UTV part of plan to cut local news

It’s bitterly ironic that at a time when whole new political environments have been created by devolution, that ITV, once the UK’s premier channel and a nationally federated system, is being allowed to slash its regional news output. Local news programming is being sacrificed in a bid to halt the slow death of ITV as we know it. New decisions by the regulator Ofcom allows the company to cut information and other “public service” programmes in a bid to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive media world. Ulster Television although not part of the ITV company is also affected.

“ITV would be allowed a “modest reduction” of regional news minutage, by dropping some daytime news bulletins, and slashing regional non-news programming by 50% to 15 minutes per week in England and 1.5 hours in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

On UTV, weasel words from Ofcom, quoted in the Tele: “in response to audiences’ clear preferences Ofcom is particularly concerned to prioritise news.” Yet – “It has been proposed that UTV’s minimum hours of local news is to be reduced from five hours 20 minutes to four hours per week, while the weekly quota for ‘non-news’ will drop from three hours to one and a half hours in 2009.”
In Scotland, the Herald reports that “Vicki Nash, director of Ofcom in Scotland, said the current model of funding was “unsustainable”. “Extra funding from the Scottish Government will be needed,” she said. Sources suggest this funding could be as high as £10m” Accepting funding direct from government in Scotland’s highly politicised environment would be a very risky move.

Although the main ITV Wales news programme will be protected, a 20% cut in news output from 5 hours 20 minutes per week to 4 hours will see mid-morning and weekend bulletins axed. At least Wales also has its own dedicated bilingual channel, S4C .

With swingeing cuts hitting Channel 4 the onus for providing public service broadcasting including regional news falls ever more heavily on the BBC. Even so, with the effects of the credit crunch added, it’s becoming ever harder for the Corporation to resist top slicing the licence fee income to subsidise other broadcasters after digital switchover is phased in between next year and 2012. Whatever the range and proliferation of output platforms from phones to HDTV, the challenge will be give the lie to the Kingsley Amis’s bitter old maxim “more means worse.”

In the medium term, the best option for UTV, although very complex to set up, would be to seek a partnership with a broadcaster in the Republic, probably in a federation with TV3 or RTE, guaranteeing each editorial independence.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London