Gone but never forgotten 

19 March 2009 tbs.pm/1835

Map of the UK

Simon Luxton originally wrote this article on the end of ITV regionalism in 2002, but we are re-publishing it now as a tribute to him. Simon passed away on March 3 and his passing represents a sad loss to all of us who are interested in the story of broadcasting in this country.

At the time of his death, Simon was working on a series about Grange Hill for Transdiffusion. However we would also like to remember him as a cogent commentator on today’s television as well as yesterday’s. As this item was written in 2002, some things have changed, but the article represents a good example of Simon’s writing.

We at Transdiffusion send our condolences to Simon’s family, friends and colleagues.

“This is ATV providing your programmes on the Midlands transmitters of the Independent Broadcasting Authority”. “You’re watching HTV, ITV1 in Wales.” “This is Carlton, television for London”.

Even with two giants controlling most franchises, the regional touch is still there in ITV1 presentation. But not for much longer. On 11 June, ITV1 announced plans to drop regional names in favour of its own brand in peaktime. The regional names, which have introduced programmes since ITV began in 1955, will be consigned to introducing local output only.

It’s been on the cards for a while but remains a bitter pill to swallow. In a bid to modernise ITV1’s image, the channel has appointed new executives who would reportedly banish regional names altogether if they could. To do so would be a political impossibility, but to even have had the idea indicates these men needed to be shown the door before they had even set foot in it.

ITV1 first dabbled with a generic ident over Christmas 2001, albeit in the Granada regions only. Many viewers were upset at not seeing the local company’s name before programmes – protests actually appeared in local newspapers.

But ITV clearly thought the level of complaints was negligible – the next ITV1 ident, promoting the Brit Awards, went out in all regions in February. Carlton still modified the sequence to include their own name.

The latest generic ident appeared in June to mark the Golden Jubilee. This time Carlton made no alterations.

A centralised look for ITV has never had an easy ride. When the channel first attempted a generic look in 1989, several regions refused the common identity as it did not fit in with their on-screen image. By 1993 nearly all regions were back using their own presentation styles. Yet for the ITV brand this was a temporary setback.

The launch of ITV’s present identity in 1998 coincided with the formation of the Network Promotions Unit (NPU), producing generically branded versions of the programme promotions which regions once did themselves. Then came dual branding in 1999 – both ITV and regional logos were seen before programmes but with the regional name always dominant. Will individual regions boycott the new look? With only two remaining, it’s doubtful, but we’ll have to see.

At the end of the day, presentation is merely a cosmetic touch for any TV station. But for ITV1 it symbolises a decade of change in which regional franchises have been increasingly devalued. Since Carlton took over Central in 1994, many jobs have been lost in the Midlands and eventually the Central brand itself followed the former employees.

Granada, meanwhile, have axed five regional presentation departments in favour of centralised continuity from Leeds and Southampton, at the expense of many, including the very popular Colin Weston. The biggest losers, however, are those served by Carlton regions – viewers wanting slivers of information about local programming now have to telephone a centralised information line in Birmingham, which often has no idea about regional matters. Bad news for the Devon farmer used to a proper regional service.

Can ITV ever become the great service it once was? This would by rather difficult with the current executives in charge – most jobs within ITV are now freelance with staff posts growing ever fewer. Contracts are getting shorter, and any staff member who rocks the boat can easily be replaced with little comeback. Now is the time for another ITV strike, you might say. But with such working conditions employees are putting their livelihoods before making a stand. Effectively, the 1990 Broadcasting Act turned ITV companies from viewer-serving broadcasters into self-serving concerns.

What a clueless bunch of muppets those in charge of modern television are. The last 18 months have seen the ITV1’s popularity plunge, largely due to increased advertising, soap overkill and the backbone regional programmes increasingly being relegated to ghetto slots. 2002 has been a disastrous year for TV on the whole, with BBC-1’s unpopular rebrand and the collapse of ITV Digital. Dropping regional brands won’t make ITV1 great again – it will only inflict further damage that will take the station years to recover from.

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