Keep media local, UTV warns Digital Britain’s architects

23 Mar 2009

UTV has called on the architects of Digital Britain not to absorb regional broadcast licences into a single Channel 3 licence, arguing that regional providers have a valuable role to play in the digital age.

The principles of regionality are as important now in the digital age as they were in the Fifties, when ITV was first launched, UTV Media has told the architects of the UK Government’s Digital Britain plan, urging them to refrain from consolidating the company’s media assets.

In the Fifties, Channel 3 or ITV was launched with various regional entities, and in 1959, in Northern Ireland, UTV came into being.

UTV Media group CEO John McCann warned the architects of the Digital Britain plan to modernise UK communications that Channel 3 needs to return to its roots to preserve the strength of regions.

Should ITV plc hand back its Channel 3 licence, UTV believes the public service broadcasting (PSB) voice will be filled by another operator.

“We believe that the experience of the traditional media, with its high-quality heritage and evolving cross-platform experience and development, is of significant value in the current debate,” McCann said.

“Our experience has shown that the principles of regionality are as important now to our audience in the digital age as they were when Channel 3 was set up to cater for an analogue audience in the Fifties.”

UTV’s response to the Digital Britain Interim Report agrees with the UK Government that there are a number of obstacles to the development of commercial radio in the digital age, which include DAB coverage, receiver and in-car take-up issues.

To these three barriers, UTV adds a fourth: an overly rigid legislative and regulatory environment.

Elaborating on these barriers, which affect all of commercial radio, UTV’s submission outlines some matters of particular relevance to talkSPORT and the 16 local radio licences UTV holds across the UK.

These include the continuing popularity and commercial value of AM services, the slow growth in the availability of DAB receivers in cars, the absence of a clear pathway to digital for certain local stations, and the inability of operators of national DAB services to sell regional advertising.

“UTV is committed to working with our partners across the radio industry to secure commercial radio’s place within Digital Britain,” said Scott Taunton, managing director, UTV Radio.

“The ongoing success of stations such as talkSPORT attests to radio’s enduring popularity and appeal. But, to build on that success, we will need Government support in relaxing regulation, planning a digital migration process which is fair to all, and freeing commercial radio to invest in new content,” Taunton added.

UTV Television said that in a digital world, it would argue very strongly that returning to Channel 3’s roots is both a positive commercial alignment, and adds value to Digital Britain.

“UTV is not arguing for the status quo. Licence areas would need to change to reflect the digital world, and regions could be of various sizes: city, county, region or nation,” the broadcaster stated.

“Strong regional news and a diverse mix of non-news programmes designed to satisfy the unique requirements of each individual broadcast area are still highly valued by audiences. By doing just this, UTV produces the most-watched news in the UK and commissions the two most-watched regional programmes in the ITV network. This content is delivered cross-platform on television, on radio and online.

“While opinion formers and policy-makers are being lobbied very hard by ITV plc to allow a movement away from the regions, UTV asks the Digital Britain team to look at the model UTV is implementing as proof that it is regionality. not consolidation. which the audience is looking for from Channel 3. UTV’s audience figures remain far ahead of ITV Network because UTV has remained true to its local heritage.”

UTV said should ITV plc take the view that there is no value in holding a Channel 3 licence with PSB obligations and hands back its licence(s), other media companies and/or content providers will see a value.

“The concern that a void would be created in high-quality commercial PSB provision is misplaced, as it would undoubtedly be filled by another operator,” the broadcaster stated.

“In terms of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, UTV believes one licence for each of these jurisdictions should be awarded. These should be full licences and not simply news opt-outs or affiliates. In England, there may be the possibility of regionality at a much lower level than the current ITV map allows.”

A single Channel 3 licence, UTV said, would lose substantial audience in the devolved nations, and actually make the provision of public service content for these nations less viable, rather than more viable.

“UTV’s peak-time share has always been substantially above the ITV Network average, and much of the increased share is due to our localness and the relevance of our regional output,” UTV explained.

Michael Wilson, managing director, UTV Television, said: “Ultimately, we would argue that while the Digital Britain consultation document suggests there should be a strong BBC and a potential second ‘network’ supplier of public service content, the Channel 3/ITV role should be to provide UK-originated content and national and international news as a backbone to a number of Channel 3 licensees who are committed to delivering high-quality and diverse ‘local’ news and content.”

By John Kennedy