May 012012

Will Local Television Happen?

Television broadcasting is a tricky business. It requires a large amount of money, expertise and commitment to ensure that it gets to air. The large UK national players – the BBC, ITV and Sky – pour-in billions of pounds to keep the programmes updated on our screens, while also competing in a super-competitive international environment that requires a clear commitment to deliver content that appeals to some very broad audiences. So why would anyone want to set-up a local television station that broadcasts to a limited locality, say a city, all on a shoestring? I went to Liverpool John Moores University to find out more about what’s happening with the proposals for local television in the United Kingdom.

According to The Guardian “Local TV may be coming to a small screen near you soon – but only if you are in one of the 20 towns and cities unveiled by the government as one of the “pioneers” of the new service.” There are twenty cities that have been earmarked for the potential launch of local television, including London, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Cardiff. According to The Guardian, Jeremy Hunt, Minister for Culture Media and Sport, argues that “Local TV will be a fundamental change in broadcasting in this country, meeting a real demand for local news and content.”

Today’s conference in Liverpool, ‘Getting the Picture – Making Local TV Happen,’ brought together a wide range of people from the media communities, broadcasters, educators and community groups, to discuss if local television has a future and what form it should take? It was commonly agreed that we are at a significant moment where the proposals for local television have the potential to become a great opportunity, but the question raised was what are the issues that are likely to face anyone seeking to do so?

In putting together a bid for a local television service are we going to be able to learn anything from elsewhere? What would the likely cost-base look like? How much local content can actually be produced and to what standard? Can bidding consortia partner with Higher Education to share resources and students to do the work? What would the funding mechanisms be? Will advertising pay for running local television stations? What would content look like?

In terms of the lessons from elsewhere, Ruth Spratt, former MD for Channel M gave a brief yet vivid account of how a local television channel might operate. At it’s peak Channel M had 300,000 viewers per week, and brought in a peak revenue of £4 million. At a cost of £1,000 – £2,000 per hour, Channel M worked across many platforms to serve Manchester with local commercial content. However, once the station was sold by the Guardian Media Group to Trinity Mirror, the impetus for the station as a developing business was lost. Channel M closed in 2012. Citing distribution issues as the main challenge facing Channel M, Ruth suggested that the hardest problem was ensuring that people could actually receive the service. Ruth explained that the proposed digital licenses are now the key to ensuring the success of local television, as long as there is some investment in an audience management system that is fit for purpose.

The issue I wanted to find out more about was ‘Is local TV community TV?’ After five years experience establishing DemonFM as a community radio station, where the volunteers in the station produce and manage all of the content that is broadcast. I wanted to know if a similar model is expected from local television, or will local television be following a more commercial model?

Jaqui Devereux, who runs the Community Media Association, argued that what makes community media special is the way that people produce media that speaks for people themselves – while being more than a basic user generated content experience. Jaqui suggested that there are some important lessons for local television that can be offered by community radio. The more local a station is the more there is a compelling reason to listen to a stations programming. The more local people are involved in making the content of a station the stronger the bond of trust with the audience, and therefore the greater chance that the station has of reaching listens that might otherwise be hard to get.

Debra Davis has many years experience working for City TV Broadcasting in Canada, offering local television services. Debra suggested that the strongest unique selling point that a local television service has to offer is how it represents it’s home city. According to Debra the city becomes the brand and gives the strongest sense of why people want to listen. As long as people can access local news first on their local television station, Debra argued, they will watch the station.

Sky News was represented by Simon Bucks, who talked us through the experiment that Sky are undertaking in Tyne and Wear, where they are running a local television news service that is specific to that region. Simon suggested that one of the frustrations that people express about local media is that things often happen which they only find about afterwards. Sky’s willingness to invest in this more local service has the potential to be an important part of their commercial portfolio, but overall they are hoping to offer their customers a ‘better and broader experience for its customers’.

Moving on to the second session the question was raised about how higher education institutions might work as partners in local television consortia. David Hayward from BBC Academy School of Journalism gave an overview of his experience traveling around the UK talking to different media and journalism courses. David suggested that there is a great upsurge in local media across the UK, but that this upsurge is primarily based online and uses social media. As a consequence, according to Dave, higher education has a ‘massive role to play’ in supporting local television, to some extent filling-in the role that local newspapers used to occupy. According to David ‘micro blogging can create a powerful local media’. The role of the BBC, therefore, is to support innovation and to champion new techniques for news production and new ways to tell stories.

Jamie Conway from Element TV reminded the conference that it’s essential that both industry and education providers should look at the ‘skills and nurture the talent’ of our young people. Many agreed that the partnership between HE and local television providers should not exploit students as a free resource, whereby learners provide the back-bone of the work but don’t get any of the reward for their work. Managing the relationship between the learning experience and the commercial imperative needs more support and careful planning from education providers. Why aren’t more business schools involved in local media partnerships, so that sales, marketing and management techniques for media can be better exploited and managed?

There is a lot to think about coming out of this event. Questions about true localism and financial sustainability are just some of the most obvious. What type of content will be developed and where will innovation come from? How will programme makers be held accountable to their viewers and what professional standards will the work to? If the local television moment is going to arrive there needs to be much more sessions like this where people can talk about a mixed model of development. To summarise the key issues we discussed local television is about:

Content, collaboration and partnership.
Don’t work in isolation, share and work with local businesses.
Be ambitious – ignore the naysayers.
Have a very clear partnership agreement at the outset.

I’ll update this blog later after talking to more people, thinking about the potential opportunities for De Montfort University.

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