Mike Blair: ‘ITV must stay connected to the communities we serve’

Mike Blair, regional director for ITV Central, Granada, and Yorkshire spoke to The Linc during his trip to the University of Lincoln on Wednesday, February 10th, where he gave a talk to students and staff.

Mike Blair said regional news should be affordable to make, and should attract viewers. Photo: Anneka James

Blair, who is also the national director for ITV Wales, told The Linc about the current situation at ITV, the future of regional television news, and also the more sensitive subject of independently funded news consortia (IFNCs).

He believes that this year may not just be an important time for regional news, but also ITV as well: “I think 2010 will be the year when the future of ITV [regional news] will be decided, not just in terms of IFNCs which the government are pushing at the moment. If the Conservatives win the next General Election, they’ve already said that they are going to scrap them.

“I think the future of regional news in ITV is in the hands of ITV, the job of myself and my colleagues is to try and make sure that there is a service that ITV finds affordable and that viewers find credible,” Blair said.

ITV are a commercial company and even though there has been a huge restructure, which in turn cut costs and jobs, there is still over £50 million pounds spent each year on programming, but despite this Blair believes they can find a financial balance: “We are not a profit centre, we don’t make money, we’re a public service and so there has to be a balance found somewhere.

“I am a pragmatic optimist who believes that [ITV] can find that balance, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be challenging. But as I say I believe we can get there and there will be a future,” Blair said.

When resources become limited it is possible that news outlets may see a drop in quality and because of this audience viewing figures may also decline. Blair realises the ever present threat posed by the BBC and acknowledges the importance of attracting viewers back to ITV regional news.

“You make the kind of programmes people want to watch, that people care about. I think it’s important that we challenge the BBC but it’s also important that we are a different voice, [and] that we tell the news in a different way. We remain, what I would hope which we have done during these recent processes, relevant and connected to the communities we serve.”

The major restructuring of ITV occurred last year when their news map changed considerably and as a result over 400 people lost their jobs. It was also predicted that viewers would switch over to BBC to watch regional news and that no one would want to watch ITV’s programmes, but Blair believes this is not the case.

“We’ve made sure that the programmes we have offered still meant something to people and still meant something to those regions. There would be no point in ITV putting out regional news programmes that no one wanted to watch, at the moment people still do want to watch them.

“The challenge for us is to find a financial model and a credible model that means that ITV can afford it and that people will still want to watch,” Blair explained.

Another major issue Blair addressed is that every single story cannot be pursued when a news networks such as ITV have limited resources, but he also believes that with the journalists they have quality news can still be made regardless.

Blair said: “You look at making news in a different way, you look at making programmes in a different way, you don’t chase everything because you know that is a waste of your effort. We’ve had reporters and journalists in every part of the world in the past year covering major stories.

“We’ve had people in Haiti from the regions covering major stories, we’ve had people in Afghanistan [and] all doing it themselves,” Blair said. It is possible that IFNCs will only be in certain locations and not nationwide, but this could change come the general election on May 6th.

The Conservatives have said that they will scrap them yet Blair believes if this happens it will leave ITV back once again looking for a solution which could fall within regional news.

Blair said: “I would love to see regional news continue on ITV. I would really like to see that because I think it’s valuable and I think it’s valued and also, as I said before, I am a pragmatic optimist. That’s the optimism part. The pragmatic part is we have to find a way that makes it affordable.

“It needs to be affordable because in a commercial world it is very rare that you give away something for nothing.”

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