SOUTH AND SOUTH EAST ENGLAND: MERIDIAN
The regional service provided by Meridian improved in several areas in
1997, including current affairs and arts. Criticisms in the 1996 review
relating to shortfalls against licence requirements in certain strands were
addressed and there was a welcome increase in new material overall. The
ITC remained concerned about the particular regional relevance of certain
programmes and the quality of regional entertainment programmes.
However, the licensee deserves credit for trying out new ideas and for the
wide range and general high quality of material provided. Meridian again
slightly increased its supply of programmes to the network in 1997 and
rightly won widespread praise for commissioning the uncompromising
drama - documentary, No Child of Mine, shown in February. The service
complied with the licence conditions.
Meridian’s three news centres in the South, West and South East provided
separate high quality news services in each sub-region, supported by six
local news studios across the region. Meridian Tonight, the weekday news
magazine, rated highly in the South East but lost audience in the South and
was overtaken by the BBC. The format remained essentially unchanged,
but several new elements were successfully tried in the hour long Friday
edition, including a series of reports on the Intensive Care Unit at the Royal
Berkshire Hospital in the West and a live studio phone-in to council leaders
on Kent’s budget crisis in the South East.
The regional dimensions of the two momentous national events of the year,
the general election and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were
comprehensively reported with impressive sub-regional news specials. The
General Election coverage in each sub-region was particularly thorough
and Meridian Tonight was first with the delayed Winchester election result.
The weekly current affairs programme, 7 Days, ran a series of lively
programmes looking at regional election issues in more depth.
Current affairs series under the umbrella of Meridian Focus showed a
clearer editorial direction and improved quality after some variable
programmes in 1996. Several particularly strong regional investigations
were produced. However the eight individual editions would have been
easier to find if they had been scheduled in a regular pattern.
As regards other non-news programmes, ITC research showed that
Meridian viewers thought highly of their quality. The range of programmes
was impressive, and new ideas were tried out, with varied success, in every
area of the schedule. Over 130,000 requests from viewers were received
during 1997 for the impressive range of programme support material
produced by Meridian’s outstanding Community Liaison Unit.
Social action programmes are one of the strengths of Meridian’s regional
service. In December a campaign aimed to reunite young runaways and
missing persons with their families. Entitled Come Home for Christmas,
two powerful live one-hour specials were shown on consecutive Sundays
supported by the National Missing Persons Helpline, and by celebrity
promotions throughout the week. Spotlight, Meridian’s annual awareness-
raising week, focused on mental health in an excellent live studio-based
programme backed by a helpline and comprehensive programme support
booklet. A debate on mental health and related programmes in the Three
Minutes strand also appeared. A new series, Home Truths, tried a different
format in discussing dilemmas facing particular families by involving a
studio audience who voted on them. The ITC’s Viewer Consultative
Council (VCC) felt that the poor quality of the on-screen advice
undermined effectiveness of the series.
Arts output achieved high standards, with two new series, appealing to
different audiences: Pier Pressure, a fast-moving and innovative arts and
entertainment magazine which was made by and for young people;
Summer Festivals, a well-made and enjoyable series on festivals in the
region which was shown at 6.30pm. The regular weekly arts documentary,
The Pier, maintained last year’s improvements in both quality and diversity,
and its film editions showed a fresh and more regional approach. Finding
suitable regional slots for arts resulted in some late-night bunching of
series, although most were repeated at more accessible times.
In the 1996 review, the ITC criticised a lack of regionality in the
entertainment strand. Despite progress, Meridian struggled to find formats
that combined popular appeal with regional character. The two new series
introduced, Relative Knowledge, an undemanding family panel game co-
produced with HTV, and Truly, Madly, Weekly, a derivative news quiz
based on regional newspapers, were disappointing although both were
acceptable in terms of their regional content.
Factual output generally had a strong regional flavour, and the VCC was
impressed by the range of subjects covered. Among the most original and
interesting were Four Returns to India, taking regionally-born Asians back
to their ancestral country for the first time, and Rural Rides, retracing
William Cobbett’s horseback journeys in the south.
Because of the increase in regional programmes there was slightly less
reliance on co-productions to meet licence requirements than in 1996 and
regionality overall was less of a problem. The Parish, a well made
documentary series co-produced with Channel 4, followed the work of a
Brighton parish priest: the VCC welcomed this as a refreshing alternative
to other ‘fly on the wall’ series. By contrast, Fair Cops, a three-way co-
production with Anglia and Carlton on policewomen in Southend was of
very limited regional relevance, and the three-way co-production
Waterlines appeared contrived, in trying to link a common interest in
sailing. However In Nelson’s Footsteps, a high quality series portraying
the life of Nelson, co-produced with Anglia, showed how the schedule can
be enhanced when featuring subjects which have a natural association
11. It was regrettable that Countdown to Christmas was scheduled
concurrently as a regional and a network series, and offered nothing
significant to distinguish the versions. Also Archbishop, a high-quality
documentary series on Dr George Carey, began life as a regional series but
a shorter version was then shown on the network, at different times on the
same day for part of the run. Cyber.café, a series about the Internet and its
users, was originally a late-night part-network series. In the latter part of
1997 it became a regional programme although there was little to
distinguish it from its network counterpart, and the few regional elements
included failed to give the programme a distinctive regional flavour.
Regional sport, with limited access to football, regularly covered
motorsport and sailing. An expanded range of other minority sports was
also covered, in a commendable effort to offer diversity although Beach
Volleyball was of limited audience appeal. The regionality of a new golf
magazine was not always clear, but it did offer a new attraction for the
many golfing enthusiasts in the region.
Overall, Meridian’s regional service achieved a high standard in 1997.
Production values were good, new ideas in evidence and as in previous
years the contribution made by independents was considerable. Difficulties
in finding suitable regional slots for some of the high volume of regional
output resulted in greater use of late evening slots but more use was also
made of weekday and Sunday early evening slots where regional
programmes achieved good ratings.
Supply to the Network
Meridian further increased its contributions to the network in 1997, with
particular success in drama and factual programmes.
Drama output included six new Ruth Rendell Mysteries (two of them two-
part plays). A more significant achievement was No Child of Mine, a
controversial drama-documentary about the experience of childhood sexual
abuse. This was hard to view, but intensely memorable. Meridian’s
respected Community Liaison Unit took several months to plan and set up a
sophisticated support strategy, involving a free, confidential helpline for
survivors which received over 46,000 calls and two authoritative free
publications, of which nearly 30,000 copies were distributed.
In factual programmes, Meridan’s sensitive handling of another potentially
harrowing theme, Dunblane – Remembering Our Children, was widely
praised and nominated by ITV for the Prix Italia Documentary Award.
The current affairs series Straight Up was unusual in being targeted at
young people. Despite some initial problems over bad language, the series
brought a fresh approach to familiar themes over its fifteen-week run.
Meridian continued to supply a wide range of programmes to Children’s
ITV, although there were no significant new commissions in 1997.
One intervention occurred in 1997, concerning the children’s entertainment
programme Reboot: To Mend and Defend, shown in July. The ITC considered that the
violent content was inappropriate for the time of day and target audience.
In April 1997 the Basingstoke news bureau was closed and a new bureau
was opened on the Isle of Wight, with the agreement of the ITC. Meridian
gave an undertaking that Basingstoke coverage would not be diminished.
Meridian’s audience research was provided by the company’s in-house
research department and by Paradigm (Worldwide). Routine analyses of the
audience for its programmes and those of its competitors were undertaken.
The company commissioned its biennial survey of its corporate image at
the end of the year. Among a number of ad hoc research projects
undertaken were studies of audience attitudes to the series, Summer
Getaways, and to regional news programming.