Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thoughts from the Train: Digital Britain - not exactly commemorating Lord Reith's death...

There is a certain irony in the fact that, on this day in 1971, Lord Reith passed away. Doubtless he would have been horrified by some of the content that his beloved BBC now transmits, but the concept of a public sector broadcaster, providing quality programming for the nation, still exists.

My more economically liberal friends probably rail against the idea of state broadcasting but, given the slide in standards at both ITV and Channel 4, and the increasing number of digital channels that churn out a stream of repeats, we should perhaps be grateful that someone is still producing original material. Unusually though, I'm going to make common cause with them over the issue of state support for the production of ITV regional news programmes.

The proposal that a slice of the £3.6 billion that is assigned to fund the BBC be used to encourage ITV to retain what regional news content it still has and expand provision seems to be meddling with the market. If, as my free marketeer friends suggest, the market will supply what consumers want, it is apparent that consumers don't want local news via their television set.

There is a good reason for this. The original set up of ITV, with smaller regional franchises strongly rooted in their communities, encouraged the franchise holder to reach out to those they served. The umbrella organisation that linked them all ensured that stations like Border or Grampian benefitted from the ability of larger stations to produce mainstream drama, whilst they concentrated on the odd nationally franchised show like Mr & Mrs or How!. Regional news reached down to smaller communities and addressed their concerns in an accessable way.

However, as efforts were made to boost profit levels, the amalgamation of regional franchises led to an inevitable loss of local facilities. Regional studios went quickly, in favour of coverage from one centralised location. What hope for coverage of Northamptonshire if the regional news is produced in Norwich? Why watch the news in Braintree if the coverage is of events in Ely? As for coverage of sub-national politics that isn't London dominated, seek in vain.

It was my fond hope that the digital revolution would lead to a blossoming of very local broadcasting, produced at low cost by volunteer community broadcasters. Indeed, such experiments took place in places like Aarhus, Denmark, as I saw for myself twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the rise of the internet put paid to that. The ability to produce material at home, using a webcam and a laptop, means that you don't need to go to a studio to broadcast. With decent broadband, I could probably create Radio Creeting St Peter and broadcast spoken word programming to my heart's content were I to be so inclined.

I would leave the BBC to produce regional news content, using their range of options, television, radio and internet, to reach people, and leave the commercial sector to its own devices. Perhaps sometimes, if only sometimes, it's better not to buck the market...

1 comment:

Tristan said...

Rather a Catch 22 you present with tax funded broadcasting:
It crowds out competitors who don't have the assured income. Then you say this demonstrates the need for tax funded broadcasters.

The market is unfortunately well and truly bucked, and has been since the beginning of broadcasting. I suspect that in a freed market broadcasting may have developed in a rather different direction, although such 'what if' games are unfortunately pure intellectual exercises (until we invent a way of travelling to parallel universes ;) )