Britain's ITV Network, despite its insistence that current ad revenue woes will not lead to programming cutbacks [WAMN: 28-Sep-01], is planning to do just that, according to an internal report leaked to the MediaGuardian news website.

The report reveals that the eleven ITV franchises are conniving to cut their transmissions of regionally produced programmes to just eight hours a week – a shrinkage of up to fifty per cent of current local output.

Conscious that this is a political hot potato, ITV hopes to cool the inevitable outcry with a sweetener - a boost in regional news output. Local news, currently exiled to the near-graveyard slot of 11.20pm, will be brought forward to follow the evening’s main News at Ten bulletin.

The franchisees rationalise that the concentration of cash into fewer peak-time hours will enhance output quality. According to the pirated document: “ITV cannot continue to accommodate a ragbag of material so variable in quality and appeal to audiences at key points throughout the day. It must achieve the optimum balance between commercial competitiveness and its public service obligations.”

This is the essence of the argument the companies will put before commercial television regulator, the Independent Television Commission, pleading: “In times of revenue growth, this situation was inherently unsatisfactory but tolerable; in current conditions - and looking to a future of revenue uncertainty and share decline - it is untenable.”

The ITC is thought not to be unsympathetic to the concept of rationalising regional output, having itself floated the issue for discussion.

But the broadcasters are well aware of the hornets nest they are about to stir: “We do not underestimate the potential political sensitivity of these proposals - particularly in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and Northern Ireland - and in the run-up to the [government’s draft communications] bill.”

"Whatever the merits of rationalisation in commercial and public service terms,” continues the document, “the press and critical lobbies will portray it as a withdrawal by ITV from its public service commitments.”

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