SOUTH AND SOUTH EAST ENGLAND: MERIDIAN BROADCASTING Summary In many respects 1998 was a very satisfactory year for Meridian. The regional service was popular and high quality. Nineteen new series were introduced alongside established programmes and regionality was improved, together with a substantial reduction in co-productions. Although network supply fell in 1998, it included – to Meridian’s justifiable pride – the first two of its splendid Hornblower films. The service complied with the licence conditions. Regional Service News is a major part of Meridian’s regional service and high standards in each of the separate news services in the three sub-regions were maintained. Transport coverage was particularly strong. A significant development was the increase in live coverage of important news and regional events in the news magazine Meridian Tonight such as the aftermath of the Selsey tornado. Several regional stories of national interest, such as the harrowing trials following the murders of the Russell mother and daughter and of Billie Jo Jenkins, were sensitively handled and impressive background reports were broadcast on the days of the verdicts. Meridian Tonight regained some of the audience it lost last year in the South, remained one of Page 2 the most widely watched regional news programmes on ITV in the South East but lost audience share during the year in the West. There were changes to the pattern of Meridian’s current affairs programming. The number of editions of Meridian Focus, which enjoyed a particularly strong year in 1997, was halved from eight to four, all scheduled in December. The consequent gap was not entirely met by the adaptation of the former network youth current affairs series Straight Up, although this rated well in its five late Friday evening slots. The weekly political programme also underwent some improvement but fewer Meridian Focus programmes and news specials meant less investigative current affairs overall. Scheduling much of the varied social action programming output in peak- time was commendable. New ideas and several neglected areas were tackled along with more mainstream areas. Although Meridian deserves credit for trying out new formats and wishing to broaden the appeal of social action programmes, there was some unevenness in quality and purpose, a view supported by the ITC’s Viewer Consultative Council (VCC). Members Only, a late-night laddish youth series, did not warrant classification as social action, creating a shortfall in minutage for this genre, an important feature of Meridian’s licence application. In future the licensee must ensure that such programmes satisfy the criteria for social action more clearly. An ambitious series on personal finance based on Page 3 viewer case histories appeared, as well as a much lighter, studio-based consumer advice series, Streetwise, the latter attracted good audiences. The annual awareness-raising week, Spotlight, focused several excellent programmes on the difficult subject of communication impairment, supported by a valuable publication, one of a wide and helpful range of programme support material from Meridian’s Community Liaison Unit, which attracted over 75,000 viewer requests in 1998. Fewer editions (18 rather than 24) of the highly regarded flagship arts documentary The Pier were shown in 1998, resulting in less comprehensive coverage of arts subjects than envisaged in the licence application. By contrast, the low-budget youth arts and entertainment magazine Pier Pressure was given a substantially longer run and included a greater concentration of Brighton-based reports than in 1997. This energetic programme attracts an important minority audience, but the ITC was reassured to hear that there would be no further reduction in The Pier programmes in 1999. High standards and diversity were maintained in a new rock music series and an impressive collaboration with Southern Arts, Taped Up, which showcased new filmmaking talent in the region. In 1997 the ITC accepted the late-night scheduling of some arts series, given repeats at other times, but in 1998 there were too many starts around midnight. The ITC will continue to monitor arts output closely in 1999. Page 4 6. Meridian’s 1998 entertainment output showed some progress with Under Offer, a lively and well-rated panel game on regional house values: credit is due for persisting in this difficult area of programming. Factual and documentary output, two of Meridian’s most successful categories, provided a wide mix of effective programmes reflecting the interests and heritage of the region. Alongside a core of well-established series, a large number of new programmes were introduced in a range of subject areas, from a lonely-hearts column to the region’s coastline. Standards were high and several series stood out, such as The Plain, a social and military history of Salisbury Plain co-produced with HTV, and Aspinall’s Animals, a portrait of the controversial animal conservationist and his Kent zoos. A further increase in animal-related programmes included two series on wildlife rescues. Wildlife SOS, a co-production with Channel 5, lacked particular regional interest. The ITC informed Meridian that without this, future series of Wildlife SOS would not be accepted as regional. Regional sport included several attractive new themes in 1998, including a regional cricket magazine and specials on major events such as the re- opening of Goodwood motor racing circuit. Increased documentary programming widened the range of sporting material; much was of a very high quality such as The Football Club, following Gillingham Football Club over a season. Page 5 Overall, the regional service performed well. Repeats were lower and the level of co-productions down substantially from 10 to 6 per cent of new programmes (excluding news). Regional independents made a valuable contribution to the quality of the service, although the percentage of independent productions continued to fall, to 30 per cent in 1998. There were improvements in scheduling with less use of late evening slots, a concern noted in the 1997 review. However use of the post-10.30 pm slot was at its lowest level. Network Supply Meridian’s contribution to the network fell by 15 hours in 1998, although its commitment to winning commissions, particularly in the factual area, remained high. There was a trend towards the more populist end of this genre with the light-hearted, celebrity-driven The Truth About... series, three editions of which were supplied by Meridian. However it was disappointing that there were fewer of the high quality single documentaries of previous years. Meridian made a major contribution to ITV’s period drama with its two two-hour films of Hornblower, an epic adaptation of the Forester novels. A further two films follow in 1999. In addition, Meridian supplied two new series for CITV (Children’s ITV) CITV), Teddy Bears and the The Forgotten Toys. Compliance Page 6 There was one intervention concerning a trailer for Vice: The Sex Trade which the ITC judged unsuitable for transmission before 9.00pm. Technical Quality The first two episodes of the second series of Pier Pressure were below the technical standards required by the ITC. Meridian introduced new training systems and higher-quality equipment, and tightened procedures to ensure future compliance with ITC standards.