Perforated Television 

25 April 2003

“Here is London, giddy London/Is it home of the free or what?”

– Morrissey, Hairdresser on Fire.

Whilst it’s possible to point to many – oh, so many – faults with modern television, the main one has to be Londoncentricity.

Virtually all forms of the media are now London-based. Regional newspapers are largely run from London’s Docklands or thereabouts. London probably provides the home for your local FM station.

Even the adverts you see and hear everyday are by (and for) London.

This leads to little pieces of ridiculousness. A current national advertising campaign for cheese biscuits features scenes photographed on a Tube station. All very well, but does that mean anything in Cheadle?

Foxes recently ran a campaign that said “London Needs Biscuits”. This was very funny in the rest of the country, but I was surprise to find it running in London itself, until it dawned on me that the advert was aimed at London but just happened to run nationwide.

The BBC is guilty of this too. Ask a Radio One executive who their main rival is, and the answer ‘Capital FM’ will pop out. The concept that Capital, for all its holdings outside of London, is just a local station for one area completely throws them.

The idea that a good 85% of the country don’t actually live or work in the capital is so completely dumbfounding for television executives as to be thought as likely as little green men landing in Washington.

All in all, London is terribly parochial. The horizons of the London-based media are so limited that they can’t see to the end of the Northern Line, let alone beyond and out into the rump 85% of the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when founding commercial television in this country, the Independent Television Authority hit upon a course of action designed to prevent the very situation we now find ourselves in.

By creating a federal system – and more specifically, splitting London in two to prevent the capital having dominance – the ITA ensured that television at the very least would be a regional affair.

To that end, local production centres were set up in places like Newcastle, Carlisle, Aberdeen and Plymouth – places that you won’t find on the Underground Diagram. These places were staffed by local people who knew their audiences.

They also made a valuable contribution to the local economies and the local creative culture – being a buyer and a seller in both markets.

In 1980 the IBA decided to go a step further. Unable to break the large companies into smaller ones – the integrity of the entire network depends on companies with big regions and spare money – they took the two most obvious candidates for division into separate regions and ‘perforated’ them.

The midlands, a monolithic region whose four corners are as different from each other as any four points chosen at random in the UK, was perforated into the dual regions of East and West Midlands.

The company in charge of both – Central – got to keep the full income of the large region, but effective run two franchises with two studio centres providing two different sources of programmes.

The same applied in the south, where the south-east, for a long time little more than a dormitory for the capital, and the central south, an area divorced from London and more interested in rural affairs and the sea, gained independence from each other but remained under one umbrella.

Soon this had caught on across the network, and companies that could perforate their services did so – north/south for Tyne Tees, east/west for Border and so forth.

But the smaller companies couldn’t invest the amount that a perforated larger company could in both halves. Therefore largely only news programmes – and sometimes only parts of news programmes – could opt-out.

The IBA was gone by the time the full effects of this could be seen, but those effects were positive. When the next stage of ITV’s development began – starting with the merger of YTV and Tyne Tees – the perforation pattern seemed an idea whose time had come.

The YTV/TTT merger led to the larger company investing heavily in the southern opt-out, based in Billingham, from the smaller company’s Newcastle operations.

A new studio-cum-news centre was built and TTT viewers began to see real improvement in the local service from ITV – important as the north of the region was chalk to the south’s cheese.

In theory, this is a process that should only have got better as their larger neighbours picked off the smaller companies one by one.

With the ‘cost savings’ apparently to be found in each merger, investment in perforating each service area should have been a doddle.

Imagine, if you will, how a company like Border could have benefited from Granada’s money if a new studio centre had been built in the The Borders to compliment the one in Carlisle. The benefits to the local communities and to viewers would have been huge.

Further realignment could have taken place in areas with a common identity but split between companies, like the Home Counties. Individual transmitters could have had individual news programmes – opt-outs for the medium-sized transmitters, full programmes for the major transmitters.

But this didn’t happen. Instead of investment, consolidation of ITV has actually meant centralisation in London. The two main companies – Granada and Carlton – stare at each other from opposite sides of the Thames. Both have run down – and sometimes just closed – the regional studio centres they inherited.

The mammoth ATV Centre is now abandoned, and Carlton operate the whole of the massive midlands region from a tiny office block tucked away behind the rotting building. The Nottingham studio centre may as well be closed for all the use it gets.

As the regional centres have closed, so the local talent has been forced to make a terrible choice – be made redundant, or move to London.

The independent sector – those tiny, one-show companies that we’ve all spent 20 years waiting for the proof that they can challenge the quality of the old ITV contractors as we were promised – are virtually all London-based.

Why base a company in Leeds, Manchester or Norwich when the decisions are made in London by London dwellers with London mindsets?

Why then make a programme in Carlisle or Plymouth when it could be made in London, where the commissioning editor, the production company, the talent and the technicians all reside?

Because the majority of us don’t live in London, don’t want to and don’t care what happens there. But we’re not the ones who make the decisions. We’re just the viewers.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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