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SOUTH AND SOUTH EAST ENGLAND: MERIDIAN BROADCASTING 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. Regional Service 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 between regions. 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. Compliance 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. Regional Facilities 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. Audience Research 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.
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