Rick Thompson, Conference Presenter:
Report on the Plenary Sessions of the 21st Circom Regional Annual Conference in Grado, Italy

The rain stopped and the sun came out just in time for the start of the Circom conference in Grado. The location was beautiful. The hospitality from RAI and the local authorities was superb. The attendance was high. The informal networking was continuous. The Coproductions workshops were usually full and active. The two-week training workshop was a big success. But the main business of the 21st annual conference happened in the Plenary Hall over three days of highquality presentations and intensive discussion.
One person attended every plenary session. That person was me, the Conference Presenter. So it was no surprise to be asked by Secretary- General Marija Nemcic to write this summary of the main sessions. A brief report cannot mention every speaker, or give much detail of the sophisticated presentations. And it is inevitably a personal selection of the most interesting contributions. So I hope others who attended the conference will not feel I have neglected anything very important.
The Opening Ceremony on Thursday May 22nd introduced this year’s conference theme of “Connecting”. This theme clearly worked well as a common thread running through the three days, giving a structure to the event, and emphasising the need to connect with regional communities and neighbour-professionals at a time of globalisation. Our Italian hosts gave delegates a particularly warm welcome to Grado, and Giacomo Santini, Vice-President of the European Parliament, made a strong plea for more informed television coverage of the EU over the next 12 months leading up to the next European Parliament elections, which will have an extra 10 countries taking part for the first time.
The conference itself then began with Benchmarking Regional Television in Europe, a presentation of the first draft of a unique survey into the state of our industry. Detailed questionnaires had been prepared by Circom and RAI; replies had been received from 20 member countries. These had been compiled and formatted by Loredana Cornero
from RAI Marketing, and were analysed by Professor Giuseppe Richeri. They showed quite large differences in public TV structures, programming and strategy. Some are loose federations. Others are much more centrally controlled. The move towards 100% digital transmission varies a great deal. For example, Germany is rolling out digital terrestrial transmission on a regional or local basis, so that Berlin has an early target-date for analogue switch-off, while other parts of the country will have no digital delivery in sight for many years. The survey will be completed in the coming months, and will be updated regularly, to become a dynamic resource for use by all Circom Regional members.
In this first session, the European Commission’s Director of Communications, Niels-Jorgen Thogersen, said that the continuing health and development of public television at the regional level was vital for Europe. According to the latest figures, 80% of Europeans now use television as their main source of news, and this percentage is rising. He drew the attention of the conference to a major Call For Proposals issued by the European Commission in the previous week, with up to 16 million Euros set aside for grants for TV and radio programmes about EU issues. He urged Circom to enter programme ideas, and assured non-EU members that the process would be flexible; he hoped to see accession countries and other non-EU countries included in the programme plans. He pointed out that the deadline for the first set of proposals- about Enlargement - had been set for the end of June, so time was short.
Connecting Experiences was the second session on the first morning. Different models of regional television were offered from the UK, France, Netherlands and Norway. The BBC’s Director of Nations and Regions, Pat Loughrey, gave the keynote address, with a passionate call for television which touches communities and individuals. He identified three worrying trends in European society - the fragmentation of society caused by social and religious changes in the past half-century - a growing poverty gap with the rich getting much richer and a growing proportion of poor people - and a digital divide, in which some people will be information rich and others information poor. He explained how the BBC had decided to invest more in local services, particularly with more local radio stations, and that it was trying to use interactivity to stimulate public access and debate at the very local level.
Marc Lesort from France 3 spoke of the difficulty of defining public service broadcasting. He said France 3 is fully committed to covering local culture, but politicians never seemed to be satisfied, not recognising that the audience wants good light-entertainment in their television diet, not just high-culture. He emphasised the value of the France 3 network of regional stations exchanging programmes, ideas and cultural experiences. Roel Dijkhuis from TV Noord took a rather different view, celebrating the complete autonomy enjoyed by regional stations in the Netherlands. “We focus on our own communities. We know them. They know us. It works”. From Norway, Grethe Haaland described the changes at NRK which have been forced by increasing competition and the need to cut costs. They have reduced the number of separate regional programmes, but increased the local presence. And NRK is keen to develop more multi-skilling as fast as possible.
Connecting the Content with Viewers was the title of the next session, with a series of sketches of the types of programming which can work well at local level. Contributions came from France, Italy, Netherlands, and Denmark. An unusual presentation was offered by Helen Thomas, head of the BBC Hull regional station in England. For the past 18 months, she had been conducting an experiment in extremely local TV, with maximum interactivity, such as video diaries from viewers. This was all TV-on-demand, delivered to a small community via broadband. Ms. Thomas said very local services were hugely popular, but the question remained on how to finance them in the long-term.
The theme of co-production, programme sharing and practical collaborations was investigated in the session called Connecting Broadcasters. Successful trans-frontier projects from France and Italy were explained, along with the well-established Balkan Magazine, Alpe-Adria, and Mediterranean projects organised by the CMCA. It was already clear that this 21st annual conference was seeing a dramatic resurgence in co-productions, after several years of low activity. Many ideas were being discussed, some of them stimulated by the European Commission and Parliament. For the rest of the conference, the coproduction workshop rooms seemed to be packed with people.
Coordinators Tim Johnson, Peter Saur and Valerie Joyeux reported that it was an exhausting series of discussions, but should prove to be a rewarding experience for participating stations. Clearly new life has been breathed into Circom Co-Productions.
The evening of the first day saw the Prix Circom presentations, with clips of 19 commended and winning programmes in the six award categories, and some elegant new trophies. The enjoyable ceremony was smoothly produced by Prix Circom President, David Lowen, who said though the the number of entries was down on2002, the quality of entries had been extremely high. It was the second time that the same TV channel had won both the “Grand Prix” awards. It had been Polish television both times, with TVP3 Poland picking up this year’s prizes
for best documentary and best news programme. He hoped that more countries would enter in 2004, when the judging would be hosted by TG4 in Ireland. He was already seeking a TV station to host the judges in 2005.
The following morning, conference delegates had the chance to find out how the six Prix Circom winning programmes had been made, in the session called Meet the Winners. This year it was a particularly interesting presentation. There were many energetic and witty ideas in the winning news programme from Poland, “Fakty Tydzien”. The winning documentary, Bobrek Dance, was revealed to be the result of long preparation which enabled the production team to become part of a deprived Polish community. The winning current affairs programme from BBC Northern Ireland had also been carefully prepared; its investigation into people-smuggling had been the result of a daring undercover operation using hidden cameras, which provoked a debate about when secret filming should be permitted. The editor of the winning cross-border programme, Euro3 from France 3 Nord, had been unable to persuade neighbouring countries to screen the programmes, but remained committed to a broader view of his own region. The team behind BBC Scotland’s special award team told how they had overcome a series of information barriers as they investigated the mysterious deaths of four young soldiers. In contrast, the most original programme,
from Omroep Flevoland in the Netherlands, was the result of very little planning, with the team sometimes knocking on doors at random to find human stories, such as the elderly lady who plays drums in her livingroom.
The second session on the second day, Connecting with Democracy, concerned one of the big issues facing every regional TV station in Europe - how to make politics interesting, without promoting colourful extremists or sensationalism? The subject produced a great deal of reaction, with animated discussions continuing over coffee well after the end of the formal session. The introduction used PowerPoints to give examples of academic research and recent elections to show that there is increasing apathy and cynicism about politics in many countries. Paul Cannon from the BBC explained that senior executives had recently completed a major study about their political coverage,
which had concluded that they must emphasise much more the impact of policies on ordinary lives, and that local politics must take centre-stage. “There are political producers and political consumers. We should give more time to the consumers at the point of delivery.” A new political TV show had been launched which integrated regional coverage. From Rotterdam, Cees van der Wel described the amazing political rise of the controversial and charismatic Pim Fortyn, who until his murder had attracted a huge following in the Netherlands by manipulating the media and being entertainingly radical. “I still can’t understand how it happened”, said Cees, who suggested that we must find ways of making mainstream politics more interesting to viewers. From B92 in Belgrade, correspondent Milorad Vesic reminded everyone how difficult it is to report politics in Serbia, where the Prime Minister had recently been assassinated. Journalists across South-East Europe found it very difficult to establish true information, in an atmosphere of cynical manipulation, concealment and even intimidation.
In the following plenary session, Connecting with Digital, moderator Gerry Reynolds introduced a number of case-studies showing different applications of the digital revolution. Some of the latest newsgathering techniques were illustrated by Steve Pearce from BBC News. He showed how store-and-forward internet transfers of high-quality
pictures had been used in Iraq. This system has potential applications for regional stations wishing to bring pictures into base without having to use expensive satellites. The expansion of national digital channels in Germany was described by Rolf Czernotzky from ARD, and contrasted with the very local service of TV2 Nord Denmark, explained by Bent Bjoern. RAI’s director of strategy, Luigi Rocchi gave an overview of the technical challenges facing digital transmission in Italy.
When the Big Story Breaks was a very interesting workshop session in the plenary hall, which reflected the large number of major events which have affected regional newsrooms in recent years. There were dramatic pictures from the firework factory explosion in Holland, the eruption of Mount Etna, the bombardment of Dubrovnik, and the huge
chemical factory explosion in France. The speakers agreed that every regional newsroom should have a plan for the big unexpected events, which usually occur at awkward times, often at weekends. Marcel Oudewesselink from RTV Oost Holland said, “The best thing the boss can do is leave the journalists to do their jobs, provide food, give staff
safety top priority, and plan the coverage for the next day”.
A parallel workshop considered The Challenge of EU Enlargement. Those who attended said it was very useful to be reminded of the significance of the expansion of the EU to 25 countries, and of the free TV facilities on offer from the European institutions. Kirsten Tingsted- Andersen made it clear that, in addition to the European Commission’s
grants, significant co-production funds would be available from the European Parliament during the build-up to the EP elections in June 2004. The EP audio-visual unit would expand its media-relations operations to cope with coverage of a much bigger parliament.
On the final day of the conference, Saturday 24th May, Connecting Communities with Global Events reminded delegates of the need for great sensitivity when reporting the divisions in local communities caused by such events as the Iraq war, the war against terrorism, and large-scale economic migration. There was a notable contribution from
Khurshid Ahmed, the Chairman of the British Commission for Racial Equality, who was generous about European television’s record, but suggested that special efforts should be made to reflect all parts of the TV audience in each locality, and that producers should really understand the religious and cultural differences in their own communities.
Before the closing ceremony, Young Circom was an opportunity for the participants in the Circom Journalism Workshop, which the Thomson Foundation had organised before and during the conference, to show delegates what they had been doing. A young journalist from Slovakia introduced a half-hour film made by the workshop team. It
contained a series of features about Grado and its surrounding area. These showed excellent television techniques, with well-composed sequences of shots, very good natural sound, many human examples, and interesting narrative structures, all presented in a second language, English, with style and imagination. On behalf of the trainees, Suzanna the presenter appealed directly to any bosses present to allow the young journalists to try such techniques when they returned to their home stations, and not to ignore or obstruct their fresh ideas!
As the conference closed with votes of thanks for all involved in the organisation, it was clear that Circom 2003 had been a big success. The facilities were good. The production team had been very helpful. There had been much more use of visual aids than in previous years, with more speakers using video-clips or PowerPoint for illustrations. A conference of TV professionals should use well-prepared visual aids; this year there was good progress in that direction. There had been some excellent speakers.
For the future, Circom might consider limiting the number of speakers on stage for each session. Some sessions had involved too many speakers, over-running the time, and preventing any meaningful interaction with the audience. Perhaps the plenary hall was a little too large. And some sessions were not well-attended as they were competing with a busy Co-production workshop. A reduction in the number of main sessions might be worth considering. But overall the 2003 conference has been one of Circom’s most enjoyable and interesting events. The feedback from delegates has been very positive.
The success of Grado will be hard to follow in 2004, when TVP3 in Poland will host the conference. The Director of TVP Wroclaw, Richard Novak, ended the conference by inviting delegates to his city in May next year, and showed a film about this vigorous international city, situated near the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic. It will
be particularly appropriate for the 22nd Circom conference to be in Poland, by far the largest of the 10 countries which will join the EU on May 1st 2004, ending two generations of division in the heart of Europe. And Circom will be meeting during the campaign for elections to the European Parliament, with the accession countries taking part for the first time.
In summary, it is clear that all who attended Circom 2003 can look back on the 3-day conference, the board meeting, the co-production workshops, the Prix Circom, the training workshop, and the informal networking during the wonderful social programme, and say that in Grado we were definitely "Connecting Successfully!"
RICK THOMPSON Director T-Media. Conference Presenter.