Wales Live

Earlier today it was announced that a UTV and NWN Media consortium has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the new Wales news service to occupy the current ITV local news slot. The aim is to finalize this and the other two contracts within the next month or so, just before the Westminster election in May. It's important that the Westminster government does this quickly, because the Tories are firmly against the idea and would scrap it if the contracts were not already finalized.

The service will be called Wales Live and this promotional video should give us an idea of what to expect if it lives up to its promise:


I have mixed feelings about it. The biggest plus seems to be UTV's track record of providing news in Northern Ireland. It is certainly impressive that it has a higher audience share than the BBC's news service in NI, and if they managed to do the same in Wales it would strengthen the plurality of our news sources ... something we badly need.

However UTV are currently providing their service in NI on the same basis as ITV are meant to be providing the service in Wales. It is ITV's inability (or failure, to put it more bluntly) to do so which has prompted this experiment. They claim that the economics of providing a regional news service no longer stack up in a multi-channel environment ... yet it obviously works very well in NI.

To my mind, this is more a failure of structure and regulatory process than one of economics. Over the years the ITV network has shifted from something with strong regional variations to an essentially uniform service. There is in fact one licence which covers England and Wales, held by ITV, with separate licences for Scotland and Northern Ireland. I believe the problem could be solved better by having a separate licence for Wales ... and for the terms of that licence to set out the obligations the holder must fulfil in terms of percentages of distinctively Welsh broadcasting, not just news and current affairs but other programming as well. ITV would claim that they were unable to afford to provide that service, but insisting upon it at a statutory level would give them no choice but to do so, and this might have positive implications for the content mix of programming to change the "diet" of what is available to watch on television, for despite the multiplicity of channels its overall quality seems to have gone down. But the UK Government hasn't chosen to do that. It has accepted ITV's plea that it can't afford to provide regional news for much longer, and these pilot schemes are the alternative.

Fair enough. In the absence of broadcasting being a devolved issue, it's Westminster's call. So let's see if this new model can deliver what we need in a different way. But the future of this service is, to say the least, shaky on a number of counts: the Tories want to scrap it, the future funding arrangements are uncertain, and to top it all ITV now appear to be changing their minds about whether they can afford the old service after all, as this story shows. It seems they were crying wolf and now regret it. But if it falls back into their hands, there's no guarantee that the service won't continue to deteriorate.


Anyway, what really matters is the news service that we get. Northern Ireland is unique because its politics is very different from the politics of the UK. The political parties are different, the issues are different; so there is no way the people of NI would put up with the sort of news that gets broadcast elsewhere in the UK. If that same way of thinking is transferred to Wales Live we will get news with a much stronger Welsh emphasis. That's not to say that the BBC do a bad job, but we need two eyes to see things in three dimensions. So now that Wales Live have been chosen, I wish them well. It will be a challenging task, and I'm sure they know that their best chance of seeing the service continue past 2012 is to make good on the promise of high quality, multi-input, multi-platform Welsh news.

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Anonymous said...

The "Wales Live" bid does sound promising and will, as you've said, strengthen plurality of TV news coverage in Wales.

I still have concerns about the future direction of Welsh print media. It may well be slowly moving online with opportunities for new Welsh "online newspapers" to appear perhaps, but effectively having only one "national newspaper" and many other major titles in Wales published by the same company, creates serious problems.

Is there scope for some of the larger "independent" regional titles, like the Western Telegraph or SW Evening Post to "go national"?

Anonymous said...

You are wrong on one thing. There is not "one licence covering England and Wales". There is one company that holds all the licences for England and Wales.

The franchises will be redrawn and readvertised in 2012 probably with four licences for England, Scotland, Wales and NI. UTV has already announced that it intends to bid for the full Welsh license."Wales Live" is their foot in the door,

MH said...

Yes A, you are right, there are still separate licences, but they are held by one company.

I'm interested by what you say about 2012. Are you able to put any meat on that? I didn't know that was what Ofcom had in mind, but if UTV have announced their intention it would surely be in the public domain somewhere. A link or two would be very helpful.

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