Regionalism: A spent force? 

31 March 2006

An explosion of TV logos

ITV was forced into a regional, federal structure because the Post Office would not allocate the channels required to establish multiple, national commercial networks. As no such restraints exist today, does regionalism still have a place?

1993 is often cited as the year when ITV changed for ever, and in many people’s eyes, not for the better. It was indeed a year that began with a massive upheaval, with broadcasters coming and going and a new regulatory regime. However, the loss of Thames and TV-am, and the uncertain start experienced by Carlton and GMTV, although memorable, proved in the long term to be quite inconsequential. It was actually the previous year that saw Yorkshire take over Tyne Tees: ITV’s first tentative steps down a path that would have more far-reaching consequences than the fate of any one broadcaster.

When ITV was set up in the 1950s, two crucial clauses found their way into the Television Act 1954. The Act established the Independent Television Authority (ITA) and charged it with licensing a number of contractors, each of which had to be independent of each other in terms of finance and control. In other words, one company could not take over another. Each contractor also had to cater for the tastes and outlook of the people in the area or areas it served. These two provisions helped shape the final structure of ITV: a federation of regional broadcasters, each running its own affairs, but all agreeing to run a national peak-time schedule.

It is also worth noting that in the 1950s, much of the driving force for commercial television came from people who wanted to see as many channels, and as much competition, as was technically possible at the time. Their supporters in Parliament, however, perhaps influenced by what they knew of America’s laissez-faire experience, were more cautious; their opponents downright hostile.

The result was a compromise on two levels. Politically, unrestrained commercialism was an anathema to many in Parliament, so the vulgarities of the new companies would be strictly controlled. Sponsorship was banned, and a statutory regulator, the ITA, would appoint the companies and be given considerable discretionary powers over their activities. And politically, if not technologically, the Post Office – which then was responsible for allocating slices of the frequency spectrum – would only give the Authority enough channels for one commercial broadcaster in each region. This put paid to the Authority’s initial vision, which was that in any part of the country there should be at least two commercial broadcasters in competition against each other as well as against the BBC.

Arguably, the regional structure of ITV could well be due in part to this lack of available channels. The Television Act 1954 did not mandate the shape of ITV; it required only that the Authority ensure “adequate competition” to supply programmes among a number of companies.

The actual shape of ITV was devised by its first Director General, Robert Fraser. He devised a system involving weekday and weekend contracts whereby the three most populous regions (London, the Midlands and the North) had four companies among them. In each area, only one broadcaster was on air at a time. Over time, the remaining regions of the United Kingdom were given one broadcaster each, in operation for weekdays and weekends. Thus the distinction between the big, ‘network’ companies and the smaller, regional ones emerged. Had the Authority been able to appoint, say, three or four national commercial companies, analogous with ABC, NBC and CBS in the United States, the structure of commercial television would have been very different.

The four (later five) big companies did the bulk of network production between them, and all the companies did their own local programming, either produced in-house, bought in from another company, or imported. Companies would sometimes use non-network slots to promote promising local talent. Some programmes that went on to attract large, national audiences began life as regional productions. The regional broadcasters, with few network production responsibilities, proved to be fertile ground for up-and-coming television professionals eager to learn their trade.

Over time, the initial vision of the founding fathers of ITV – of broadcasters in direct competition with each other as well as the BBC – faded, and the BBC and ITV enjoyed a comfortable duopoly. Although it started off as the Young Turk to smash the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting, ITV itself enjoyed a monopoly on the sale of terrestrial, broadcast television advertising.

The first significant threat to this monopoly came with the development of cable and satellite broadcasting. Technological developments made it possible for new channels to launch which did not require space on the crowded terrestrial frequencies used by the BBC and ITV – and, by this time, Channel 4 as well. Although a lot of programming shown on cable and satellite had previously been shown on (and produced by) the established channels, there was now an alternative outlet for people attempting to get into the industry.

But the most far-reaching change to hit British television was the Broadcasting Act 1990. This legislation foresaw the raft of new channels that the Sky platform would bring, and it predicted – accurately – a time when ITV was no longer the big kid on the block.

One of the reasons that the 1954 Act required the companies to be independent of each other was so to prevent too great a concentration of control over the sale of advertising. If the companies could merge, advertisers would have less choice, and might well be charged more. By the 1990s, this was less of a problem. Sky had arrived, broadcasting both its own channels and a steadily growing number of new ones. As take-up of satellite television increased, advertisers started to have a real and viable alternative to ITV to reach the nation’s couch potatoes.

As a result, the government decided that the old objections, on competition grounds, to ITV companies merging were obsolete. Over a period of ten years or so, all the English and Welsh companies hopped into bed with each other, some more enthusiastically than others, ultimately forming a single company: ITV plc. At the same time, regional broadcasting declined in both quality and quantity, to the point that the ‘regional variations’ column in the TV listings pages became a sorry sight.

Does the decline in regional broadcasting matter? What did it actually achieve? In an era of limited channels, when the production arms of all the ITV companies could fill the available broadcasting hours several times over, the regional structure of ITV allowed the companies to focus on the perceived demands of the audiences in their respective areas. In highly agricultural eastern England, for example, Anglia Television screened a lot of programmes by, for and about farmers and farming. This arrangement also allowed one company or another to experiment with new ideas. If a regional production proved a success, the chances were that it would be given a network slot and a national audience.

At the time of writing, in March 2006, the regional structure of ITV still exists legally, although you would be hard pressed to notice. This is partly because the licences that ITV requires to broadcast are not issued to ITV plc, but to the various independent companies that put in bids in 1991, and which subsequently were bought by Carlton and Granada, the two halves of ITV plc. The ITV licences are awarded region by region, not nationally. Of course, in practice, ITV plc operates in England and Wales as if it were a unified entity, which, in effect, it is.

What were the benefits of regional broadcasting, and what have we lost by its demise? Under the long-defunct federal system, the regional ITV companies catered to the perceived tastes and outlook of their viewers. This perception was influenced by geography, and by the assumptions that each station’s management made. Southern Television, for example, had an outside-broadcast ship, the Southerner, and used it from time to time to cover nautical events. Thames and ATV would be more likely to be concerned with the problems of the inner cities than the marine calendar. Anglia’s regional programming offered quite a bit of interest to the farming fraternity, and Ulster found itself in the unique position of walking a sometimes wobbly tightrope bridging the sectarian divide.

Before the technological advances that made possible a bevy of channels, the BBC Television Service (later renamed BBC 1) and ITV, joined by first BBC 2 then Channel 4, had to attempt to please everyone at least once in a while. The federal structure meant that ITV’s peak-time network was supplied by first four then five production companies, all with different styles, with the smaller, regional companies occasionally contributing also. Thanks to its regionalism, ITV offered more variety and diversity than a single, national company.

The multi-channel era has rendered all that redundant, to some extent. There are now hundreds of channels that cover all sorts of specialist and niche topics: from poker games to re-runs of old quiz shows; drama, arts, history, factual documentaries, comedy, sci-fi, sports, classic and contemporary films, cooking, music videos, and so on. Whatever your interest, the chances are that there is a channel that will be of interest to you. Instead of a couple of general-purpose channels that must attempt (not always successfully) to offer something for everyone, many broadcasters now focus exclusively on one specialist topic.

The independent production companies also enrich ITV. Although the production arms of the various companies that have coalesced into ITV plc have now been amalgamated into Granada Productions (the quintessentially LWT programme The South Bank Show is now credited as a Granada London production), a number of non-ITV affiliated producers make shows for the network. The independent production companies restore the diversity of sources of production that were lost when ITV consolidated into (at least in the case of England and Wales) a single company.

The opportunities for experimentation and piloting new ideas are still there, albeit in a different guise. Instead of fifteen channels across the United Kingdom, there are now hundreds. ITV itself has opened three new national stations in the last ten years, and the BBC has added BBC Three and BBC Four to the mix. Various other networks have launched, including the Flextech-owned UKTV channels, the Sky channels and so on. ITV could, if it wanted, trial an experiment on ITV 4 or ITV 2, and, if successful, promote it to a peak-time slot on ITV 1.

What was the point of regional television? From the inception of ITV until the 1990s, the mass audience had only two, then three, then finally four channels from which to choose. Between them, they had to keep happy a potential audience of tens of millions. No small task.

As noted above, ITV’s most distinctive feature, its federal structure, came about as a requirement of the Television Act 1954. This requirement was based on the fallacy that, somehow, there were identifiable regional tastes in each of the regions. Granted: programmes that would be suitable in the south west, or East Anglia, or the Midlands, or London, were not necessarily mutually transferable among the regions. But you could just as easily find material that would be as likely to suit some viewers in each and all of these regions as to alienate others.

Now, with hundreds of channels to choose from, the ability to cater for individual tastes is more highly developed, and operates at a far more sophisticated level than that of crude, regional tastes. Channels exist to cater for any number of minority audiences. Broadcasters don’t need to be jacks-of-all-trades any more; they can master one instead. The proliferation of channels has allowed broadcasters to specialize by topic, genre and subject matter instead of by region. The key strengths of the federal ITV structure – the ability to experiment in one region before rolling the results out nationwide, the ability to cater for different tastes and the diversity that the different broadcasters offered – all have analogous equivalents in the form of a unified ITV competing with sundry other channels.

And yet the concept of regionalism still commands such loyalty. Nostalgia must play a part; people remember what they grew up with, have fond memories of various times in the past of which old programmes, stations and presentational styles remind them, and are instinctively resistant to change. Also, there is something attractive about putting on the television and being able to see locally-produced programmes about people and places in the local area. But business logic dictates that it is ludicrous to have fifteen regional companies providing a service, each paying to run its own continuity, presentation and admin, when one company could provide the same national service at a fraction of the cost. When the ITV companies of old were paying a marginal tax rate well in excess of eighty percent, such waste and duplication did not matter. Not any more.

The regional structure of ITV was right for its time, and it resulted in some fine programming and other achievements. However, ITV’s recent consolidation is nothing more than an acknowledgement that, in this multi-channel era, regional broadcasting is, sadly, redundant.

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