Thursday, 25 September 2008

The end of regional broadcasting. Is it all bad?

One of the things that makes the digital revolution in all parts of the media so interesting to watch is the way that business models and ideologies, dating back half a century or more, are changing to adapt new market forces.

Today's announcement by the media regulator OFCOM, that the rules regarding ITV's obligation to offer regional TV news bulletins are being relaxed, has predictably been greeted with fear and disdain in many quarters. Critics are arguing that a vital part of the community spirit that encompassed ITV, itself originally made up of many regional broadcasters, is under threat. The reality is that many regional TV news bulletins are dull, irrelevant and of little use to viewers. Being located near to London I receive the joys of London Today and London Tonight. While the evening bulletins do attempt to cover a range of stories, it's quite clear that the funding to make insightful reporting simply isn't there. Content veers from a seeming bias towards celebs in the capital, before crashing back to scare stories about London crime and too much traffic. The daytime bulletins serve no real purpose at all, being too brief and lacking in depth. That said, the output of BBC South East's news team is woefully embarrassing. In the mornings one could be forgiven for thinking nothing had happened at all. Yet, a quick listen to a radio station, even the music orientated Capital FM, reveals greater breadth and depth. It is a disgrace.

So, given that the output appears to be under-performing at best, and shameful at worst, what might we conclude? Firstly, that OFCOM's decision to allow stations to withdraw lunchtime bulletins is a sensible one. It remains to be seen whether the broadcasters will opt to move more timely content onto the web, perhaps offering mobile newscasts instead. Surely this is a better way to find an audience and engage with it? The rise of GPS in more and more mobile phones should enable relevant content to be delivered with speed and accuracy. That could be one way for local news to develop. 

The amount of regional news broadcast each week will fall from 5 hours 20 minutes a week, to 3 hours 45 minutes.

The truth is that in an increasingly personalised and online world, regional news finds it difficult to locate an audience. A week or so ago BBC Radio 4's Today programme broadcast a fascinating interview with Professor Roy Greenslade, in which he foresaw the total demise of local newspapers within two decades. 

As the linked BBC article at the bottom of this posting states, the business model used for public service broadcasting (PSB) obligations dates back 50 years.

Originally ITV was made up of many independent regional broadcasters, who were able to make programmes and sell their own advertising. However, in a multi channel environment the revenue streams from advertising are falling, viewing figures are diminishing, and the economic climate is more conservative in terms of advertising spend than ever before. 

This all coincides with increasing online activity and increased resistance from audiences to the persuasive techniques used conventionally by advertising creatives.

By 2012 the digital switchover will have taken place and every home in the country will be receiving multi-channel transmissions. It's likely we'll reach a tipping point in terms of consumer relationships with their preferred media outlets long before then. What is becoming apparent is that news is losing its relevance in the accepted formats, while the number of platforms on which audiences can receive, digest and interact with content continues to expand.

We live in interesting times, and what OFCOM's ruling illustrates is how the accepted wisdom that has influenced media production for the last 25 years and beyond, will be shaped, changed and reformed by powerful forces of the market, innovation, and user choice.

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