Comment: This time we’ll make local TV work

By Jamie Conway

Einstein once said that insanity is repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different outcome.  In the past 12 months trying to find positive comments about local TV from media commentators and industry professionals has been surprisingly difficult.  One of the most common arguments has been that previous incarnations failed and infer that TV technology, viewing habits and distribution have been set in stone, thus any attempts to reassess this industry would lead to the same outcome.  However this is not a case of repeating the same actions over and over.  There are key differences.

In December 2011, new secondary legislation was introduced that gave Local TV 3 new pieces of ammunition that would make the process very different:

1.       The establishment of the LDTPS (local digital television programme services) licensing regime by Ofcom,

2.       A requirement for appropriate prominence to be given on all EPGs (electronic programme guides/channel numbers),

3.       The requirement that Ofcom would make sufficient spectrum available for local TV to appear on DTT (Freeview).

The main barriers to local television in the UK have correctly been identified as the EPG position (to allow people to find the services) and the cost of spectrum.  While other countries have traditionally used cable as the dominant method of carriage for television, satellite has been the main method for non-Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) to be distributed in the UK.  Uplinking to a satellite, whether for viewing on Sky or Freesat, is the same price whether one is trying to target a population of sixty thousand or 60 million.  Cable has always been the logical partner for local tv (and why it is so successful abroad) but it is only in the past decade that we have seen cable services really start to rival Sky.  By putting the LDTPS services on Freeview, the government have addressed these 2 key issues and while some licence winners will have the opportunity to go on Sky (channel 117 is reserved for Local TV), the presence on Freeview is the game changer to make local TV commercially viable.

There is one final barrier to local television however and this is beyond either Ofcom or the government’s power to address; attitudes to local television.  Local television is generally presumed to be a miniaturised version of national TV and automatically conjures up images of poor quality productions with only niche appeal.  Indeed local media in general is often sneered upon and many myths surround it.  Local newspapers are generally viewed as being loss making basket-cases but this is rarely the case.  Johnston Press may have a large debt to be serviced but it’s worth noting that their half-year profits are still more than £13.5 million.  Trinity Mirror, with more than 100 regional titles reported a half-year profit of £35 million which was a 21% increase on the previous year.  Among commentators and the industry thought the “fact” that there is no money in local and regional media is now established and this has made the debate on local television a curiosity in that myths and random claims are never challenged. 

The manner in which the ITV and BBC regions broadcast today has nothing to do with functionality and is simply a legacy of what was the best way to establish regional TV many decades ago.  They have served their purpose well and STV and UTV are particularly good examples of regionalised broadcasting with a strong sense of self identity.  But research has shown repeatedly that people care about what’s happening closest to them and reporting what happened in Cardiff to the people of Bristol is stretching the credibility of the word “local” in a world where we now carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets yet most of our Google searches are locally based.  There is a demand for local information. A massive demand. Just because the current television infrastructure hasn’t allowed us to provide local television until now should not be confused with a lack of demand.  It’s this presumptuous and dismissive attitude towards non-national media that has festered in recent years and the concept that only national matters is unhealthy.

The voting system and the number of candidates in this year’s London Mayoral election made for interesting TV viewing.  Here we had local democracy in action played out on our TVs and even the most cynical must accept that holding local representatives to account is key to a healthy democracy and would also go a long way to reigniting what is often a boring contest in the constituencies that are less than competitive.  On television, elections are fought on national issues but our system of government is based on local people electing local representatives and in that sense TV is currently failing our democratic institutions.  Indeed, in what I remember as being a bizarre moment highlighting the Westminster-bubble in all its glory, we had Jeremy Paxman on BBC 2 across the whole of the UK explaining that the London mayor was an issue of national importance because it was the biggest city, it was the capital and it was the richest.  Apparently these are the 3 criteria we should assess importance on. When Google maps first launched satellite images (borne out of Google Earth), there were reporters in Britain who questioned Google’s business model as focussing on anywhere outside of the major cities seemed to be a waste of money.  Thankfully, they weren’t listened to. 

So why do I believe in local TV?  In a nutshell I believe it is a way of giving people a voice, not just limited to news and local politics.  People want to share what their life experiences are and to identify problems they have and either show solutions or ask for suggestions.  People want to be able to share the things they find best in their local areas, the things to do, the people to see, the hidden histories that most of us are blithely unaware of day in and day out.  Providing a system in the connected age whereby TV, second screen strategies and opening up new advertising solutions will take time and I’m glad to say that we as a company are fully prepared for that.  Opponents of local TV (and indeed new media in general) have made valid criticisms of past attempts and correctly highlighted difficult challenges, or as Einstein might say “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Things have changed, let’s embrace them.

Jamie is a seasoned broadcast professional with over seven years experience in broadcast deployment in numerous territories.

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