ITV: Accountant led for too long

Wesley Smith (l) with John Mair (c) and Dennis Coath (r)

Wesley Smith (l) with John Mair (c) and Dennis Coath (r)

THEY WERE two of the most recognisable faces on Central TV, but they have fallen victim to ITV’s decision to incessantly cut back on local news, claiming it is too costly, and no longer financially viable.  Both Wesley Smith and Dennis Coath look somewhat bewildered as they seek to answer the underlying theme of today’s Coventry Conversations media lecture: ‘Has ITV lost the local plot’?

Smith and Coath don’t as much struggle to answer “yes”, but rather how ITV – which was once ‘all things to all people’ – could allow itself to rip up the local roots which have taken the best part of 50 years to establish themselves.  “One of the mantras of ITV is that stories were about people, and not politics,” said Coath, “but it has lost its grip on local news in being part of the social fabric of peoples’ lives.”

The ITV of today is a shadow of its former self.  Once a credible alternative and formidable competitor to the public funded BBC, the commercial channel has since lost its licence to print money, and is instead considering turning to those in Broadcasting house to discuss a possible merger, and perhaps play the final ace in its pack.

Coath said: “With Ofcom saying ITV isn’t sustainable anymore as a regional news operation, I’m not quite sure how an amalgamation with the BBC would work, where cameras and studios are shared.With the BBC being the landlord, I am sure they will be quite happy to call the tune, though.”

The former ATV Sports Editor told his student audience that the BBC has taken advantage of ITV’s stagnation by “taking the emperor’s clothes” and undermining a company that continues to haemorrhage money at an alarming rate.  “It looks very bleak for ITV, and after 28 years of work for the channel, it leaves me frustrated and saddened.”

Coath’s sentiments were mirrored by Smith’s comments, whose career with ITV local news started more than 20 years ago as a trainee.  Smith said that the many people he has spoken to share a great sense of “regional identity”, and that journalists want to share that “sense of belonging” with them courtesy of the news they report.

It looks very bleak for ITV, and after 28 years of work for the channel, it leaves me frustrated and saddened

“If I was in charge of ITV, I would have to look at the bank balances, and make them work,” he revealed.  “I hear what they say about the problems they have in funding it, but I do think that as someone who is proud to have worked for regional broadcasting that it is very, very sad.  I wish the money was there.”

The money, of course, isn’t there.  On April 23rd, ITV announced £2.7 billion in losses, causing a drop in share prices, which at present, hovers around the 40 pence mark.  When the outgoing Michael Grade was named executive chairman in January 2007, it was 108 pence.

At the same media lecture yesterday, the former Times and Financial Times media editor, Raymond Snoddy, said that much of ITV’s financial woes were compounded by Michael Grade’s inability to work with YouTube and Google, because he viewed them as merely ‘parasites’.

Coath suggested that local news produced by ITV could be saved by allowing for a short, two minute advertising break between each half hour bulletin.  This, he said, would pay for the programme in its entirety, and free up finance which could be used elsewhere.  “It works in the states, and local news is big there,” Smith added.

Both journalists agreed that a less London focussed perspective was needed in programme making, with reference given to Ulster Television (UTV), and Scottish Television (STV) who continue in their pursuit of remaining profitable – but also local.

“The main problem,” added Coath, “is that ITV has been accountancy led rather than programme and producer led.  Accountants don’t know how to make programmes, but they know how to make cutbacks, and this has led to ITV’s perpetuating, degenerative cycle. This has been ITV’s biggest sea change.”

Image courtesy of Jason Craig

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