Putting Viewers Somewhere: Part 2

Part 1: (Thursday) General
Part 2 (Friday): Regional/local broadcasting
Part 3 (Monday): Looking forward to Digital Britain

Ofcom has approved some changes to ITV’s news commitments, varying from region to region but all in the downward direction. Worth reading both the relevant sections of the report and the short-term document (and responses are sought so get writing!). Here’s a few quick thoughts.

In the report, the comments on regional and local broadcasting are, in the first instance, depressing. We see from the intervention of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Culture, Arts & Leisure committee that Ofcom tells them (wait for it) that the reduced obligations for regional programmes is ‘a floor, not a ceiling’. I don’t know how anyone kept a straight face through that – given the persistent requests from ITV licencees for reducing the obligations, can we really expect that when Ofcom grants them their wish, they’ll turn around and deliver more than the bare minimum? On the other hand, there’s a very open-minded analysis of the possibilities of a network of (very) local programming in section 10, though the conclusion is limited to further research being required.

There is some astonishing focus group work that I really hope Ofcom didn’t rely upon, where groups of about 25 people in a given region were asked to vote on whether they approved of reducing regional news quotas and changing sub-regional obligations. Now I’m prepared to accept that leaving Parliament in charge of broadcast micro-management has its problems, and that independent regulation provides important democratic safeguards, but seriously – if the independence comes through giving 25 people (whether random or oh-so-carefully chosen) a hearing on how much local news should be on TV, I’d rather go back to a committee of 25 MPs and take my chances with that. Not to mention that, to take the area I live in as an example, they picked 25 people in Bedford (and only Bedford) and asked them whether merging the sub-region that Bedford is in (Anglia West) with Anglia East (Norfolk, Suffolk & Essex) was a good idea – at least if we got the MPs from the region there’d at least be some balance! I don’t have a direct interest in this matter, being merely a blow-in, but it’s hard to see how any conclusions can be drawn from the study. Whatever about the quality of the research, this is no way to form public policy.

And one thing for the future: Ofcom responds to (but without reaching firm conclusions on) the outcome of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in section 10 of its (Ofcom’s) report. The excellent SBC report has been overlooked somewhat in the media summaries so it’s good to see Ofcom dealing with it. The idea of a Scottish digital network/channel is certainly worth exploring. At some stage, I do hope to post in more detail about another quiet Scottish development, the launch of the BBC ALBA channel last year.

It’s hard to summarise Ofcom’s approach to these issues, and perhaps that’s the point – there’s no single, pithy answer, but a package of answers that perhaps contradict each other. I don’t agree with all parts of the solutions they are proposing (or not proposing) but it’s good to see the matter being given some attention, and also encouraging to see how many individuals and small organisations have taken the time to argue in favour of good quality local, regional and (devolved-) national broadcasting.

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