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A vision for telly

Douglas Fraser | 09:49 UK time, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Scottish Television was founded with the observation that it was "a licence to print money".

Not any longer.

It is now much depleted from its grand ambitions to build a major cross-media company based in Glasgow - which once included not only the stv licence and what was Grampian (now stv north), but also the Herald newspaper group, Virgin Radio and a major outdoor billboard business. It still has cinema advertising platform Pearl and Dean.

While it made a colossal mistake over its top price purchase of Virgin Radio, the company has found itself harshly squeezed by the bracing new environment of multiple channels, a downturn in advertising and a row over money with ITV plc.

The English and Welsh commercial broadcaster on Channel 3 provides much of the content for stv, as well as Ulster and Channel Islands television. But it reckons the networking arrangements are out of kilter, and that it "subsidises" its smaller commercial cousins to the tune of £30 million per year.

And if ITV plc doesn't get its way from Ofcom, it has threatened to give up its English and Welsh licences (including Border, which straddles the Scottish-English border), and become a purely commercial broadcaster.

By taking its ball away, it would leave Ofcom struggling to find another company capable of fulfilling its role.

The £30 million figure is disputed, of course. But while the companies are in a stand-off, and stv is overwhelmingly dependent on output from the vastly bigger English broadcaster, its share price has been in real trouble.

There are those who think it would be better if stv plc sold to ITV plc, but there seems little benefit for ITV to do so.

Everyone is agreed the current position can't be sustained, with these companies required to provide public service broadcasting, including their news programmes, but with a falling share of a hard-hit advertising pot from which to fund that.

Today, the regulator Ofcom has said - among many other things about the future of public service broadcasting - that it agrees there has to be an overhaul and it would prefer a negotiated one.

It said Scottish audiences, according to opinion polling, value stv news more than English audiences value their regional news, and that it is important the new model for supporting news programmes continue to provide Scottish and Northern Irish output.

It looks to a longer-term solution of a consortium of providers bidding for funds to run a news service on Channel 3 in Scotland.

It has also told ITV plc that if it is to be allowed to merge Border TV news with Tyne/Tees, there should still be two evening bulletins of south of Scotland news.

While it has ruled out the idea of the licence fee income being top-sliced from the BBC, it is positive about a BBC offer to share its resources with commercial broadcasters.

And it has some interesting responses to the proposal of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up by Alex Salmond, to create a new Scottish digital channel.

It agrees with the SBC that the cost of this could be £75m, but warns the funding will be vital to determining what kind of output we get.

Pointing out that the idea now has consensus support behind it, the regulator puts an interesting challenge to the UK and Scottish Governments to come up with plans for how this might work - raising the notion that the two administrations might have to work together in this fraught political area.

Ofcom comes up with a plan that differs from a conventional channel: "a competitive fund which would support a series of inter-connected initiatives in Scotland-wide television, local television, online and radio", in co-operation with the new Gaelic channel.

The first criteria for this appears to be the idea's greatest weakness - 'discoverability'. If the content is spread so widely, how do you find out what's on and where?

It would give stv more output, though if it is even partly commercially funded, it could also spread the advertising jam more thinly. But while the uncertainty remains, the company continues to look vulnerable in the advertising downturn, and too dependent on its long-standing big earner, Taggart.


  • Comment number 1.

    How would the BBC manage without the licence fee I wonder?

  • Comment number 2.

    Apart from Taggart there is very little else of any merit being produced by STV or Border TV. Local news bulletins are ultra parochial and of very little consequence since anything of any importance has already been covered by the national news, this holds good for BBC Scotland also where the local news is used more as a cheap time filler than as anything meaningful. With news readily availiable and objective on the internet, the need for all these local news programmes is questionable or at least could be reduced in size and frequency. It seems also nowadays that it takes at least two newsreaders to front each programme, why , are they incapable of reading complete sentences on their own , it seems that sometimes half the sentence is read by one person , the second part by another. Time and motion study could have a field day there.

  • Comment number 3.

    The reason "nothing of merit" is produced by STV or Border is because ITV is so London and Mancester focussed. It killed off the ITV regions years ago and now it's killing off regional news.

    Think about it this way, think of all the top shows on ITV at the moment...Jeremy Kyle, Manchester produced, This Morning, London Produced, Loose Women, London produced, Coronation Street, Manchester produced....the only exception is Emmerdale which is Leeds produced, but even so.

    Everything on ITV is produced, in the whole, by ITV Productions (ie Granada) and they flood their schedules with programmes produced by them which in turn leaves no room for STV to offer anything other than Taggart. (Border only really produced Mrs & Mrs, even Tyne Tees mainly produced the 9.25am game shows.) STV used to produce Wheel Of Fortune, Taggart and was the producer of choice for Hogmanay television untill Granada and Carlton decided to take over the countrys broadcasting.

    Maybe giving ITV back to the regions and allowing them to produce local and nationwide content under their own steam is the way to go.

  • Comment number 4.

    Agree with much of the comment about how 'poor' STV programming is. It's output isn't relevant. The people who are still watching must be very bored. The answer seems obvious though does it not?
    There's an opportunity I think...

    Sometimes there are flashes of light (!) and really interesting informative programmes tackling matters of interest to Scots but also to a general audience aswell eg. documentaries. Imagine what else we could produce...... Then think of what we're stuck with!

  • Comment number 5.

    I hate to say thus but STV are an irrelevance. I watch FA Cup matches on ITV London via Satellite. As for local news - yawn.

  • Comment number 6.

    An over-arching comment on this issue....What is the future with the telly (vision) when there is no money.

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 7.

    I have to say I'm very concerned about Ofcom giving the greenlight to a merger of Border and Tyne/Tees - regardless of any conditions it puts in place to safeguard the two region's individual news.

    Having grown up literally just a few miles south of the border I admit it is fair to say that Northumberland, Cumbria and the Borders do share a lot in common - the people are all very warm and welcoming, there are similarities in culture (such as Northumbrian pipes and bagpipes, place names, etc), and many folk in amongst the border counties like to avoid quick labels because of our unusual half-and-half status.

    However, the two sides of the border are - both figuratively and literally speaking - two separate countries and news bulletins need to reflect that.

    I grew up amongst the Cheviots and lived closer to several Scottish border towns than I did to Newcastle, and yet despite that - and the close links that exist between the border communities - I never gave a hoots about local news in Jedburgh or Coldstream or Kelso when I was growing up. And I'm sure many folk living in the Borders couldn't care less about the state of play in Morpeth, Alnwick, Wooler or Newcastle.

    Merging these two news broadcasters would do a great disservice to local news on both sides of the border and should be avoided at all costs.

    While there are many, many similarities in the cultures immediately either side of the border, there are also differences. An amalgamation of the two broadcasters could threaten that individuality.

  • Comment number 8.

    'Scottish Television was founded with the observation that it was "a licence to print money'. I assume there is a missing citation here - or is that simply an unsupported assertion left hanging in the air: a no-no in any journalism 101 course. This is so typical of the astonishing arrogance that got us into this mess; something that Gordon 'Forest Gump' Brown has been happy to pin the blame almost exclusively on the rest of the world (globalisation), the US banking and finance industries, in fact almost anything except HM governments economic mismanagement. The big wigs at STV and others underestimated the huge social impact which satellite and cable companies would have, as Paul Weller sang 'the public gets what the public wants' ('Going Underground'). Decades of revenue squandered, audiences treated like sheep, and golden opportunities missed - TV needs to be entertaining, informative and engaging - I mean, it's hardly rocket science! Ofcom - RoFL - they have to be the equivalent of the ''highly effective'' (sic) FSA, which must be pretty obvious by now!!
    If the regional TV executives cannot produce a range of products to satisfy their audience/attract advertisers and are unable to persuade some arm of government to subsidise a PBS (Public Broadcasting System) system then they should get out of the business - as they are either incapable or incompetent.

    The elephant in the room is that our 'Titanic' economy has struck a huge mid-atlantic iceberg of debt and there are simply not enough places in the collapsible financial lifeboats to save every struggling business/corporation/industry - it's the end of an error, and not just for ITV Plc.


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