Monday, 30 April 2012

Local TV: Time For a Re-Think?

Following the demise of Manchester’s Channel M should the government re-think its plans for local TV? 

By Will Strauss

It’s not been the best couple of weeks for the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP.

Not only has the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport been forced to deny involvement in News Corp receiving ‘inside track’ during its negotiations to buy BSkyB but he’s also been asked further questions about his plans for local television provision in the UK following the closure of Channel M in Manchester.

The latter story may have received less publicity than the News Corp saga but, in the long term, it may be of greater significance.

Channel M began life as Manchester Student Television in 2000 and for 12 years broadcast to the Greater Manchester area on Freeview.

In April 2012 the station closed with owners GMG Radio declaring that: “it was unable to offer a commercially viable quality service within the Government's strategy to provide local television.”

The local TV strategy that GMG is referring to has been vigorously probed but, with Channel M’s closure, is once again being questioned.

As it currently stands, the government plans to award licenses that will allow broadcasters, media owners, independent producers and anyone with the right credentials to provide local television services (via an independent multiplex operator) to the cities of the UK via a dedicated channel on Freeview.

Finance for this new vision of local TV will come from both advertisers and the BBC which is being forced to provide up to £25m for the local TV services plus £15m over three years for content as part of the license fee settlement of October 2010.

Industry regulator Ofcom is currently consulting on the first 20 local stations with 2014/15 the likely starting point for any such services.

The over arching plan is to offer “a new voice for local communities, with local perspectives that are directly relevant to them.”

Designed to sit alongside rather than replace current regional television services, the ambition is honorable and has great merit.

With the media still very London-centric, it sounds (from a North of England based television viewer’s perspective at least) like a blessing, especially if you live in, visit, work in or associate yourself with a city that gets a licence.

In industry terms it’s a potential boon too as, now that multiple media ownership is possible, it could allow more local newspaper publishers, commercial radio firms and the like to get into TV or, perhaps most interestingly, give independent producers the chance to become broadcasters.

Phil Redmond, the founder of Mersey Television and creator of Brookside, said recently that he would apply for a license to broadcast in his hometown of Liverpool. "[The proposal] will be to create a platform and exhibition space for voices and social issues that do not get properly exposed or debated’” he said. “It will be commercially driven but with a strong public service purpose."

Now, although the idea of Redmond (and/or his peers) dictating the content agenda for a local TV service is manna from broadcasting heaven, there are still big hurdles and questions to answer.

Once awarded, the license will only require the licensee to broadcast a minimum of one hour of programming a day. This hardly feels like the revolution it could be.

Also, it really possible to, as Redmond suggests, make the service ‘commercially driven’?

Stuart Taylor, the chief executive of GMG didn’t think so. “Sadly, we don't feel they provide us with the framework needed to grow Channel M into a profitable business that delivers the quality service viewers and advertisers expect from GMG,” he said.

Part of this difficult commercial context is down to a lack of an appropriate way of measuring what will be very small audience viewing figures. The current BARB service that is used by the TV industry has, as BARB itself admits, ‘not been designed to represent viewing at individual small local levels.”

To get those stats requires significant investment but without them it is difficult to see how an advertiser will be able to justify any spend on commercials.

The good news is that in recent days further cash has been added to the potential Local TV pot thanks to the BBC returning £300m it didn’t spend on the digital switchover.

The bad news is that although city-focused TV stations could provide advertisers with highly targeted audiences and access to entire communities, local TV is expensive and time consuming to make (in comparison with other types of media) and is unlikely to provide the audience scale necessary to satisfy major brands and, in turn, the revenues required to sustain local TV services.

As interested parties from around the UK gather at Liverpool John Moore’s University today to discuss how it could work  I have my own thoughts.

Surely, a wider choice of platforms would provide the scale required? Why not embrace this new thing called the ‘internet’ (you have may have heard of it) where the start-up and transmission costs for video are also significantly lower?

Failing that, if this new vision for local TV must be available on broadcast television and we’re only talking about one-hour a day, would it not have been better to allow a public service broadcaster such as Channel 4 to launch a dedicated channel with lots of regional opt-outs featuring indie-produced investigative, social and historical documentaries on a micro, rather than macro, scale.

Think of it as ‘The One Show’ meets ‘Dispatches’ via ‘Countryfile’ but with regular stories from (and for) each of the nations and regions not just their cities.

Importantly it would be a further boost to a wider tranche of the UK’s regional Indies and it could potentially provide the size of audiences that advertisers would be happy with.

The broadcaster would run it, the quality of the content would be high, the viewing figures would be handled in the industry-accepted way and only one start-up would need to flourish rather than 20-odd. 

It’s probably too late now but - if nothing else - in his annus horribilis it would have given Jeremy Hunt one less problem to deal with.


Will Strauss [] is a Leeds-based freelance journalist and regular contributor to various TV industry publications including Broadcast.