Greg Dyke on broadcasting

ITV's regional programming is set to turn politically nasty
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The Independent Online

The great regional television debate is about to get under way and it could get nasty. Proposals by Ofcom to allow the various ITV regional companies to significantly reduce the amount of regional programming they broadcast are, not surprisingly, under political attack.

The great regional television debate is about to get under way and it could get nasty. Proposals by Ofcom to allow the various ITV regional companies to significantly reduce the amount of regional programming they broadcast are, not surprisingly, under political attack.

Anyone who has been involved in broadcasting during the past 30 years knows only too well the power of the television lobby in the UK if it gets aroused. And there is no doubt it is getting aroused. All the signs are there to suggest this is about to become a big political issue, and that the first major bust up between Parliament and Ofcom is set to happen. The fact that the independent regulator's own research shows that people don't particularly value a lot of the regional programming shown and that in the future ITV will struggle to pay for it, is largely seen as irrelevant. In these sort of battles, the facts are rarely allowed to stand in the way of prejudice.

Last week, Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, weighed in on the side of the regions when he sympathised with the views of MPs who complained that the Ofcom proposals would mean a lot less regional programming. The Ofcom reply - that it is not saying ITV should produce less regional programmes, but that it just wants to reduce the minimum requirement - won't wash. Regional programming has always been a straight cost for ITV. And an ITV under pressure from shareholders to make bigger profits is bound to make the bare minimum.

In recent years, the amount spent in the various ITV regions on regional programming has been cut dramatically, although the number of hours produced in each ITV region has been maintained because of ITV licence commitments. Reduce those commitments and the hours broadcast will be cut too.

This comes at a time when the BBC's commitment to regional programming has increased. One of the most surprising facts to emerge from Ofcom's recent review of public service television was to discover that the BBC is spending significantly more on regional programming than ITV. This change is very recent. Between 2001 and 2003, ITV cut its spending on regional programming by 14 per cent, while the BBC increased its spend by 18 per cent. As a result, the BBC spent £201m last year, while ITV spent £155m. By comparison in 1999, ITV spent £185m and the BBC £152m. This change has had a significant impact on ratings. In almost every region in England, the BBC's regional news programmes have overtaken ITV's - something which was unthinkable a decade ago.

This was the point that two Labour MPs - James Purnell and Andy Burnham - were making in their criticisms of Ofcom in the House of Commons last week. Their point was: if you spend less and less on regional programming, the quality decreases and people watch it less. Hardly rocket science.

But ITV today is run by accountants - the sort of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing - and they are unlikely to respond to pressure without a threat or a bribe.

So what's to be done? Soon Ofcom will announce how much the ITV companies will have to pay the Government for their licences for the rest of the decade. All it has to do is say it will reduce the amount further to ensure current levels of regional programming are maintained, and name the price. This works for Ofcom, because the decision is then with Parliament, which will have to choose to receive the bigger or lesser amount. It works for the regional MPs, because they will have ensured regional programming is maintained on ITV for the rest of the decade, at least. It works for Hain, because he will have a significant success under his belt.

It's the perfect solution, with two provisos. Firstly, the Treasury might not be too happy, as they are a bit short of cash. And secondly, how do you make sure ITV spends the money on regional programmes and doesn't just pocket the cash and continue to produce hours and hours of cheap regional programming?

Janet: bellowing with age

Watching Janet Street-Porter on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! has brought back memories for me, some good, some bad, and some just frightening. I was Janet's producer for 18 very long months more than 20 years ago, and it's good to see that she hasn't changed a lot over the years. Some people mellow with age. Not Janet.

Janet was never what you would call a shrinking violet; she always had strong opinions and didn't mind with whom she shared them. Whether you loved her or hated her - and I was always a reluctant fan - you always knew she was around.

We worked together on a programme in London called The Six O'Clock Show. I was the editor and Janet was the number-two presenter to Michael Aspel. Now, Janet hated being number two to anyone, and would hammer away at me all the time to give her a bigger role and more to do. The trouble was, she hated the London working-class image that we had created for her on the show.

It came to a head one day when she walked into my office after a day of filming an item about pigeon-fanciers. At the top of her voice, she said that she didn't want to be seen as a "fucking working-class hero any more". She wanted the world to know that she liked "fucking opera not fucking pigeons".

I do miss her - sometimes.

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