically. Where once there was just one channel to compete with, by the mid-1980s, ITV had to compete with BBC One, BBC Two and Channel 4. Now there is Channel 5, digital terrestrial television, digital satellite and cable. When the last franchise round took place in 1991, no one would have expected that a fledgling satellite operator called Sky Television would grow so big, nor that the government would be telling us that the main way of viewing television would soon be turned off.

There will still be a place for the five main channels in the digital age. Despite the best efforts of the pay-TV companies, there is still a large number of viewers who have no interest in paying for extra channels and will be sitting down to watch free-to-air services for many years to come. However with all the changes going on in the TV world, it seems that the selection process for our third channel hasn’t caught up, and isn’t really appropriate for the current TV ages we live in. So what needs to done?

All Together Now

The world of ITV is now dominated by two large companies. Between them Granada Media and Carlton Communications own ITV in England and Wales. The other four regional franchises in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands have so far managed to retain separate, but for how long?

ITV is currently in limbo – neither the federation of independent companies it once was, nor the united force many of its bosses want it to be. A new franchise round based on the existing regional structure now would be meaningless. New companies could apply for a regional franchise and maybe even win it, but there would be little to stop the previous players just buying the new company, leaving it a rather pointless exercise.

Channel 5 offers a potential model – a nationwide franchise, allocated to one company. The third channel could be advertised as a one UK-wide station, with the condition that it provides certain regional services, as ITV does now.

In the past, the franchise system has allowed smaller players to enter the market and this would no longer happen. However given that most of the smaller ITV companies were swallowed up in the 1990s, the potential for new, small companies to enter the world of ITV has diminished rapidly.

Across The UK

There are currently only two sets of regional TV services in the UK provided by the BBC and ITV. The third channel has brought viewers local news, sport, factual and entertainment programming, and there continues to be a need for this kind of service. Each part of the UK is different and it is important that TV recognises this and provides a number of locally tailored programmes. It’s a role that has traditionally been assigned to ITV, and unless this is changed, and a new set of nationwide regional or local services are created, it’s one that the third channel should continue to have.

At the moment regional news services are highly varied. Granada for example, provides one regionwide service, where Meridian provides three separate services for its region. Tyne Tees sits in-between and has one evening programme with local opt-outs. The current system has meant that different regions have different levels of regional news services. The whole provision of regional services does need some review in order to ensure that every viewer gets a similar level of service from the TV company. With the consolidation of ITV into one company, there is a perfect opportunity to review the whole system. This could lead to some cross-region services (like the south of Tyne Tees and the North of the Yorkshire region) merging, and some separating to ensure that there is a better service. The definition of new regions would continue to be controlled by the regulator, but could lead to a much more co-ordinated regional service for the UK, defined more on the needs of the community rather than which company happens to run their local service.

Waking Up

When TV-am first launched, breakfast TV was a novelty. Breakfast Time had launched not long before on BBC One, but prior to that, television had started mid-morning at the earliest.

The IBA at the time decided that rather than allow the existing ITV companies to take on the breakfast slot, they would advertise a separate company to broadcast it nationwide. In the 20 or so years since that decision was made, things have changed drastically, leaving the ITV the only commercial network that can’t legally broadcast 24 hours a day. Whilst other companies may choose not to broadcast at certain hours due to lack or programming, money or space, the ITV companies are legally restricted by the terms of their contracts, where at 6am they must hand over to GMTV for 3 hours, 25 minutes. With the consolidation of ITV into (eventually) one company, it makes little sense to retain this arrangement.

ITV has changed a great deal since the first broadcast in London in 1955. Whether this is for the better or not is another matter for another discussion, but change it has. Certain wheels have been put in motion that are unlikely to be reversed and as such, the method of no longer fits the reality. Change is inevitable, but nothing can really happen until ITV is allowed to become one company. Until then, ITV is stuck in limbo, patiently waiting for the bridge to be built so that it can cross, and drive off to its new future.

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