Broadcast PR: Regional squeeze

With broadcasters less obliged to cater for the regions, Steve Hemsley says it is not easy to get clients on to local TV.

It is somewhat sad that viewers of ITV Meridian may no longer be able to see thought-provoking arts documentaries about the creativity of local prisoners, or watch a Kent-based dance company perform a show called Does My Bum Look Big In This?

Such editorial delights were a staple diet for programme makers behind high-brow show The Frame, which went out at 11.30pm on Fridays but has now been axed. It is one of the first victims of regulator Ofcom's announcement that ITV's English regions can reduce their non-news programming from three hours a week to 90 minutes.

PROs are worried this will mean a squeeze on regional TV opportunities.

There was more bad news last month when the BBC revealed it was cutting more than 2,000 jobs in programme making - 735 of them in the Nations and Regions division, even though its Charter Review called for more regional output.

Cutbacks in the regions

ITV is adamant that prime-time flag-ship regional programmes - such as Meridian's Country Ways, Anglia's Norfolk's Coastal Kitchen and Tyne Tees' Grundy's Wonders and The Dales Diary - will not be affected because any cut in hours will be confined to off-peak slots. However, most PROs are pessimistic about the long-term future of regional programming across terrestrial channels.

Indeed, Ofcom has told ITV that once the first English region achieves digital switchover - which could be by 2008 - the requirement for non-news content will decline to just half an hour a week. Tyne Tees has already confirmed it will cut its hours, and managing director Graeme Thompson says ITV is simply reacting to changing viewing habits. In response to critics, he points to ITV's £9m regional production partnership fund, which will finance new programming. 'Even taking the reductions into account, ITV still delivers more than two or three times as many non-news programmes for the English regions than the BBC,' argues Thompson.

This may be true, but it is little consolation for PROs with regional clients and those who work hard to cultivate good regional knowledge so they can provide journalists with the local angles they demand. PROs will have to be even more innovative to get their clients featured in regional shows, while the Ofcom announcement will mean fiercer competition for the popular 'and finally...' spots on local news programmes.

Brave PR is used to winning regional TV coverage for its clients, including the Spar retail network, the Bluewater shopping centre and Stena Line.

Director Emma Nicholson says this is because the agency always puts TV first when devising a PR campaign. For Bluewater it helped Meridian produce a seven-minute feature, called 'Neanderthal Man', which analysed the differences in how men and women shop. 'Our policy of focusing on the needs of TV means our ideas have visual impact but can be easily adapted for local radio and press,' Nicholson says. 'It is harder to get regional coverage because there are fewer journalists in local newsrooms. Often there is no one answering the phones. We will have to adjust our strategy following the Ofcom statement because we know it will be even more difficult to get regional exposure.'

There is a view that as ITV and the BBC step up cutbacks in the regions, the more help those journalists who remain will need from PROs with a good story to tell.

Clareville PR managing director John Starr has exhibition clients that need local TV coverage to promote events at venues around the country.

He says it is important to find an angle that is of interest to the region, rather than simply put forward an exhibitor whose business is based locally. For example, for B2B trade fair the National Incentive Show, held at the NEC in Birmingham, Central TV filmed an exhibitor demonstrating how companies can motivate their staff through drumming techniques.

Starr says: 'The Ofcom changes mean PR agencies must ensure their account teams are well trained in pitching to TV. It can be tempting to delegate downwards the task of pitching story ideas, but at Clareville it is the directors who always call the important TV journalists. If your first angle does not work, you must be able to come at a story from a different perspective, which does take experience.'

With fewer regional TV openings, PROs may switch their attention to radio or press. However, while most local BBC stations are speech-based, the independent commercial sector is still driven by music, so editorial opportunities will remain limited.

Community future

Two areas that PROs should keep a close eye on are digital and community radio. Channel 4, for instance, has signed an agreement with UBC Media Group, which owns the Oneword digital radio licence. It wants to create a platform for a C4 radio station, which will no doubt be looking for interesting regional stories.

Meanwhile, community radio will become the third tier of the medium this year and complement the BBC and commercial sectors. These radio stations will cover a smaller geographical area than established outlets and Ofcom has not specified where these services should be. The first full licence was awarded in March to Forest of Dean Community Radio.

'Radio provides companies with arguably the strongest platform to reach the man on the street. The targeting can be spot-on locally, but PROs must understand an individual station's exact needs,' says Broadcasters Bulletin managing director Paul Parker.

While radio opportunities for PROs are expanding locally, in an age of multi-channel viewing broadcasters and the PR industry are having to take a reality check on the long-term future of regional TV content. The question no one can answer yet is how the viewers will react.

HOW TO GET ON LOCAL TV

1. Don't pick up the phone unless you are sure your story is relevant to a particular region's audience. Local knowledge is power.

2. Be aware of what has been covered in the local papers and radio before making that call.

3. Ensure there is a strong visual image to film.

4. Work harder by building up relationships with key journalists. Despite the cutbacks, every show will still have at least one researcher or reporter working on it.

5. Keep abreast of where local programming and news resources are stretched or have been cut so any opportunities can be fully exploited.

6. Ensure the agency team is well trained in the skills of pitching to TV and the person doing the pitching has more than one angle ready to discuss.

NORTH-EAST REFERENDUM: SWINGING THE VOTE

Graham Robb, partner, Recognition Marketing

The outcome of last year's North-East referendum, to assess the mood for an elected assembly, demonstrated the power of regional TV, claims Recognition Marketing partner Graham Robb.

He was in charge of activity for the 'No' campaign and last September had to respond to Government-sponsored advertising for a 'Yes' verdict.

Local residents voted by post last October.

The 'No' campaigners felt people needed more information on what were complicated issues. Recognition worked with broadcasters to put together programmes that aired in the week that ballot papers arrived on people's doormats.

There were half-hour debates on ITV, and an in-depth discussion programme on BBC North. Tyne Tees broadcast a guide to the referendum and included a mini-debate featuring young voters. In total there were four weeks of regional political shows focusing almost entirely on the issue.

'Without peak-time TV coverage the public would not have been properly informed,' says Robb. 'We used real people such as pensioners, rather than celebrities, to get our message across and employed striking images.

We set fire to £1m of fake money and put earth-diggers and a white elephant on a greenfield site near the council building to indicate what a waste of time (and money) a new local government building would be.'

On 4 November, almost 48 per cent of people eligible to vote did so, with 22 per cent in favour of an assembly and 78 per cent voting against.

'What Ofcom does not appreciate is that you can't just do something like this when there is a major issue,' says Robb. 'You need well-informed journalists in the regions throughout the year so they can consistently bring local topics to life for local people. I deplore what Ofcom has done.'

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