ITV commits to regional news 'for years to come'

ITV director of regions Michael Jermey has described reports that the broadcaster is pulling out of regional news as ‘premature’.

Jermey told an industry conference in Manchester yesterday that some of the coverage about the proposed restructuring of ITV’s regional news operation had been “rather less well-informed than it should have been”.

He stressed that the broadcaster remained “very much in the regional news game” until at least 2012 and said the group’s proposals – which will see the merger of 17 news regions into nine larger areas – was a better alternative to imposing across-the-board cuts.

Last month, Ofcom provisionally approved the proposals, subject to a further period of public consultation which is due to close on 4 December.

Unions have complained that ITV is presenting the cuts as a fait accompli. The broadcaster is already consulting on 429 job losses in the regions.

“There have been points in the past year when I know what Mark Twain must have felt like when the New York Journal prematurely reported his death,” Jermey told the Ofcom conference on public service broadcasting at the University of Salford.

“If your world view is conditioned by some of the past year’s press coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that the game was up.

“We plan to continue to deliver well-resourced and popular service in all regions next year and for years to come.”

Best option

Jermey said the alternative to reorganising the ITV news regions would have been to maintain the same level of coverage but impose deeper cost and job cuts.

“We could have continued to produce 17 flagship programmes but made across-the-board cuts in reporters, in camera crews, in correspondents, in producers on the ground, in all the elements that make up newsgathering,” he said.

“I’m sure there would have protests but probably fewer headlines, less debate and much less scrutiny. Although it would have been the easier course to follow, it wouldn’t have been the right one.

“Taking £40m out of the existing services but keeping all of them on air would have spread our resources too thinly.”

Jermey outlined some of ITV’s plans for regional news provision in specific regions. In the Yorkshire TV area, there will be 66 staff working in four bureaux – Leeds, Hull, Sheffield and Lincoln – including 10 camera crews, two satellite trucks, nine correspondents and 10 reporters. Similar levels of coverage are planned in the Granada, Central and Anglia regions.

The Border TV region will employ 77 staff across nine bureaux, including 13 crews, two trucks, nine correspondents and 11 reporters.

“Does all of that sound like the game is up? I don’t believe so,” he said.

Jermey said the cost of ITV’s new regional news system would be “north of £50m” a year – representing a saving of about £40m.

Job cuts

Ofcom partner for content and standards Stewart Purvis defended the regulator’s role in the investigation into ITV’s regional news restructure.

“Ofcom has no power to control ITV’s spending,” Purvis said. “It’s sadly the case that regardless of what changes are going to be made to the licence map, hundreds of people who lose their jobs.”

He later added: “Our options were either force ITV to maintain a system that was clearly out of date or coming up with a sustainable stabilising plan.

“Inevitably jobs will be affected. It’s difficult to see how there could not have been some job losses given the changing circumstances in the switchover to digital.”

‘Heavily loss-making’

ITV strategy director Carolyn Fairbairn told the Ofcom conference that ITV was coming under increasing pressure from shareholders to demonstrate that programmes represented good value for money.

She said ITV regional news was losing in the region of £50m a year – but ruled out placing advertising in the middle of news and current affairs programmes as a funding option.

“We are facing a meltdown in the advertising market,” she told delegates. “What this means is our shareholders are extremely challenging of us and how we spend our money.

“We look at every programming genre for a return on investment. Regional programming is the most heavily loss-making thing that we do. We can’t make decisions that do not work commercially.

Fairbairn said ITV regional news was not an attractive proposition to advertisers because of the audience it attracted.

“The fact is, like it or not, the demographic profile of people who watch our regional news is quite old,” she said.

“This is not an attractive demographic for advertisers. Our regional news absolutely loses money to the tune of about £50m a year.”

She warned that, if a funding solution could not be found soon, ITV would consider surrendering its status as a public service broadcaster in 2014, ditch news and current affairs and lose its privileged slot on Channel 3.

“If nobody does anything that’s what happens,” Fairbairn said.

“In some ways, that’s quite attractive. The idea of not having to worry about regulatory this or regulatory that – we would be like to Sky.

“On the other hand, it has problems for us. I think many of us would feel we were turning our back on ITV’s heritage.”

Ofcom is due to publish its final report on the future of public service broadcasting in the new year.

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