The crisis in Northern Ireland’s local television networks has been laid bare in a new report which reveals that the amount of home-grown programmes has sharply declined.
The report published today by Ofcom shows a massive slump of 41% in regional investment in local programming in just five years.
BBC and UTV spent a combined total of £25m on TV programmes for viewers here in in 2009, down 11% year-on-year from £28m.
Both broadcasters have also dramatically slashed the number of hours of programming they produce locally to 969, representing a reduction of 15% on 2008.
It’s a far cry from their heyday of offering a diverse range of local programmes, including the animated sketch show Folks On The Hill and the satirical comedy series Give My Head Peace.
Media expert and commentator Don Anderson said the figures show that broadcasters aren’t immune to the impact of the recession.
“The main reason for the fall in investment is the economic |downturn,” said Mr Anderson, a former deputy head of |programmes for BBC Northern Ireland.
“If they had more money both broadcasters would probably produce more local programmes.
“Politically, the BBC can’t afford to do any less in terms of the local programmes it produces and I believe it will try to do more with less.
“And although UTV has pulled back significantly in line with the resources it has available, the programmes it makes locally achieve a higher audience than if it replaced something local, like Lesser Spotted Ulster, with a network programme — and UTV is one of the few regions in the UK that has done that.”
In its annual report, Ofcom revealed that only a small number of programmes of Northern Ireland origin were distributed across the main networks.
It also found the BBC was the only public service broadcaster which produced any programmes in Northern Ireland for other UK viewers, but pointed out that such programmes accounted for a mere 0.4% of its total output by volume.
However, spend on programmes aimed specifically at Northern Ireland audiences |represented 10% of total spending on nations and regions programming, up from 9% in 2008.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee issued a report in January this year, criticising the BBC of “culturally neglecting” its public service broadcasting duties in the province.
It stated: “The evidence we received demonstrates that Northern Ireland is the least well served of the UK’s four regions in terms of network production that portrays its life and the amount of network programming produced here.”
Then, in July, the BBC Audience Council Northern Ireland told the broadcaster it needs to stop focusing on the Troubles and revamp its output to display a better understanding of Northern Ireland society.
Network productions made here in 2009/2010 included Five Minutes of Heaven (which won Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival), Occupation (which won Best Serial at the Prix Europa) and Small Island (an adaptation of the Andrew Levy book).
However, the BBC’s ironically-titled Northern Exposure — which featured millionaire presenter Gary Lineker and his model fiancee Danielle Bux being sent on a jaunt across Northern Ireland at licence payers’ expense — wasn’t broadcast across the UK but was instead seen by only a local audience.
The BBC has publicly committed to commission a total of 17% of its production from the nations, including Northern Ireland, by 2016.