W(h)ither the regions on ITV?

 

Sadler map slide

 

My presentation is entitled W(h)ither the regions on ITV? You will guess from the title the direction my research has taken. This time last year I was examining the BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are and mentioned a growing interest in history programme output on ITV1.

 

This interest began when I was reviewing each of the terrestrial channels for history programmes. ITV1 did not appear to broadcast many history programmes (one exception being You Don’t Know you’re Born produced by Wall to Wall) However, I noticed history programmes within the regional slots. The more I researched independent television regional output, the more interested I became, and the more changes that happened to ITV over the year, the more research into the institution and its regional output seemed to be necessary. The more I watched regional programmes the more I realised that history programmes were a key genre for the regional slots. Even programmes that were not purely history programmes contain a large element of regional history. An example ITV Meridian’s very popular River Walks with Charlie Dimmock.

 

My initial interest in Who Do You Think You Are related to the construction of identity and to a large extent this is still the focus but with a more regional perspective. Now the research is predominantly directed to Channel 3. In terms of the overall project it feels very exciting to be investigating regional television at a time when it may change to be almost unrecognisable or even disappear altogether.

 

So identity is still a key theme. A crucial part of identity formation is naming. In this short space of time I have used three different names to describe what Ofcom and the law terms Channel 3. Today for purposes of simplicity I will refer to the research object as ITV when referring to the institution and will use the franchise holder name when referring to the regional variant.

 

Inevitably then the research includes not only history on television, but the history of an institution that broadcasts television. And construction of identity relates not only to that offered on screen through the regional history programmes, but also to the construction and maintenance of the identity of ITV the institution.

 

One of the key questions of the project is asking is how we get the history programmes we do on television? I’m approaching the research from several angles in order to build up as full a picture as possible. There is a reciprocal relationship with each of the objects of study and each helps to shape the history content presented on ITV. Key questions of my research are:

 

The research methods I am using are various and include textual analysis, semi structured interviews and audience research.

 

So the prevailing conditions section requires us to track and take account of the recent history of ITV. The Televising History project covers the period 1995 – 2010 within its title and by necessity this period will be covered by my research. The ongoing complex ownership issues and the analogue switch off are going to be extremely significant areas to follow throughout the research period. The title of my presentation today - Whither The Regions – alludes to the tenuous position of the regions within the ITV strategy. The title asks specifically where are the regions and are they going to disappear or change beyond recognition? Changes are already in progress both in terms of the airtime given to regional broadcasts and also the apparent changing boundaries of the regions sometimes due to re-organisation and sometimes as a result of co productions being fostered between two or more ITV regional franchise holders (there will be an example of this later)    You may remember I showed some maps at the last advisory board meeting.

 

Because ITV is a commercial station it is constantly under pressure to minimise costs and maximise profit. Regional history programmes on average cost 15 – 20 thousand pounds per half hour. Over 11 regions that’s between 165,000 – 220, 000 pounds per half hour. A 30 minute networked programme like Tonight with Trevor MacDonald costs only 100,000 pounds. The appointment of Michael Grade as executive chairman in January 2007 launched ITV into a brand new era. In September 2007, Michael Grade reduced the number of regional news regions from 17 to 9. This is really significant. News bulletins are very important for ITV regions and they attract good viewing figures. There are only 11 English regions but some regions were producing more than one regional news bulletin. For example, Tyne Tees region produced a north bulletin covering the Tyneside area and south bulletin covering the Teesside area. Clearly this was a cost saving exercise. However, this re-organisation has effectively also merged Tyne Tees news with Border news – because only one bulletin is produced for two regions. I would speculate that this may be a precursor to a merging of two or more regions into larger super-regions.

 

My study includes a detailed textual analysis of some of the regional history programmes on offer from ITV.  This first clip is from Tyne Tees television called A History of Tyneside. Some questions to consider when watching this are:

(Clip of A History of Tyneside)

 

I would argue here that there is a discourse in operation. There is a variety of Geordie accents. The script states “That made the Geordie accent cool” no hedging here; it’s given as a categorical fact. The personalities of Ant and Dec providing a template of the friendly, funny Geordie that can achieve success just by being themselves. I would argue here there is a discourse of Geordie-ism operating. It is enabling, constraining and constituting what it is to be a Geordie.

 

Then there’s the use of the Tyne Tees television footage to reference the history of the region itself. The use of television archives in history programmes now becoming commonplace.

 

Archive footage is a mainstay of history programmes. It’s the backbone of the next 2 clips. These clips are from a series called The Way We Were. This is a formatted programme used by all 11 regions. It uses archive footage of past events and matches them in some way to an oral history or story told by a member of the public. The programme originated in Anglia region and the ITV commissioners there created a format package for the other ITV regions to begin making their own distinct regional variation of the programme.

 

The first clip is from the Tyne Tees version produced by Honky Tonk Productions and first screened 29 March 2007 at 7:30pm; the episode is called ‘All Change’. The second clip is from a co production between ITV Yorkshire and ITV Anglia. A special series called The Way We Were On Holiday this episode is called ‘Holidays Afloat’. 

I would ask you to consider the same questions as before:

(Clip) 

 

Now I would argue that in these clips there is not a very distinct regional identity on offer but that it is a more general notion of national identity that is on offer. This may have something to do with the fact that the show is a format encouraged by the network. It may be connected to the fact that many of these shows are now made as co productions with other regions. Because ITV is a commercial station it is constantly under pressure to minimise costs and maximise profit. Regional history programmes on average cost 15 – 20 thousand pounds per half hour. Over 11 regions that’s between 165,000 – 220, 000 pounds per half hour. A 30 minute networked programme like Tonight with Trevor MacDonald costs only 100,000 pounds. Co- productions offer cost effective regional programming. But from an identity point of view this is significant in terms of whether the audience member can identify with the subject position on offer. Whether they offer a regional identity position or not does not alter the fact that they are very popular with audiences – most regions now into their fifth season of the show.

 

Audiences’ reception of regional output is being gathered in at present by tracking regional television audience forums on the internet. Here are some quotes from one of them …

 

There are some interesting questions to be raised about the validity of using some of these forums and again these issues are linked to issues of identity. The forums offer a rich seam of data for analysis but the identities of the users are always in question – and I have not yet settled the question on whether I will seek more face to face audience research in focus groups or interviews. I even wonder sometimes if the forum members are media producers or ex media producers because of the level of knowledge they appear to have about the industry.

 

This leads to the next dimension of research – that of contact with independent media producers and producers/ commissioners within ITV. I have conducted eleven such interviews already and there are more in the pipeline.

 

This slide is a direct quote from a commissioner in ITV. The interview was conducted in April 2007. This bears an uncanny resemblance to what happened to ITV regional news in September that I already explained. This is potentially how the regions could look if in fact they survive at all.

 

This brings me to the institution itself. In contrast to the BBC there has been a lack of academic writing on ITV but this situation is recently changing with work now available by Bernard Sendall, Paul Bonner and Leslie Ashton, Catherine Johnstone and Rob Turnock and forthcoming work from Jamie Medhurst and Raymond Fitzwalter. I’m currently researching the history of ITV as a whole. Asking how it has got to the position it is in and what in its history has caused the present events?  I do think it will be necessary to focus in upon one of the ITV regions although which one is yet to be decided.

 

Over the year I’ve given 4 academic papers – two here in Lincoln, one at the Regions and Regionalism conference at Lancaster University and another at the Narrating the Nation Conference in Reus, Spain. I hope to do more this year and would like to have an article published.

 

So far it has been an interesting journey – and who knows what twists and turns will happen with ITV regional history programmes in the coming year? But it’s really a honour to be tracking it.

 

Barbara Sadler

 

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