Pap news from a new ITV company

The Guardian, January 1 1993
Marking the launch of Meridian, the new ITV company for SE England

We’re dealing with a mystery here. Look, first of all, at Meridian’s big PR plug for itself, broadcast on New Year’s Day, in which the South East’s new ITV company celebrated its plans for the future. It was great.

It was not so much that the plans were great – anyone can boast – but that the show itself was a 30-minute lesson in how to use television. It was fronted by Michael Palin, who was originally one of Meridian’s directors but is now merely a good friend, and he was in fine form, full of manic bubble and enthusiasm, darting in and out of railway carriages to sample local opinion on television, setting up clips of shows they’ve already made and muttering to himself about a mysterious woman who kept turning up in the background and who became a running theme. It was stylish and subtle and it was also persuasive.

Then look at Meridian News, the six o’clock regional news show. Most of it is drivel, the worst kind of junk telly. It scrapes the bottom of the tabloid barrel looking for what is known in the trade as “Ooooh-just-fancy-that stories”. In the first two nights, they gave us the eight-year-old boy who delivered his auntie’s baby (“I just got its head and pulled it out”); the eight-year-old girl who was rescued from a fire by the ghost of her great grandfather (reported as fact without any hint of a doubt); and a ferret’s funeral (“He was my friend,” said owner John Hopkin).

It is presented by graduates of the Jeremy Beadle School of Newscasting, cracking jokes and smearing the whole enterprise with frantic bonhomie (“Over to you, Mike”, “Back to you, Alison”). They have had months to prepare for their launch. They could have come up with a new format; instead, we got the standard, knee-jerk white middle-class couple perched on the kidney-shaped table. They could have found themselves a scoop; instead they led the first show with “miracle escape from horror crash”. They could have hooked up with any of the universities in their patch; given a camera to a school to find their own story; launched a campaign on a local issue; done anything to suggest they could tell the difference between news and pap. But no.

How can one company straddle such extremes of quality? The clue lies in the history of Meridian News. The truth is that it is not really a new programme at all. It is a reproduction of its predecessor, Coast to Coast. The old TVS six o’clock regional news show went to the dustheap of history on New Year’s Eve with a review of its greatest hits (the man who married his mother-in-law, the couple called Andrew and Sarah who married on the same day as the Duke and Duchess of York and so on and on). There was music from a marine band and a cheery wave from presenter Mike Edmunds. Meridian News arrived the next day with a different logo, different music and a cheery wave from its presenter – Mike Edmunds. He, like almost everyone else from Coast-to-Coast, was still there.

You have to understand that it is television heresy to say that Coast to Coast was pap. The received opinion is that it was A Good Thing. It won awards and it pulled in viewers, but it did so by lurching down market, just as most of the old ITV companies did in the run-up to the new franchises in a terrified effort to grab enough cash to buy the future. In absorbing its format and its staff, Meridian are playing safe. And that’s the solution to the mystery.

The Michael Palin PR plug is by no means Meridian’s only good show. Meridian are a quality act, but they are tethered by fear. They have kicked off a promising network comedy series, Full Stretch, but it comes from the dead safe tried-and-tested camp of Clement and La Frenais. They have a new children’s programme, Wizardora. It’s colourful and funny and intelligent, but it’s hardly original. They have launched a brave three-minute slot where a member of the public talks to the camera about some personal issue (cancer, alcoholism, religious conversion), but they have lost their courage and ruined it by playing muzak over the top of the monologue.

The people who run Meridian come from the Good Guys corner of British television. If Mrs Thatcher had left the old ITV rules in place, Meridian would have sailed over the quality thresholds and then would have been free to experiment. It would have been very exciting to watch. As it is, they are trying hard, but they have had to pay a punishing £36.5 million for their franchise and they have the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch watching for signs of weakness. They can hardly afford to take risks.