How a broken dam highlighted the anomalies of "the news where you are"...

Regional news boundaries are odd things and for some viewers, "the news where you are" is not where they are. The past week's events in Whaley Bridge have highlighted how these anomalies have got worse, not better as the BBC covers more platforms.

Mike Manning, who previously edited a516digital, returns for a guest column on why the events surrounding a Derbyshire Dam highlighted the messy world of regional anomalies, as part of our RXdivide series, exploring divisions in the reception of TV:

Across social media and the East Midlands pages of the BBC News website, there was only one major story this past week: the evacuation of Whaley Bridge amidst concerns that the dam above the town centre would break under the pressure of the vast amounts of water that had flowed down the hills in torrential downpours into the reservoir.

In fact for several days, there were hardly any other stories posted to the social media feeds of either BBC East Midlands and BBC Radio Derby or the East Midlands live page on the BBC News website.

So for some, it may have come as a surprise, given the amount of reporting appearing on the internet from BBC East Midlands that the region's TV news service was virtually free of any mention of what was happening in the north of Derbyshire all week. BBC Radio Derby and BBC Radio Manchester both covered events, but in different measures, with BBC Radio Manchester going live through the night with coverage.

In fact, the story of Whaley Bridge showed up how historically quirky regional news boundaries have become even more misaligned in the online era of apps, social media and regional internet pages and  how for some users, the 'news where you are' was dependent on which platform you where using.

It should be fairly straightforward: the topography of the land in Northern Derbyshire means viewers are either assigned to BBC North West or BBC Yorkshire, basically depending on which signal the local hilltop relay was able to receive in the early days of terrestrial television, before it was possible to connect relays to a fibre feed of a regional TV service. Go 10 miles south, and the relays are able to take either BBC Midlands (Birmingham) or BBC East Midlands (Nottingham). Prior to these relays coming in to service, residents living in local towns and villages - invariably located in a dip or a dale - stood no chance of receiving any reasonable signal from any of the main transmitters.

It meant that neighbouring communities would end up receiving a variety of TV services from Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and later Nottingham, with different news, dialects, adverts and even entirely different schedules from one Derbyshire village to the next.

Buxton, Chapel En Le Frith and Whaley Bridge form part of the south-eastern fringe of the North West TV region, with their local relays able to get a signal from the Winter Hill transmitter in Lancashire (although Buxton is already marginal - until 1980 it relayed Midlands TV from Sutton Coldfield). All these areas are a relative short commuting distance from Stockport and Manchester, giving them a closer link to the North West than to the Midlands or even Yorkshire.

Satellite postcode mapping has broadly mirrored terrestrial coverage boundaries, meaning that viewers with the local SK postcode across that part of Derbyshire are also assigned to the North West region on Sky and Freesat.

So on that basis, events in Whaley Bridge clearly came under the remit of BBC North West and ITV's counterpart, Granada Reports, despite being in Derbyshire and the government region of the East Midlands.

But add radio and online to the mix, and things start getting complicated...

Each BBC region contains its own TV news service and linked local radio stations. BBC Radio Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire are for instance part of the BBC North West region. For the Buxton area however, the local radio station is not aligned to the local TV region.

In fact, as recently as 2001, the BBC installed a relay of BBC Radio Derby (East Midlands region) to serve Buxton, rather than match it with the TV service and relay BBC Radio Manchester's FM signal from the Holme Moss transmitter. It means the site of the Whaley Bridge media briefings (at the Devonshire Dome, Buxton) and the evacuation point (Chapel En Le Frith) fell in Radio Derby's coverage area, while Whaley Bridge, just a few miles further along - and thanks to the hills - was out of Radio Derby's and into Radio Manchester's coverage.

Ofcom coverage maps for local DAB (never fully rolled out in the area) show the editorial boundary between Derbyshire and Manchester radio services passing through Chapel En Le Frith. Earlier plans to extend Derbyshire DAB further into the area were abandoned putting an end to any plans by the BBC to further extend Radio Derby and hence BBC East Midlands coverage into the north west of Derbyshire.

As a result, both stations provided coverage of the unfolding story, although overall, Radio Manchester had the most comprehensive continuous coverage.

Online, the BBC has in recent years chosen to follow traditional administrative boundaries rather than boundaries that were historically formed by the constraints of terrestrial broadcasting.

This has its advantages - bread and butter local news stories relating to the police, fire and ambulance services and councils are after all based on administrative county boundaries and not based on quirky geographical boundaries created by terrestrial transmitters.

But in the past week, this misalignment of regional news boundaries across platforms has resulted in a unprecedented deviation between what BBC East Midlands is offering TV viewers compared to internet and mobile users. It's a far cry from the BBC's move to integrate and cross-promote various platforms - made famous by BBC London's tri-media "on TV, on radio, online" approach in the 2000s.

For days, the BBC East Midlands Twitter and Facebook feeds (previously set up as pages for the East Midlands Today TV programme prior to internal changes) have been covering hardly any other stories than the Whaley Bridge evacuation - because Whaley Bridge is in Derbyshire and Derbyshire is in the East Midlands. This has carried across to the BBC East Midlands Live webpage on the BBC News website, the Derby pages of the BBC Red Button text service in the East Midlands sub-section and on the BBC News app, but nothing on regional TV. A downside of this, is that for BBC online users in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, the "news where you are" has very much been the news where you aren't...

Compare this to BBC North West's Twitter and Facebook feeds, which are still directly aligned with the regional TV programme North West Today/Tonight, which have also carried wall-to-wall coverage.

BBC funding cuts and the reluctance of commercial DAB multiplex operators to expand coverage to originally envisaged coverage areas has resulted in no end to the geographical anomalies of regional news boundaries on TV and radio, although the BBC has been able to offer more choice via Freeview, where it has the capacity to broadcast multiple local radio stations, including both Manchester and Derby in the North West region. Satellite viewers can freely choose to watch another region if they want to, and the iPlayer allows users to go beyond the traditional constraints of terrestrial broadcasting.

But the story of Whaley Bridge shows that in the online world that the BBC is pushing more and more, the default regional anomalies across platforms are worse than ever, although users can override it if they want to.

So what will the end game be? Shouldn't the BBC's online presence reflect the existing TV coverage areas? Or should the regionalisation offered to online users be where BBC TV and radio is moving to over the next decade? As we move to 5G or TV via fibre broadband, will the use of our actual postcode mean the BBC can align regions with administrative regions and counties ending decades of anomalies as is already happening with the BBC's apps? But will this break the long felt connections to neighbouring cities in favour of being linked to some city over an hour's drive away across the hills?

Time will tell, but in the meantime, expect further instances where your local BBC news online is different to your local BBC news on TV and radio and where regional services online, on radio and on TV are misaligned.

  • Last month, the BBC launched new regional news titles for its bulletins in the English regions, which includes place names scrolling around images taken from across each region. If you believe the titles, Bakewell in Derbyshire has been transferred to BBC North West, which name checks the town alongside the village of Edale. Bakewell has never been in the North West TV region and is served on terrestrial and satellite TV by BBC East Midlands and on radio by BBC Radio Derby. Edale, a remote, cut-off valley surrounded by the tall hills of Mam Tor to the south and Kinder Scout to the north is only able to receive TV signals from a small relay rigged up on the southern side of the valley, which relays signals from the Emley Moor transmitter, meaning that viewers receive Look North and not North West Today. The hills around Edale prevent reception of any other TV region. On the other hand, lucky York gets name checked on both the Leeds and the Newcastle editions of Look North.

  • Mike Manning was editor of a516digital until March 2019.

  • Views of guest columnists may not reflect those of RXTVlog.