Ofcom moves to ease regional fears

ITV regulator Ofcom has denied that that its proposals to relax ITV's regional obligations are a "done deal."

Speaking at a conference on the future of regional TV in Manchester on Thursday 4 November Ofcom's project leader Robin Foster and Content Board advisor Sarah Thane both insisted that Ofcom's proposals for the future of public service broadcasting were the subject of genuine and continuing consultation.

Representatives from ITV unions are now due to meet on 8 November in London to give further thought to the industry unions' formal submissions to Ofcom. BECTU's full submission will be posted on the union's website after submission to Ofcom.

Union efforts to protect regional programme-making in ITV have already been boosted by a wave of support from newspapers around the country (See below).

In its wide-ranging Phase 2 report into the future of PSB, Ofcom proposes that non-news regional output (out of peak) be cut from 3 hours a week to 1.5 hours from January 2005. Ofcom's review also places a significant and grave question mark over the entire sustainability of regional programmes and regional news output in the face of digital switchover.

BECTU had challenged Ofcom on the integrity of the consultation following an email issued by Granada TV MD, Susan Woodward, to all staff on the day Ofcom's Phase 2 report was published, saying that ITV now had the go-ahead to "reduce their regional non-news commitment from 3 hours to 1.5 hours a week from January 2005". BECTU was aware that ITV had been lobbying hard for the cuts from at least July.

In response to BECTU's challenge, Ofcom, at the most senior level, insists that a genuine consultation is in place and yet at the same time the regulator also says it has no powers to influence how ITV runs its business.

"Ofcom's repeated insistence on outputs not inputs is getting a touch wearing. How can it stand by and let ITV make plans to cut staff from January and maintain its independence and integrity as the regulator leading an industry consultation?" asked Sharon Elliott, BECTU independent broadcasting official.

BECTU has had substantial contact with Ofcom this year, particularly in a union campaign against the loss of 600 jobs at ITV in the Midlands and Southampton. On both issues Ofcom said it had now powers to intervene.

As the regulator's PSB consultation continues BECTU will be pressing for early and detailed insight into Ofcom's plans for the BBC to assume principal responsibility for public service broadcasting in the UK and the regional element within that.

"One encouraging point to emerge from the IPPR event is the possibility of agreement that change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary to minimise damage to commercial regional TV and to its staff. Both BECTU and PACT agree that timing is important and Ofcom does appear willing to listen on this issue" commented Sharon Elliott.

The BBC were represented at the Manchester event - organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) - by Pat Loughrey, Director of Nations and Regions. Mr Loughrey trailed further details of the BBC's review of operations as part of the Charter Renewal process.

According to Mr Loughrey the BBC intends to manage £1 billion of the BBC's income from the regions linked to the location of 50 per cent of the BBC's staff outside London. Mr Loughrey promised that a top-level announcement on the plan would be made in December.

"Surely it is time to halt the acute waste of resources evidenced by multiple redundancies and constant reviews of operations across the industry going back years?" argued Sharon Elliott.

"Ofcom says it review of PSB is about maintaining and strengthening PSB - if that is the case then time must be factored in to allow for change without jettisoning the programme making resources we have at ITV in pursuit of a new era for PSB" Elliott continued.

Regional press rushes to defend ITV regions

In response to Ofcom's Public Services Broadcast Review, local newspapers across the country have been running stories on the threat posed to the ITV Regions. Stories have appeared in papers from Plymouth to Newcastle, South Wales to East Anglia. This is a selection of headlines and comments that have appeared in the last week:

"Regional TV faces digital death - Granada Reports faces the axe in the next decade, along with all of ITV's regional programming, under radical proposals forming part of an Ofcom consultation document"
Manchester Evening News

"Is TV's local touch about to disappear? It sounds like the end of the regional broadcaster as we know it"
Eastern Daily Press (East Anglia)

"Local output may go down the tube - Plans to cut in half the amount of ITV regional programme-making were denounced as criminal and deplorable in the North-East last night"
The Journal (Morning newspaper in the North East)

"Assembly Member launches fight to save ITV Wales - A Labour AM has launched a campaign to defeat plans which could result in the end of independent television produced in Wales"
Western Mail (South Wales)

"Lets keep our local TV switched on"
Western Morning News (Plymouth)

"Concerns are growing about the future of broadcasting from Bristol - As ITV prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year with a series of special programmes, many of the staff at the Bath Roadstudios may be out of a job".
Bristol Evening Post


Meanwhile, BECTU members continue to send postcards calling on their MP's to "Save the ITV Regions".

The Union is in the process of submitting our response to the Public Service Broadcast Review as part of Ofcom's consultation process. Viewers, media organisations, people employed in the broadcasting industry, and anyone concerned about the future of television are invited to respond to the Ofcom Review by writing to Ofcom at Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA, marking your letter "PSB Review - Phase 2 Response".

The ITV Unions - BECTU, Amicus and the NUJ - are meeting on 8th November to formulate a joint strategy to the threat posed to Regional Independent Television and the jobs of people working in ITV.

6 November 2004