Bye-bye Border? 

8 April 2008

Border TV logo

If ITV plc has its way, Border Television, the smallest yet most loyally supported ITV region ( Lookaround is still, despite a huge fall in quality in recent years, the most successful ITV news magazine in Britain), looks set to disappear by July 2009 to be merged with another once proud ITV region, Tyne Tees, broadcasting in very much reduced circumstances from a business park in Gateshead, to form some super region that will cover the Border and Tyne Tees areas, stretching from Stranraer to York, where no doubt stories on the Scottish and Cumbrian fringes of the region will be overlooked in favour of the big events in Newcastle.

A commitment to a 10 minute opt out for Border viewers will probably see only the biggest Border stories crammed into 10 minutes and local sport and human interest stories, which Lookaround has been noted for, totally left out and I very much doubt that, in the pan-regional part of the bulletin, Border stories will merit more than a mention and sports reporting will almost totally neglect Carlisle United and Gretna in favour of Newcastle and Sunderland.

Viewers have a right to be angry in the Border region, and petitions and ‘Save Border Lookaround’ stickers have appeared in pubs and shops. Lookaround might be a fairly amateurish affair now, but at least it is a 30 minute bulletin produced in Carlisle for the Border region, even if the cameras are controlled from Leeds, the presenters are nowhere near as well known as the late Eric Wallace, and the studio looks embarrassingly cheap. The local argument, though, is a bad Lookaround is better than no Lookaround and even the only saving grace of transferring to Tyne Tees, namely seeing Mike Neville again, is not an option as Neville has now retired.

However, the writing has been on the wall for Border since it was bought out by Granada in 1999 – even though Granada, to their credit, removed one long-running gripe among English Border viewers who had to endure Scotsport by splitting the English and Scottish Border transmitters – and became part of ITV plc, which saw Border’s regional continuity, the famous DY ident and regional programming variations scrapped in favour of a unified ITV1 brand with centralised continuity, idents and, barring local news and two half hour regional programmes shown in graveyard slots, a total end to any kind of regionalism.

In the five and a bit years since the unified and often unloved ITV has been created, famous studio complexes such as City Road at Tyne Tees, Lenton Lane for Central and Northam for Meridian/ TVS/ Southern, plus once mighty regional broadcasters such as HTV, have disappeared as ITV has centralised everything in London and Leeds, and even Granada’s famous Quay St studios, which are to be demolished, have been reduced to a local newsroom and the set of Coronation St.

As for Border’s Eastern Way studios, which were very busy when I visited in 1985 (the station then was breaking successfully into youth and children’s programming as well as its well liked roster of local programmes), an insider has advised me that only the news studio and a small part of the building are in use and the studios that once hosted Mr and Mrs and Look Who’s Talking are now sealed off, with equipment rotting away unused and unwanted by ITV. Certainly when I drove past Border last year, the building had a forlorn and decrepit look which suggested Eastern Way only had a limited lifespan now, as it is basically a news studio with playout controlled from Leeds.

I can imagine that when Border is merged with Tyne Tees, ITV plc will make a nice killing by selling the studios for redevelopment and Border will probably move into a portakabin next door to CFM Radio, which shares the Border site. I bet Eric Wallace must be spinning in his grave at what is happening to his beloved Border Television and Lookaround, which after being reduced to a cheaply made and amateurish news bulletin, will finally be killed off next year.

I will admit, as in previous articles, to not being Border’s biggest fan, even at the height of regionalism. Compared with Thames, I always found it rather parochial, the DY ident always looked a bit cheap compared with classier efforts from Anglia and Westward (which wasn’t much more affluent than Border), and it always seemed to close down earlier than everyone else and would be showing highlights of Motherwell versus Kilmarnock to an aggravated English audience who knew other regions had a top class film at the same time.

However, much as I disliked quite a bit about the old Border, there was much to like about in other ways: announcers like Clive Champney and, later, Craig Austin, acted as if they were friends of the family, “Eric Wallace off Border Crack and Deekabout”, as he was affectionately referred to in Carlisle, was a local legend to his many fans and hundreds attended his funeral when he died three years ago; and local sports coverage, while limited by national agreements on what could be shown, was still good, The Union and the League, the rugby magazine which covered local matches involving both codes, and the general sports magazine Border Sports Action were professionally done on low budgets. In the mid eighties there was even a moderately successful attempt to break into children and youth programming, with BMX Beat, The Krankies and the pop show Buzz, hosted by Muriel Gray, all coming from Eastern Way.

It’s clear that despite its limited finances and rather parochial image, people locally still care about Border even if in a love/hate way. Yes we sniggered at the 11.15 closedowns, the tardiness of some of the presentation and some of the news articles that, don’t laugh, once consisted of an attempt to rescue a bull whose head was stuck in a fence, but we loved Border all the same because it was our region and cared about us, unlike the BBC local bulletins which seemed centred on Newcastle if you were English or Glasgow if you were Scottish. Yes, I will admit I always preferred Mike Neville as a presenter to Eric Wallace – though it was nothing personal as I’ve met both – but for local news Border was better at covering Cumbrian stories than the BBC as the studios were based in the county.

You can see why a determined battle is going on to save one of the few remnants of ITV regional broadcasting, local news magazines, and possibly the traditional ITV regional boundaries which Michael Grade, who seems to care little about ITV’s regional heritage, which isn’t surprising as his media career has been largely based in London, seems to want to destroy. While the battle is mainly about saving Deekabout, as this is effectively all Border is now, the battle is part of a wider struggle to save what remains of a very successful regional system of ITV stations that served the public well for over 40 years and also to preserve the jobs of 70 highly skilled television staff in Carlisle.

Local reaction has been furious and has even led to an unsuccessful attempt by local businessmen to buy out Border from ITV plc. On January 21st Carlisle MP Eric Martlew started a campaign that he hoped would be cross-party and involve politicians from Cumbria, Scotland and the Isle of Man to save the station. In particular there are huge worries on the Isle of Man as to what will happen to Border’s relatively generous local news coverage if and when Lookaround is scrapped. The News and Star reported on Eric Martlew’s campaign to save Lookaround with regard to the Isle of Man on January 21st 2008:

An MP has urged three nations to unite and stop the axe falling on ITV Border’s flagship news magazine.

Eric Martlew believes it crucial that England, Scotland and the Isle of Man present a united front against plans to merge the Carlisle-based broadcaster’s news operations with those of Tyne Tees in Gateshead.

And he hopes to secure influential support to save Lookaround when he and other anti-merger campaigners take the Battle for Border to Manx Chief Minister Tony Brown next month.

The Carlisle MP had written to the Isle of Man’s top politician to seek his backing and highlight the potential impact of the planned Border region overhaul on the island.

Mr Martlew said: “The Chief Minister said he would be delighted to meet me and was looking forward to discussing the issue, which is important to both our communities.

“It is vital that all three countries covered by the Border TV make representations to Ofcom.

“I feel that if the Isle of Man is served from Newcastle then it will be forgotten about.

“In that last three months, Border has covered more than 80 stories from the Isle of Man.”

Border has one of the most diverse patches in the ITV regions, covering Cumbria in England, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders in Scotland and the Isle of Man.

A cross-border delegation of MPs have already held talks with ITV executive chairman Michael Grade and senior Ofcom executives in London.

They have signed a parliamentary motion calling on ITV to rethink their proposals. Meetings have also taken place at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

If the merger goes ahead, Lookaround could go off-air by 2009.

The Border area would then be covered as part of a combined Tyne Tees bulletin, although the region would get a mini-bulletin lasting about 10 minutes.

The decision to merge Border with Tyne Tees has led a whole raft of local celebrities and politicians to try and save the station. According to the Save Lookaround website, which was set up at the end of last year, the list includes Presenters Fiona Armstrong and Adam Powell, former programme director Derek Batey, local MPs and council leaders led by Eric Martlew and the Dumfries MP Russell Brown, Andrew Tinkler, (Chief Executive of Eddie Stobarts Haulage,), Bectu Union representative Peter Howdle, Manx journalist Paul Moulton, Carlisle United chairman Fred Story and David Alan, who is part of a consortium who recently failed in a bid to buy the Border franchise from ITV.

Indeed at the end of last year a consortium of local businessmen led by David Alan decided to launch a £ 12 million bid to buy Border from ITV plc. The consortium argued that even a greatly weakened Border turned in a profit of £ 2.7 million a year, did not deserve to die and needed to preserve its brand, which had served local viewers so well since 1961. (I was also secretly hoping that an independent Border would ditch the dull ITV1 branding and return to the DY ident and local continuity in the same way STV has retained its local identity while still buying in programmes from ITV plc.)

However, on January 29th, ITV rejected the consortium’s bid, leading MP Eric Martlew, who is doing a sterling job in trying to save Border, to comment, “What this shows is that there are businessmen who believe Border is making a good profit and figures show that. There is simply no need to destroy Lookaround which is a good product. ITV is being greedy.” Mr Martlew was told by Ofcom chiefs they had received more representation from people over proposed Border changes than any other region. He said: “They are saying people with concerns should write to them and make proper representation and it will be considered.”

The fate of Border will be decided by Ofcom during a ten-week consultation period in the autumn. Should the merger go ahead, Border Lookaround and effectively Border Television will cease to exist in July 2009 and will be replaced with a new merged service from Gateshead, with a weak local opt out lasting ten minutes and two local programmes a week buried in graveyard slots.( While this article is primarily about Border, no doubt Tyne Tees viewers must be concerned about the fate of their region and the fact that the familiar Tyne Tees brand is to go as well.)

Perhaps Michael Grade doesn’t recall, or care to recall, a regional shake up when he was controller of BBC1 in the eighties. Viewers in the Cumbrian part of the Border region who favoured Look North over Lookaround – our task was made easier when the programmes stopped going head to head in September 1984 and we no longer had to make the awkward choice between Eric Wallace and Mike Neville every night – were furious when in August 1986 it was decided that Cumbrian viewers would be switched to BBC Manchester and Stuart Hall from October 1986. A petition organised by the Evening News and Star showed that 96 per cent of Look North viewers were against the change, but the BBC refused to listen to our protests and arrogantly moved us to Manchester, where the region received even less coverage than it did under Look North as it was very Manchester-centric and Hall proved to be an irritating replacement for Mike Neville. After continued protests and poor ratings among Cumbrian viewers, the BBC finally relented and in September 1991 launched a huge advertising campaign with a photograph of Mike Neville to tell viewers that Look North was returning.

Grade should also recall what happened to a famous relative whose ATV empire was a mega region that until 1968 comprised of the Midlands on weekdays and London at weekends, with the bulk of the station’s massive revenue being concentrated in London while ATV Midlands made do with a shabby studio building constructed out of a cinema and shared with ABC Television until 1968, the Midlands part of ATV being treated as an afterthought. As part of the 1968 franchise shake up, Lew Grade was stripped of his London franchise, as it was felt ATV had too much power in ITV, and, although Grade had a new studio complex built in Birmingham, the company still kept its London offices and studios and seemed more concerned with exporting networked programmes than serving its region, leading to the comment, “you care more about Birmingham, Alabama, than Birmingham, England.” Viewers in the East Midlands in particular felt they were being neglected and complained that ATV covered too large an area.

In the 1981 franchise round ATV was restructured with a new board that saw Grade isolated and the station renamed Central, with the region split into two halves with the east having its own dedicated news service from Nottingham and the west continuing with regional news from Birmingham at the insistence of the IBA. Also the reconstructed Central began to divest itself of the past as the eighties continued: the famous Elstree studios were sold to the BBC in 1984, the new Lenton Lane studios in Nottingham took precedence over Birmingham for networked programmes and in 1987 the southern fringe of the region around Milton Keynes transferred to Anglia. Clearly the new regional set up in the Midlands was working in favour of a once neglected part of the ATV empire and by the nineties Central was a Nottingham based broadcaster, with the former ATV Centre now mainly a regional studio centre for Central West.

Although it is unlikely that regionalism of the ATV/ Central variety is to reappear in the modern world of ITV, Michael Grade should remember these two lessons from history that viewers hate having a familiar brand and presenters taken away from them and overly large, remotely run regions fail as viewers on the fringes cannot relate to them. Here’s hoping that for once Ofcom listen to Border’s viewers and save our station and Deekaround.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Polly Allen 17 February 2016 at 11:07 am

where is Clive Champney now and all the backroom boys that kep the station on air?

Steven Oliver 6 March 2021 at 3:32 pm

The transfer of Cumbria to BBC North West had unintended consequences for the Haltwhistle relay which, although in Northumberland, is a relay of Caldbeck. This meant that when Cumbria switched, the Haltwhistle area lost Look North as well.

I remember letters of complaint from viewers in Haltwhistle featuring on Look North’s weekly Write to Mike spot at the time, asking why they could no longer see him. Mike explained that there had been an oversight and that the situation would be resolved soon. The BBC feed at Haltwhistle was changed to Pontop Pike shortly afterwards, even being covered as a story on that evening’s Look North.

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