This article aims to look at the history of local TV in the UK to date and look at its prospects for the future.
Around 20 stations are set to go live as part of a first round of local TV launches, here are the ones that have launched to date:
As of September 2014:
Estuary TV, Grimsby (broadcasting from November 2013)
Mustard TV, Norwich (broadcasting from March 2014)
London Live, London (broadcasting from March 2014)
Notts TV, Nottingham (broadcasting from May 2014)
STV Glasgow, Glasgow (broadcasting from June 2014)
Latest TV, Brighton & Hove (broadcasting from August 2014)
The then Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, announced plans for commercial local TV in 2010. He told the Oxford Media Convention in 2011:
“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content……..one that will sit alongside other public service broadcasters, offering a new voice for local communities with local perspectives that are directly relevant to them.”
………People in Barnham don’t want to watch what is going on in Southampton. People in Helmsford aren’t interested in what’s happening in Watford. That is the system we currently have at the moment, so that is what we are trying to rethink.”
There is a degree of truth in the fact that both the BBC and ITV regions are rather large. Meridian, for example, covers a vast area of the south and south east from Dover to as far north as Oxford.
Hunt was heavily influenced by visits to the US where New York alone has six local TV stations, including the successful NY1. Hunt is rather fond of saying that Birmingham Alabama has eight local TV stations despite being a quarter the size of Birmingham, UK which has none. Sounds all well and good, but he neglects to mention that these TV stations often have tiny audiences, are affiliates of mainstream media like Fox or NBC, and often broadcast local content for only a few hours a day. The US has a ‘loose’ regulatory TV environment compared to the UK where local TV schedules are dominated by shopping and commercial programme sponsorship.
We’ve been here before
Channel One launched in London in 1993 by Associated Newspapers who then owned the London Evening Standard. It employed VJs or video journalists who would cover stories alone. The channel was dogged by technical problems and soon ceased broadcasting.
Channel M in Manchester was around for longer, operating from 2000 to 2012 under various owners including The Guardian.
Local TV run by newspapers and colleges
Many of the bids for local TV have come from newspaper providers.
London Live from ES TV (Evening Standard TV) launched on 30th March 2014. It covers one of the most potentially lucrative cities with a population of around 8 million, although five months in and the station is struggling.
At launch it stated that London Live:
“will attempt to lure Londoners with an eclectic mix of programming including four hours-a-day of news, live coverage of West End shows and events such as the Notting Hill Carnival, local sport including as bicycle polo and capital-themed drama such as Whitechapel.”
Mustard TV in Norwich is backed by Archant, a local newspaper provider. Many newspaper companies really want to get into TV, but potential economies of scale can be overstated. Print journalists often don’t make for great TV presenters (and visa versa), although London Live has benefited from heavy promotion in the Evening Standard and in the media sections of The Independent and I newspapers.
Universities and colleges are also getting in on the act. Notts TV is a collaboration between the Nottingham Post Media Group and Nottingham Trent University.
That’s Solent, covering Southampton and Portsmouth, was due to launch in June 2014 but has been delayed. It will use the studio facilities (and free student labour) at Highbury College, Portsmouth and at Southampton City College. The KM Group, owner of many local newspapers, has joined Kent University and will launch a local TV station.
These alliances make sense. Universities and colleges that teach media and journalism often have studio space and students on tap who are willing to work for free for the experience. Whether universities want to encourage that kind of exploitation of their students is another matter.
I asked Jay Rosen of NYU about this issue when he spoke at an event at City University in June 2012. He said that the idea of universities running local TV was like PBS in the US. He felt that as a teaching tool it was useless and most stations were eventually taken over by commercial operations with universities hiring out their facilities or they closed.
Arguments for local TV
- It could improve local democracy – this is one of the key arguments of Jeremy Hunt. The local TV initiative originally coincided with plans by the coalition to improved local democracy as part of the ill-fated ‘big society’ concept. Clearly, it is important that local media, whether it be print, broadcast or online, represents the fourth estate and will seek to hold local councils and courts etc to account.
Traditionally, BBC local radio and newspapers have done much of this work. Local newspapers have their own problems as they move from print to digital. This has seen the loss of journalism jobs and newspapers folding at all the regional newspaper groups. There is concern that in some areas the BBC is the ‘only show in town’ when it comes to local coverage, as ITV has long ceased to be a significant force.
- It will be visible – OFCOM has insisted stations get a prominent position on the EPG. On Freeview it appears on channel 8 (inserted between BBC Four and the soon-to-be axed BBC Three).
- There could be an audience – Research shows people want more local news. Unfortunately, people tend to say this in surveys and then not watch or listen to it.
- It is taking dosh from the BBC It is being subsidised by the BBC to the tune of around £40m in the first three years, funding which previous local start-ups never enjoyed. The license-fee payer has the right to question whether this is a proper use of funds for what is a commercial experiment.
- Better coverage for minority interests City TV in Birmingham said it will broadcast programmes in foreign languages catering for Birmingham’s various ethnic minorities.(Unfortunately the company went bust before launch).
- Gets newspapers into TV – print is slowly dying, so print publishers are looking to rebrand as multimedia companies. Will diversifying into local TV help the likes of Archant and the Evening Standard?
- You can broadcast anything else OFCOM has set a commitment for just three hours of local content a day. They can also broadcast anything else (except porn) once that have met their local commitments (so expect lots of TV shopping).
- It gives opportunities to those wanting to get into TV – Despite the fact it is TV on the cheap, London Live have chosen some great presenters who truly represent the ethnic diversity of London.
Arguments against local TV
- Is there enough local advertising to support quality output? This is the big one. Most in the industry remain very sceptical. Apart from the dosh from the BBC, the government has said that these channels must be self-funding. The good news is that they have more flexibility to have longer ad breaks as they are not under the restriction of seven ad minutes per hour, which applies to other channels. But long advert breaks can annoy audiences.
- Quality TV isn’t cheap. While we all have a camera in our smartphones, it is a myth that proper HD TV kit
is cheap. London Live is using what look like Nikon digital SLRs to film and the quality is noticeably poorer than other channels. Its annual programming budget is said to be in the region of £15m, about the same as the cost of a 10-part series of Doctor Who. It employed around 70 staff and 30 freelancers at launch. TV remains labour intensive.
- They’re already trying to worm their way out of local coverage. London Live has already asked OFCOM if it can slash the number of hours of prime time local content it broadcasts from three hours to one a day. It is much cheaper to broadcast repeats of London’s Burning and Trigger Happy TV than broadcast anything original.
- Lack of interest from bidders. While there were five bids for Manchester, there were none for Plymouth. Bidding for Bangor region was abandoned by OFCOM after it received just one bid from Bay TV Gwyneddas and it was found there was no sustainable local advertising market. Nigel Dacre, chair of the Local TV network, says that it is unlikely that “anyone’s going to become a multimillionaire out of local television”.
- Lack of audience – there are questions about whether people really identify with where they live. I tend to believe that local TV should work better in big cities – like Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds – where people share a sense of belonging. It will be interesting to see how That’s Solent works which covers a number of cities. But even in London that sense of belonging has been questioned. Do those living in Crouch End really care what is happening in Croydon and vice versa?
- Go niche and specialist I tend to feel there is more potential in the verticals – basing TV stations around interests and languages and distributing nationally (or internationally). A general channel based around locality with limited distribution makes no sense. If you don’t have an audience, you don’t have advertising.
Lack of audience (part 2) The Wake Up London breakfast show on London Live is said to have an average audience of 2,400, although reports vary widely with some suggesting some shows are getting audiences so low that BARB can’t count them. London Live has attacked the way BARB counts audiences for small channels and tends to use data from YouGov. TV can cost in the region of £1,500 per broadcast hour output so many will question whether this is effective use of resources.
- We are not short of entertainment Can local TV really compete with non-linear and on-demand services such as NetFlix and YouTube? London Live started out targeting 16-34 year olds who spend much of their time online, however its look set to go for an older audience who tend to watch more TV.
- It could be ideological The Tory-led coalition are no fans of the BBC or the licence fee funding model. Hunt makes no secret of the fact he wished to strengthen the BBC’s commercial rivals (note the attempt Murdoch made to buy the remaining part of Sky News he didn’t own – a move only scuppered by the hacking scandal). Mayor Boris Johnson has had more than a few run-ins with BBC London, so it is rather fortunate that the Evening Standard (owners of London Live) has consistently backed his election campaigns. Controversially, the government has insisted that money from the license fee will fund the commercial local TV experiment at a time when the Corporation has suffered savage-budget cuts which has hit BBC local radio output particularly hard.
Cuts in local newspapers are certainly threatening local democracy in some areas of the country. So any attempt to strengthen local media must be welcomed. However Jeremy Hunt launched the local TV experiment against the advice of industry experts and politicians which has led some to believe that it is an ideological move.
Running a commercial local TV operation is not easy. In the UK we are used to quality broadcasting thanks largely to the BBC. Local news is labour-intensive, audiences are often low and revenue from advertising is often limited. Sadly, it seems very little has been learned from previous experiments in local TV in London and Manchester or from the decline of ITV regional news. There is a reason why the ITV regions became so big and this is because to make it remotely profitable news coverage had to be merged to achieve some sort of economy of scale.
They would have got far more bang for their BBC license-fee buck by offering some sort of direct or non-direct subsidy to local newspapers. Labour’s Ben Bradshaw preferred to offer support to ITV regional news which is in a dire state. I would like local TV to succeed, but remain sceptical.
Made Television – local provider who are set to run stations for Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Newcastle among others.