Why Wales Failed the Network Screen Test; on the Day That Carlton and Granada Sealed a Prospective Merger Deal, the Independent Television Commission Published a New Report on Regional Broadcasting in Britain. in an Extract from Television in the Nations and Regions, Geraint Talfan Davies Considers the Past, Present and Future

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Byline: Geraint Talfan Davies

THE UK has an honourable history in local and regional broadcasting, but there is no doubting that it has been dominated by powerful centralising forces.

In the BBC, despite its roots in local provision, Lord Reith's central and centralising vision persisted and all networks have been controlled and commissioned centrally from London. In ITV, despite its origins in regional companies, the network quickly became dominated by the companies from bigger areas. In the 1980s the breakfast franchise and Channel 4, and in the 1990s Channel 5, were all established as central services from London. There has never been any attempt in the UK to create and sustain non-metropolitan structures for UK services, such as exist in Germany and Scandinavia.

Centralised organisation has been accompanied by a centralised cultural mindset. The notion of regional production centres, for anything other than programmes for the local audience, is often regarded as a tire-some parochialism, out of tune with markets and industry economics.

In the BBC in the early 1990s 97pc of all network output was made in England, with about 81pc in London and Elstree. It was John Birt, then Director General, who first spotted this imbalance, described it as untenable, and pledged the BBC to produce ``broadly a third'' of its network output from outside the South-East.

Some years later Channel 4 followed with a similar statistical commitment and the opening of an office in Glasgow to encourage productions from Scotland and Wales - although it collapsed a post specifically dealing with Wales.

ITV has had a better track record in the distribution of production, although consolidation of ownership has also led to a significant geographical consolidation. The Granada-Carlton merger could give this an uncomfortable, extra twist.

Implementation of these policies has had mixed success. In the BBC it was unfortunate that implementa-tion began in the most unfavourable circumstances: at the point when the real value of the licence fee had begun to decline, and when its production departments were already faced with having to accommodate the introduction of a statutory quota of independent production.

As a result production gains for the nations and regions and for independent producers, could be achieved only by inflicting pain on the London departments.

The net result was that, even after some years of this policy, the proportion of network production supplied by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was nearer five than 10pc, despite the fact that the three countries together constitute 17.5pc of the UK population.

This has now improved somewhat, given the BBC's recent increased investment in its networks, changes in the commissioning structures and the creation of joint selling arrangements by Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.

The situation in Wales has, tradi-tionally, been weaker than that of Scotland and N. Ireland, largely because the existence of services for Wales, in both Welsh and English, has meant that the domestic production operation has tended to be a more consuming pre-occupation. …