Cuts sweep through ITV regions

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THE second expensive edition of Calendar introduced by ITV Yorkshire early last year looks set to be among the victims of boss Michael Grade’s attempt to cut costs.

Leaks from regulator Ofcom towards the end of August suggested that the broadcasting mogul may get his way.

Reports in The Guardian hinted that Ofcom would allow the commercial broadcaster to cut its regional news operation by a fifth and halve its commitment to other regional programmes for England and Wales.

Although devastating, the cuts – if predicted accurately – would not be quite as bad as had been feared.

Nevertheless, staff at the Calendar news headquarters on Kirkstall Road in Leeds remain none the wiser about their jobs as they wait for Ofcom to confirm formally just how extensive Grade’s cuts to ITV’s regional news will be.

Ofcom had initially been expected to rule on plans to cut ITV’s 6pm regional news programmes from 14 to nine in the spring, but the regulator issued an interim report on public service broadcasting obligations for consultation, putting back the company’s hopes for making savings.

Their final official decision is now expected some time in the autumn.

ITV chairman and chief executive Michael Grade stunned managers as well as staff throughout the company when he revealed his plans nearly 12 months ago.

Among those proposals was a plan for the Border region, served from Carlisle, to disappear almost entirely. A single 6pm news programme, based in studios in Newcastle, would cover an area stretching from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Barrow-in-Furness.

Since then, ITV has faced increasing pressures despite maintaining advertising revenues in the face of this year’s economic downturn in the UK.

Last month, the company reported a 28 per cent drop in its profits. Revenues for August were expected to be down 20 per cent, with a 17 per cent year-on-year fall predicted for 2008.

Speaking publicly at the time, Mr Grade blamed much of the analogue legacy in a digital age for the company’s plight. Although Freeview transmissions will reflect long-standing analogue patterns when the ‘digital switchover’ is completed in 2012, broadcasters appear to be using the transition as an excuse to undermine the concept of regional broadcasting.

‘As soon as ITV pulls out of the regions,
the BBC will too’
BBC insider

While not specifically mentioning the editorial divisions based on the positioning of analogue television transmitters 50 years ago, analysts have seen the apparent ‘duplication’ of programming at 6pm as disproportionately costly.

The Financial Times reported that Mr Grade saw the company’s fortunes being influenced most by the weakening advertising market, Sky’s 18 per cent shareholding and regulatory constraints.

Consequently, ITV has been lobbying Ofcom hard for changes. So too have the NUJ and other broadcast unions.

More than 13,000 viewers from the Border region sent in postcards condemning the threat to Lookaround, a programme which has regularly been a ratings topper in the region.

The regulator has so far received more than 2,500 cards from other parts of the country and 700 e-mails backing the unions’ case to protect ITV regional news.

The NUJ, through its parliamentary group which is co-chaired by former Calendar presenter Austin Mitchell, pictured, has also been lobbying MPs to put pressure on both ITV and the regulator.

NUJ broadcasting officer Paul McLaughlin said: ‘We will fight against these sweeping cuts and continue to call for a funding mechanism that preserves regional and local news for the future.

‘Ofcom should listen properly to the thousands of concerned viewers who have sent in their views and rethink its plans.”

Last year, introducing a second live edition of Calendar is thought to have cost the company between £500,000 and £1m. Local managers were reportedly as surprised as journalists when Michael Grade revealed his plans.

In the meantime, others have said that the BBC is only maintaining its regional operations while it is implicitly forced to do by the presence of ITV.

‘As soon as ITV pulls out of the regions, the BBC will too,’ one BBC insider has said.

Ironically, a party to celebrate the programme’s 40th anniversary took place less than a week before ITV’s profits plunge was announced. Calendar went on the air on July 29, 1968.

One of those who attended told the Yorkshire Post that the event was ‘more like a wake’ than joyful.

‘There was a lot of navel-gazing and looking back at a golden age, rather than celebrating the 40th birthday. There were quite a few tearful people there.’

Although regional news programming has long had a place in the hearts of viewers, happenings and mishaps brought images from Calendar to screens across the nation, firstly when a ferret dug its teeth into Richard Whiteley’s finger in 1977 and more recently in 1993, when the Holbeck Hall Hotel collapsed into the sea at Scarborough while the programme was live on-air.

The strength of such programmes seem unappreciated by London-based executives, even though they have won huge audiences over the years.

Originally written for Leeds News, the newsletter of the Leeds branch of the National Union of Journalists.

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