'ITV must remember the North'

The merger of two southern media giants threatens to shift ITV's centre of gravity to the South - and with it, thousands of jobs. This should not happen, says Lancashire MP Phil Woolas

For the last 40 years, the North West has seen whole industries almost disappear. Textiles, coal mining, and the Liverpool docks have between them lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

For the last 40 years, the North West has seen whole industries almost disappear. Textiles, coal mining, and the Liverpool docks have between them lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But new industries have emerged. At the end of this year, television will celebrate a landmark anniversary - 40 years of Coronation Street, the proud symbol in 1960 of a nascent commercial television network.

Like Granada - our local TV station - Coronation Street is also a symbol of the North West. As well as providing entertainment to millions of viewers, Coronation Street and Granada Television provide and underpin jobs in the region, and promote it, not just within Britain, but on a world stage.

A recent report by the Manchester Business School found that Granada provides and supports 5,500 jobs in the North West, as well as boosting regional income by some £188m every year. When you add in the value of promoting the region for tourism, and of highlighting the area to potential investors, you rapidly begin to see why ITV companies are so critical to their regions.

Granada is a northern success story in an economy which is centred on the south. It is the strongest company in ITV investing in regional production and regional programming. ITV pivots on a Manchester axis. Otherwise television is a southern business. The BBC's regional effort is weak. Independent production is mostly found in the few streets of London's Soho.

As we accelerate into a new communications revolution, with new technologies breaking down barriers to information and generating new economic growth, northern MPs, businesses and local authorities are all determined to maintain the north's strength in television as the basis for building a real digital economy.

That is why we are so concerned about the current Competition Commission report under consideration by Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary. Carlton and United want to merge into a powerful southern bloc. If successful, ITV's centre of gravity will shift south and, with it, advertising revenue and jobs.

Today, every southern ITV viewer is worth twice as much to an advertiser as their northern equivalent. But the relative wealth of the southern licences has been mitigated by two factors. First, Granada is a strong regional company which also owns a wealthy southern licence, LWT. And second, the three big ITV companies - Carlton, United and Granada - balance each other. Advertisers have to deal with three companies of roughly the same size.

Allow Carlton and United to merge and you will destroy the balance. The new company will be twice the size of Granada and will control three of the four richest southern licences.

The new company will be able to dominate the strategic decision making of ITV as it moves into new media markets and fights to retain viewers without having any reference to the needs of northern audiences. Programming will begin to reflect southern priorities and southern attitudes.

For the north, the results could be catastrophic. Investment will drain away from the largest regionally based media company at precisely the time a step change is needed to match the needs of new technologies. And the ability of the northern companies to invest in high quality production will be undermined.

Original production is expensive but it is central to ITV's character. Not just Coronation Street but also programmes like A Touch of Frost or Heartbeat take regional dramas on to a national stage, while retaining hubs of creativity and production across the UK. Carlton Central's Birmingham production has all but disappeared. Northern MPs are not prepared for the north's to go the same way.

Mr Byers's decision will be crucial and has ramifications far beyond just simply who owns most licences in ITV. It will determine whether the regional structure of ITV survives at all to take its unique strengths forwards into the new technological world.

We have had a few north/south controversies over the last couple of years. Handled poorly, this could be another one of them. The future of ITV in the north has the potential to become one of the major issues of the summer. MPs on all sides of the House are determined that a north/south divide - such a debilitating feature of so many industrial sectors - will not be allowed to undermine ITV as well.

Mr Byers has a tough job ahead. The media industry is complicated. No doubt complex formulae have been devised by economists and lawyers to govern the future structure of ITV. But I believe that, in practical terms, what needs to be achieved is clear: there must be no effective monopoly of the southern half of ITV. Consolidation must result in two ITV companies of roughly equal size and power within ITV. That way, the north will retain a strong regional television presence and both big companies will have an interest in the whole of ITV and its viewers.

To some people, Coronation Street is about a poor bit of the north. But it is much more than that. Forty years on, it is ITV. Its outstanding success in regional production; its commercial success both home and abroad; its deep regional roots and culture; and also its massive export potential. It is not just something worth preserving. It represents what we can achieve in the future in making the north home to jobs and investment in television and other creative industries.

 

Phil Woolas is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. He was a journalist at ITV South and then a producer at BBC's 'Newsnight' and 'Channel Four News' and then was head of communications at the GMB Union until his election in 1997

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