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12 April 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 11:23am

Move to Manchester? How to truly give the regions a voice in British TV

Before 1990, northern towns were producing TV shows that were distinctively local - and internationally successful. 

By James Cooray Smith

The announcement by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that the government had decided not to privatise Channel 4 came not only as a relief to the broadcaster’s thousand or so employees, but also something of a surprise to its viewers. It’s been repeatedly shown that people are, by and large, unaware the station is publicly owned. 

While the existential threat that privatisation represented was dispelled, DCMS secretary Karen Bradley had already lined up a replacement anxiety – she stated that Channel 4 may be asked to move out of London. Possibly even to the North. Channel 4’s outgoing chief executive David Abraham did not seem exactly enamoured of the suggestion. Which is a shame, because as an idea it has considerable merit.

The UK, it is often observed, is the only major western country where the governmental, financial and media centres are all in the same place. This results in a situation where, depending on your point of view, London either a) unfairly dominates everything, draining talent and money from the regions, or b) effectively underwrites the rest of the country while getting little apart from resentment in return. This is, at best, unfortunate and has probably contributed towards the current, toxic state of our national mood. 

The Times reported recently that The Guardian is looking at moving some operations away from its bullishly central, and yet weirdly inaccessible, headquarters at King’s Place, N1. The newspaper, though, is only looking at moving its sales team and perhaps its media support north to what is, after all, the formerly Manchester Guardian’s original home. Broadly though, government is unlikely to use legislation to push private media actors out of the capital, although some may go of their own accord.

Publicly-owned media outlets, though, are another matter. The Coalition government deprived BBC Television of its London home earlier this decade, but “Auntie” was arguably ahead of the game anyway. Since the mid-noughties, key BBC drama programmes, including Doctor Who, have been made in Cardiff, and the corporation is growing its Scottish operations in a manner that some see as anticipating Scottish independence. BBC Sport and BBC Radio 5 Live are now based in Manchester, and at least half of BBC Three’s staff will move there before 2018.

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Channel 4, too, should go north. But not to Manchester, given how much BBC and ITV production is already there. Media regionalisation needs to be involve movement to more than one place that isn’t London if it is to be meaningful. (The Wavertree Business Park would be a sensible bet for a plausible Liverpool home for a relocated Channel 4. A few minutes by car from Lime Street, it is already home to technology and production companies. It also has its own railway station, with an exit that serves the park exclusively.)

Earlier this decade, David Cameron’s government made some attempts to regionalise the media, by inviting bids for 51 local television stations in two franchise rounds across 2013 and 2014. Several regions only received a single bid, while Swansea and Plymouth initially received no bids at all. In addition, over a dozen regions failed to receive bids the government judged suitable and no award was made. The Birmingham franchise winner managed to go bust before it transmitted anything.

Even those local stations which operate manage little beyond studio discussion programmes and local news, and most are really only useful to people who both want to watch old episodes of The Secret Millionaire in the middle of the afternoon and can’t figure out how to use the All4 app. More significantly, the stations are local, rather than regional. They can only be watched in the local area around the transmitter. No one is going to try to do work that they think deserves wide exposure for them. It is noticeable that London Live, the local station with the largest potential audience is the only one to have made any significant attempt at coming up with programmes of its own. A situation that hardly helps with the capital’s dominance.

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What is striking about this failed initiative was that it was the previous Conservative government which, in the name of deregulation, dismantled the system of regional broadcasting that had existed since the 1950s. Before the 1990 Broadcasting Act, ITV was a federal organisation – a network of regional television broadcasters competing, not financially, but to put programmes onto a shared national network. 

You could often tell which ITV region produced a nationally networked programme. Whether it was Bristol-based HTV’s liking for family drama that drew on “celtic fringe” mythology or ATV Midlands’ (and later Central’s) setting of drama series like Public Eye and Boon in Birmingham. Nothing could be more emblematic of Thames’ subsidiary Euston Films than The Sweeney, while only Yorkshire Television could have made Rising Damp. When ITV had three popular soap operas, Coronation Street, Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm, they represented three different ideas of British life, urban, suburban and rural, and in very different parts of the country.

The franchises were distinctive because the process of applying for them was no mere auction. Ministers could reject a higher cash bid if they felt a lower one had more merit, and often did. There were rules in place to ensure programming reflected the area in which the franchise was located, and local production facilities, and thus local jobs, had to be guaranteed. The 1990 Act changed all that, and watered down the rules for the apportioning and regulating ITV franchises. (The previous regulator was sufficiently powerful that, acting for the Heath government, it was able to force one Rupert Murdoch from the chairmanship of ITV franchise LWT, judging that him holding that position while owning a newspaper was a breach of media plurality rules. In an act that seems astoundingly non-partisan by current standards, former Labour MP John Freeman was installed instead.)

For decades ITV companies tried to outdo each other creatively. In terms of prestige. LWT’s success, both here and in America, with Upstairs Downstairs prompted other ITV regions to attempt lavish period drama so as to not look like poor relations, a reaction which gave us Brideshead Revisited and Granada’s phenomenal 1977 adaptation of Dickens’ Hard Times. Ironically, an archly Thatcherite Act of Parliament killed any concept of real competition in ITV services stone dead, and instead created a slothful monopoly.

During the nineties, 13 of the 15 franchises of the federal ITV swallowed each other through mergers and buyouts, until only two were left, Granada and Carlton. Together they became ITV plc in 2002. Granada’s survival (it has existed since 1954) meant that the network did not become wholly London fixated, but its focus continues to move ever south. Old franchises such as Anglia and Meridian nominally still exist, but their branding has all but disappeared, and like this decade’s new local stations, they produce little in the way of programming, news excepted.

Such consequences of the 1990 Act have been widely criticised, including by people who were in the government that introduced it. Then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, and David Mellor, who was Arts minister when the Act was passed, have lamented some of the Act’s provisions. Most surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher herself came to regret some of its changes to the structure of ITV. When the rewritten rules led to TV-am, a broadcaster Thatcher regarded as exemplary, losing its franchise to GMTV in 1992, the by-then former Prime Minister personally apologised to TV-am’s chief executive, asserting that the Act’s changes were not aimed at franchisees like him. 

Should we condemn the present administration’s actions with regards to regionalising the media as hypocrisy, or celebrate the zeal of the convert? I want to do the latter, but I propose a test of their sincerity before I commit myself. If the government is serious about regionalising the media, there is a simple solution open to it. A new broadcasting act, repealing and replacing much of the 1990 legislation.

Once that’s done, there can be a return to a federal ITV, one that is a collection of regional franchises with their own local production bases and workforces. Television broadcasters and production facilities not just in a few large cities, but at dozens of sites across the UK. ITV regions with their own identities, competing to put programming of all kinds – drama, comedy, documentaries, light entertainment – onto a national network, as a showcase for the creativity and individuality of the part of the country the franchise has been appointed to serve.

It has worked before.