ITV could no longer be required to produce regional news from 2011, with local news instead provided by a competitively funded independent consortium in each region, under new plans outlined today by Ofcom.
The media regulator has this morning given ITV the permission to merge its regional news operations and cut its output to three-and-a-quarter hours a week in England.
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The restructuring, which is likely to take effect within the next two months, is the first step in a process that could allow ITV – and Five – to be freed from most of their public service commitments and become purely commercial broadcasters in the future.
In the short term, the relaxation will mean ITV’s 17 news regions across England, Wales and the Scottish borders will be merged into nine, but all of the sub-regions will continue to have their own dedicated bulletin every evening after the News at Ten.
Ofcom said the move would enable ITV to concentrate on providing regional news when the most people are watching. The news requirements for STV in Scotland, UTV in northern Ireland and ITV Wales will be slightly higher than England, at four hours a week.
The regulator received 33 responses to its consultation on the proposed changes – almost all of which were opposed, although some were “reluctantly accepting” of the reasons for the move.
“Generally, the comments expressed regret about any diminution of the current output, without putting forward alternatives that would be viable in the economic circumstances,” Ofcom said.
Although the regulator confirmed it was looking at a proposed regional news partnership between ITV and the BBC, it said this was unlikely to be enough to safeguard local broadcast journalism in the longer term.
“Given the risks and uncertainties, Ofcom believes that the Government should plan for an alternative way of securing regional news for the devolved nations and English regions from 2011,” it said.
Ofcom has recommended a new way of delivering regional news through “consortia funded by competitive tender”. This would include the setting up of a competitive fund making money available to support news from the devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland.
Funding for regional news could come from a number of sources, including the so-called “switchover surplus” – the £130m a year sum included in the licence fee to promote digital switchover. Other options include direct public funding and imposing levies on industry revenues.
“Decisions on many of these matters are needed within the next year, as the current model of commercial public service broadcasting is clearly no longer sustainable,” Ofcom added.
“We recognise that difficult choices will need to be made about the use of scarce resources.”
ITN chief executive Mark Wood said the broadcaster welcomed Ofcom’s conclusions.
“[The] review recognises the importance of continued strong independent news provision on ITV and Channel 4 and the need to maintain choice against the BBC,” he said.
‘We are supportive of the regulator’s proposals to safeguard the future of regional news and agree that it would be entirely possible to design a competitive tender for funding of these services.
‘Our expertise in regional TV news output means ITN is well-placed to take on responsibility for managing regional news operations and, if funding were available, we would certainly commit to bidding to secure the contract.’
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said the union was concerned about the contestable funding model being proposed by Ofcom.
“I can’t exactly say we’re surprised by today’s announcement,” he said. “It was clear even before the latest consultation that a deal between Ofcom and ITV had already been struck.
“Ofcom claims that it has been unfairly criticised for dancing to ITV’s tune. But in getting caught up in its policy strategies, the regulator seems to have failed to understand its responsibilities to citizens.
“Once these local services are lost it will become immensely difficult to recover them. All that blue skies thinking won’t be much consolation to people losing their local news programmes over the coming weeks.”
MPs from the cross-party NUJ Parliamentary Group said they had “grave concerns” about ITV reducing its PSB provision.
John McDonnell said: “If we are to ensure the future of high-quality public service broadcasting, we need more than another lengthy strategy report that at best provides stopping gaps to preserve limited PSB over the next few years and at worst has allowed ITV to slash provision which will mean more important local services are lost.
“Now is the time for elected parliamentarians, representing the millions of people who watch PSB, to work with journalists to create a vision of a sustainable future for what is the lifeblood of our democracy – by protecting the BBC and fully investigating the use of regulatory assets.”
The Voice of the Listener and Viewer said it was “dismayed” that ITV was being allowed to lose many of its public service requirements.
Chairman Richard Lindley said: “If ITV, with all its resources, can no longer afford to provide public service broadcasting, why should Channel 4, in partnership with a commercial company, be able to do any better?”