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Accusations mark demise of West Country station

SOME 100 employees who are survivors of the West Country's defeated station, TSW, will mark the end of the year with a Fade to Black party in Plymouth tonight.

Only about a dozen have been invited to join the 112 staff operating the new station, Westcountry TV, covering Cornwall, Devon and western parts of Dorset and Somerset. Other regional companies, such as Meridian in Southampton, have made a better job of assimilation. A year after being promised that they would get first crack of the whip on the WTV pay roll, many TSW people face 1993 on the dole.

Mark Clare, WTV's press officer, claimed that TSW people who were offered jobs were ignored or dispatched on nonsensical stories by TSW to punish them for jumping ship. This is strenuously denied by Susan Rolling, TSW's press officer. Mr Clare said that the reasons for TSW's grief in its hour of defeat were two-fold.

The main one was that TSW, which offered pounds 16.12m (against WTV's pounds 7.28m) to renew its franchise, failed to convince the Independent Television Commission that its bid was financially realistic or that it crossed the quality threshold. TSW appealed all the way to the House of Lords and lost. Mr Clare said delays caused by the judicial review forced dramatic changes in WTV's plans to recruit 160 staff and build seven out-stations.

These have been reduced (temporarily and with ITC approval, Mr Clare said) to three. John Prescott Thomas, managing director of Westcountry, said all stations would be operating before the end of next year - well ahead of the ITC's 1994 deadline.

Amid charges of vindictiveness (from TSW) and sour grapes (from WTV), the other factor to emerge is what Mr Clare calls WTV's philosophy of 'cultural change', a euphemism for tight budgeting. Journalist salaries, at pounds 19,000 to pounds 24,000 are well below the pounds 30,000 to pounds 40,000 offered in other regions and have tended to attract people from radio. WTV will be a non-union shop, its staff expected to work flexible hours. There are only five company cars, none worth more than pounds 20,000, against TSW's 70. 'It's what life's about now,' said Mr Clare. 'Quite a number of TSW people have been offered jobs but didn't accept them because of the conditions. Many felt they weren't able to make the cultural change. Those that have are absolutely delighted. This company's all about people having fun in their work.'

WTV, now housed on an industrial estate outside Plymouth and taking its main ITV input via an old Channel 4 transmitter at HTV in Cardiff, sees its role as a regional production company with 80 per cent of features output contracted out to independent producers.

The home-built flagship will be an hour-long, early evening weekday news and feature magazine, Westcountry Live. Jan Walsh, from the Daily Mirror, will run a campaigning consumer programme and an occasional series, The West at Work, will be presented by Ruth Langsford, a former TSW continuity announcer.

Children will be entertained on Saturday mornings with a series about youngsters setting up a pirate television station on Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound.

WTV's promises are under critical analysis, not least its pledge to increase TSW's old regional output by more than one-third to 11 hours a week. According to figures issued by TSW, WTV's real output in its first week's schedule - excluding repeats - is to be just nine hours and five minutes.