According to the old television industry saw, the Border area of ITV has more sheep than viewers. Surprisingly, the joke is based on fact. Every single member of Border’s 728,388 human population is matched by 6.26 sheep, or so the censuses say. And looking at the woolly specks munching away on hillsides from Kendal to Berwick on the west coast, on the Isle of Man, across the Scottish border as far as Stranraer and beyond Peebles to within commuting distance of Edinburgh, it is, for once, easy to believe such statistics.
Border Television, which has held the franchise for the area unopposed since 1961, is one of the smallest yet, most sprawling members of the family of 15 ITV companies, and, for most of its existence, deeply conservative and shy of the public stage.
All that is likely to change, for better or worse. The external pressures which are starting to reshape British broadcasting are already being felt by the ITV network, and it may be in the modest Carlisle offices of Border that the shock waves are most acute.
A short train ride away in Newcastle, Tyne Tees Television is trying to cut costs by shedding more than a hundred staff. But Tyne Tees will remain a program-maker even after its cuts.
The fate which faces Border if there is no improvement in the advertising market goes far deeper than lost jobs. The station stands to lose its very identity, forged through the ability to make regional program. And if it does, will the rest of regional television in Britain start to take a back seat too?
One of the company’s former senior executives certainly thinks so. ‘Border is just the beginning,’ he said. ‘In a few years’ time there will only be six or seven ITV companies in Britain because that is the only way you can be viable.’
Peter Brownlow Border’s finance director readily admits that the threat is real and may not be dispelled by the company’s recent call for early retirement among its staff and other economies. Cancelling the window-cleaning contract and ending first-class travel for everyone may still not staunch the losses the company has been facing since January.
‘If there is no return we will have to reassess what we are going to do’, says Brownlow.
The company’s program controller, Paul Corley, brought in to make Border a real force on the ITV network after pioneering The Tube for Channel 4, is equally worried.
‘We’re trying to keep our heads above water until the upturn,’ he said. ‘But nobody has got any figures to prove there will be an upturn. If there isn’t we are in a very hairy position. If this continues all of ITV will have to reassess what it is really about.’
Ironically, if financial constraints force Border back into being little more than a relay station for national television, it will find itself in familiar territory. The company was thought so uneconomic for years that it was allowed astonishing leeway by the IBA. There was little programming, and abysmal internal industrial relations.
Tensions came to a head nearly three years ago when the station was closed by a technicians strike. The management lost the battle and were swiftly replaced. Jim Graham, a rising BBC star who was then heading the Corporation’s secretariat in London, was attracted to the post of managing director, and Brownlow, from United Newspapers, and Corley followed.
For virtually the first time Border tried to make programs for the ITV network. Until Graham’s arrival, the company’s only national effort was the Mr. and Mrs. series, which still runs after 24 years and makes a modest profit. The new team soon signed up the well-known Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg to front a Channel 4 documentary Land of the Lakes and Bragg joined the board. The evening magazine Lookaround gained higher comparable ratings than any of its fellow ITV equivalents.
Channel 4 has transformed Border in an astonishing way. It put up the money for the Bragg series and has also paid for a rock climbing program which was well reviewed. Next month the Carlisle studios will be host to a string of top rock bands for a Friday edition of a new Channel 4 music show.
Corley does not disguise the financial difficulties, however. He is full of ideas – one involves taking the beat poet Allan Ginsberg to the Lakes to recite. But the money must come from outside.
Under IBA rules, which take account of the station’s size, Border needs make only four hours of its own television each week. Local news bulletins and magazines account for between three and three-and-a-half hours of this quota.
The Channel 4 work may have earned Border good reviews, but it brings in little in the way of income. The bank overdraft, now reputed to be about pounds 1 million, is bigger than ever.
Laudable as the tiny company’s aims may be, there are no illusions among its staff about the pitiful financial plight which it now faces. Border’s contributions to Channel 4 and the amount it pays to the IBA for the vast and complex transmission system in its area are well below the rate normally charged.
Yet while revenue has virtually stood still, costs have soared – 8 per cent on staff wages last year, 50 per cent on fees to ITN, general programs between 25 and 30 per cent. Overall, Border must pay out between 17 and 20 per cent more than last year just to stay where it is.
In the middle of the company car park a small fish pond has been built for a nature series. A wag immediately erected a sign by the side of it which read: ‘Save Border Wishing Well’. The pennies are still coming in.
Border, ITV’s second largest region, geographically, after Grampian, stretches from north of Barrow-in-Furness, through the Lake District and across the Scottish border to Stranraer and east to Berwick and Eyemouth. The area also includes the Isle of Man.
Largely agricultural, the area has 279,000 television-watching households – 1.3 per cent of the national total. Border is the second smallest ITV company; only Channel TV has fewer employees, 75 compared to Border’s 240.
The last annual report by the Carlisle-based company, for the year 1983/84, showed that it received nearly pounds 7m in advertising revenue, less than 1 per cent of the whole of the United Kingdom television advertising cake. The next annual report, due in a few weeks, will reveal that last year’s record profit of pounds 550,000 has turned into a loss, and that there has been little, if any growth in advertising.
Border currently pays pounds 144,000 in Channel 4 subscriptions and pounds 61,266 in IBA rentals each year. Thames Television pays pounds 26,547,000 for Channel 4, and pounds 9,498,147 for rentals.