The televisual wasteland


Jonathan Ross is probably secure from the effects of the credit crunch, but out here in the sticks the crisis has been working its effect on local broadcasting, with the news that UTV is laying off a third of its television staff. That cuts were in the offing was trailed well in advance, and there have been noises to that effect at Stormont, but that’s still a big whack of your workforce.

This provides the jumping off point for the invaluable Newton Emerson in this week’s Irish News column. Making the point that UTV is probably secure in that it’s got an extremely tight monopoly, Newt then goes on to consider what Useless TV does actually provide in the way of programming:

In return for what former Scottish Television boss Roy Thomson famously called “a licence to print money”, each ITV company agrees to broadcast a quota of regional and public-service programming when bidding for a franchise. The quota is set and policed by a quango, Ofcom, which has a well-resourced regional office in Belfast.

Ofcom officially takes the view that Northern Ireland requires an above-average quota because it is a devolved region with the highest audience interest in local news and current affairs.

Which makes sense. But then, commercial logic kicks in:

For UTV the short-term financial view is to make as little local programming as possible. The station is at its most profitable when simply relaying the ITV network signal, interspersed with ads for carpet showrooms and Julian Simmons doing funny voices.

And, apparently, this is fine with the local Ofcom office. In fact, although UTV is just about the only regional ITV company to have retained its local identity, it’s hard to think of what programming it actually makes apart from the news. But hark:

In the meantime, UTV remains a highly profitable company. So why has it been allowed to slash local output? There will be fewer news bulletins, while current-affairs series Insight has been cancelled altogether. This follows an attempt to have the cheap and cheerful Late & Live counted towards the current affairs quota instead.

Ah, Late & Live. I remember Tina Arena when she was just reading the traffic and travel on the wireless, before UTV decided she was going to be their high-powered current affairs anchor. You know, I’m not a great fan of the Beeb’s Nolan Live, but the combination of Angry Steve shouting at the top of his voice, plus a boisterous audience treating the whole thing as a big massive joke, has a certain watchability. Do we really need a poor man’s Nolan Live in the first place, let alone one masquerading as current affairs?

Mind you, they’ve tried this trick before:

Ofcom Northern Ireland director Denis Wolinksi claims that UTV is free to over-supply its quota. UTV managing director Michael Wilson claims that the company is happy to do so. Experience strongly suggests otherwise. In 2005, for example, UTV bumped half a series of Insight after counting coverage of George Best’s funeral as current affairs.

Now isn’t that a cute manoeuvre? And the outlook is even worse in the non-news arena, as Newt points out, although I’m disappointed he doesn’t mention what may be my all-time favourite Useless TV programme, End to End. In this instance, UTV thought that, given the popularity of Gaelic games, it would be a dandy idea to have a GAA show, but failed to take into consideration that they didn’t have the rights to screen GAA. So we were left with Logie and Frank sitting in a studio discussing matches they couldn’t show us. You know that successful TV works on the premise of “show, don’t tell?” This was an almost postmodern attempt to prove the opposite.

The final sting in this sorry tale is the effect that falling standards at UTV have had at BBC Northern Ireland, where Spotlight in particular has been replaced with an extremely dim bulb. BBC Newsline now considers the whole concept of investigative reporting to be so exceptional that it puts the word ‘investigation’ on screen during any story involving more than one press release.

Well, quite, and this is difficult to understand in that Spotlight had begun to be quite a highlight of the week. Having once been an intensely boring programme, in the post-Troubles dispensation it managed to produce some high-quality material by actually doing journalistic spadework, researching and reporting real stories, and from time to time annoying the great and the good, which is always a sign you’re on the right track.

Newt concludes by considering the fate of Italian TV, where the 1976 deregulation almost immediately led to the networks being swamped by game shows and porn. Don’t get me wrong, game shows and porn have their place, but not dominating programming. The Italian experience suggests that total deregulation leads to the Berlusconi scenario, while what we have instead – useless regulation – doesn’t do much more than slow down the slide.

So what do you do? Well, firstly you need the regulators to get their fingers out. Broadcasters are past masters at coming up with some ingenious swizz like getting Terry Christian to talk to teenagers about drugs and then counting that towards the religious quota. Bestie’s funeral being counted as current affairs is only the tip of the iceberg. Any regulator with a spark of energy would be slapping it up any broadcaster who tried to weasel out of their statutory obligations.

The other thing you would need, of course, is for the broadcasters to show more concern with things like quality, innovation, and journalism that involves more than reading out press releases. That may be a much bigger ask. There is plenty of talent there, we know there is, but management lack of imagination, and the overwhelming importance of the bottom line, counts against us here. One senses that the new economic environment won’t help. Ah well, at least the arse has fallen out of property porn…

1 Comment

  1. February 4, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    […] be honest, ITV is in a bit of a bind, and the bind relates to what Newt was talking about the other week in terms of the local franchise. Enormously profitable in principle – […]

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