It’s a strange world. Imagine a cafe. Now imagine the government sets up a rival cafe right opposite. The new place is funded by the tax payer and the food is subsidised. The original cafe struggles. Fewer people eat there and the owner cuts back. Eventually the old cafe announces it’s closing down.
Now the government cafe managers feel guilty. They realise they’ve put the opposition out of business through unfair competition and they’re worried someone may start to question why public money has been used to duplicate an existing commercial service and then destroy it.
So they offer to help the old cafe. “Don’t go out of business” they say, “Our chef will cook your meals for you and you can use our tables and chairs”.
What a crazy scenario! Nothing like that could happen in the real world right? Wrong! It’s happening in the UK right now. Have you heard of something called Coast To Coast? It was the regional news programme on ITV’s TVS region between 1982 and 1992.
And what a programme it was. Officially Britain’s most successful regional news programme, it enjoyed fantastic ratings and was voted the nation’s top regional news show by the Royal Televsion Society three times. Mike Debens and Liz Wickham were the anchors and Ron Lobeck presented the weather. In those days Coast to Coast had no real competition. The BBC offered something called “London Plus”. If you lived in Kent, where our video production company is based, you were lucky if they covered a story here once a week.
Then in 2001 BBC opened South East Today at Tunbridge Wells. It was lavishly funded with a budget of more than £8m per year raised through the compulsory license fee. It employed some talented people and did a good job (I should know, I produced its main news programme for five years!). The quality of ITV Meridian’s news began to fade, ratings dipped, advertising revenue slumped. Early in 2009 Meridian announced it was all but closing its Kent news operation. Presenters, camera crews, journalists and back room staff were handed their P45s.
So how has the BBC responded? Amazingly it’s offering to prop up Meridian by providing, “Regional news infrastructure including raw picture material and information technology”. A bit like the story of the two cafes- really don’t you think?!