When I was a child, one of the most exciting things about going on holiday was that there would be a different ITV region. It’s true that I was an odd child. But I found something fascinating and thrilling about the country’s then-most commonly-watched channel having such a different look and feel depending on where you were watching it from.
It was still sort of the same channel. But a curiously different version of it. The local news had a different name. The schedule was inexplicably slightly different. And the idents. The glorious idents!
Those days are now gone. As rules surrounding ITV franchises were relaxed in the 1990s, ITV stations began merging with each other until just two were standing in England and Wales — Granada and Carlton. It wasn’t long until they also merged, to create ITV plc.
In Northern Ireland, UTV remained independent until 2016, when it was finally swallowed up by ITV plc. Scotland retains STV, which is itself a merger of Scottish Television and Grampian Television.
When I was born, there were 15 different ITV regions. Each was supposed to reflect their local communities, and each fed programmes into the wider network. It would be a point of pride for some people to see a programme from their area being broadcast across the country.
That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.
Today, there are just two companies running the whole show. One covers most of Scotland; the other covers the rest of the UK.
Can it be a coincidence that so many people now think the media has become too London-centric?
There seems to be consensus that the media is too centralised in the UK. There is a problem with the lack of local representation and diversity in the UK media.
All sorts of remedies have been pursued in recent years.
First, under pressure to decentralise, the BBC set up a major base in Salford, moving huge chunks of its output to the north.
Then, when Jeremy Hunt was culture secretary, he came up with a bird-brained scheme to set up highly unsustainable network of local TV stations. The BBC was required to provide funding towards the setting up of the network, and for news reports made by the new stations (most of which were unusable).
But the plans were so unrealistic that five years into the scheme, Ofcom has said it will stop the creation of new local TV stations. Meanwhile, the stations that had been set up so far have all reduced the amount of local programming they’re required to show.
Moreover, most of the local licenses are now owned by one company, That’s TV. Their current template is to re-broadcast shopping channels in the morning; cheaply-bought low-quality repeats, and black and white films during the afternoon; and one local news bulletin on a loop all evening.
In other words, Jeremy Hunt’s local TV scheme is not local at all. It’s just an expensive, low-quality network.
Most recently, Channel 4 has announced that it will move its headquarters to Leeds. This move was forced on it by the government, who had previously looked into privatising Channel 4.
All these schemes have taken place to make the media less London-centric. Yet, ITV is increasingly centralised. This, despite the fact that ITV is the one channel that was supposed to provide local TV in the first place.
Surely the government should look more seriously at ITV to solve the problems facing local TV, rather than putting the BBC and Channel 4 through the wringer. After all, no-one has done more in the past 25 years to centralise the media than ITV.