Local TV Stations Network Outlined by Culture Secretary

A network of local TV stations, some of them broadcasting perhaps for no more than an hour a day, has been identified as a major ambition of the Coalition Government. 

At a speech being given to the Royal Television Society today, Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is to criticise what he perceives to be over-centralised broadcasting, as society becomes more atomised, including more and more people living on their own.

And he intends to help achieve increased local media provision by removing regulations preventing one media company owning different types of media; for instance a local newspaper group owning a local radio station.

In his speech, he says: “Future generations will learn more about us from what we watched on TV than from any historian. And looking at our media in 2010, they will conclude that it was deeply, desperately centralised. They will be astonished to find that three out of five programmes made by our public service broadcasters are produced in London. They will note that there is nothing but national news on most of the main channels, beamed shamelessly from the centre.

“And they will discover token regional news broadcasts that have increasingly been stretched across vast geographical areas – with viewers in Weymouth watching the same so-called ‘local’ story as viewers in Oxford. Viewers in Watford watching the same story as viewers in Chelmsford.”

He cited other nations where local television broadcasting appear to operate successfully.

He continues: “The idea that somehow the UK 'can’t sustain' local TV will seem very quaint when they compare us to other countries. Not just bigger countries like the US – where people can typically access six local TV stations, even in smaller cities. But countries the same size as us like France – where there are more than 100 local channels. Or countries with smaller populations like Sweden and Canada – with 80 and 130 local broadcast stations respectively.

“And they will not be surprised to learn that in 2010 our communities are weaker, our local identity less pronounced, and our local democracy less developed than in any of these countries.”

The RTS event is being held in London.

Later, he goes on: “First of all, there is the overwhelming evidence for viewer demand. Eight out of ten people in this country consider local news stories important. ‘Focus on the local area’ is consistently ranked as a high priority, and nearly seven out of ten adults feel that the ‘localness’ of stories is more important than them being professionally produced.”

He adds: “Because all the research suggests that, while audiences attach real value to ‘localness’, they find it hard to identify with the concept of a ‘region’; that for the majority of people, living most of their lives within a 14-mile radius, what we’re used to calling ‘local’ is anything but.

“Look at the BBC, which has tried make its regional news more locally focused – particularly in cities like Oxford and Cambridge – and which has kept audiences stable over the past five years. Compare that to ITV, which has taken the opposite strategy – merging some of its regions and seeing its audiences steadily decline.

“Look at Sir Ray Tindle – who runs one of the most successful newspaper groups in the country from Farnham in my constituency. He tells a story about how he rescued the Tenby Observer by insisting that every line should be about Tenby and nowhere else but Tenby. It’s a locally-focused strategy that has helped his network of 230 titles to hold its own impressively well during the recession.”

Hunt's comments are being made in the context of a review of local TV's commercial viability, being headed by Nicholas Shott – Head of UK Investment Banking at Lazard. While the review will publish its conclusions later this year, some initial findings were shared with Hunt before his speech.

Says Hunt: “None of us should underestimate the scale of the task, but I have been broadly encouraged by what [Shott] has found so far. Of course we know there are challenges. Of course we will need to learn from the experience of stations like Channel M and the difficulties it has faced raising local advertising revenue.

“But nowhere in the US, Canada, or anywhere else have I been able to find a broadcaster able to make 24-hour local content commercially viable – so we should be realistic: it is not likely to happen here either.

“And when it comes to advertising revenue, we are not helped by the fact that – unlike in France – we have not developed a reliable audience measurement system; one which allows local TV channels to make a full pitch to advertisers based on the number of households they reach and their audience demographic.

“More importantly, Nick Shott challenges us by asking: if alternative sources of revenue such as subscription, carriage fees, product placement and sponsored programming can work for national TV, why can’t they do so for local stations?

“The truth is that the whole of the sector must now face up to the impact of the internet, and make sure that their business models are not over-reliant on advertising revenues.

“We must grasp the opportunities provided by technology to develop new and innovative models that can really work.

“We cannot simply carbon copy what happens in other countries. We can’t rely, for example, on the cable penetration that is a major factor in bringing down costs in North America and Germany. And we don’t want to rely on the kind of public subsidy we see in France and Spain. But we should look at where there are lessons to be learned: Like 8tv in Catalonia, which turns a profit as a standalone commercial operation; or LCM in Marseille which uses other TV businesses to support its local broadcasting model; or Sweden, where four of the six local stations are run by local newspaper groups.

“Yes, audiences are increasingly using multiple platforms. But TV remains the central point of the living room, more people are watching it than ever before, and local content has a right to appear on that platform.

“My vision is of a landscape of local TV services broadcasting for as little as one hour a day; free to affiliate to one another – formally or informally – in a way that brings down costs. Free to offer nationwide deals to national advertisers; able to piggyback existing national networks – attracting new audiences and benefitting from inherited ones at the same time. And able to exploit the potential of new platform technologies such as YouView and mobile TV to grow their service and improve their cost-effectiveness.”

“As Nicholas has said: at least initially, local TV is most likely to succeed in urban areas. So we will need to rely on new technologies to deliver local content to more rural communities. That’s why I am determined to make sure that we have the broadband infrastructure in place that will allow people to access the local content they want online.

“Already, I have announced a number of market testing projects to bring superfast broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas.”

And he gave this message: “Above all, my vision is for this country to become the first in which a new generation of local media companies will emerge. A hungry, ambitious and innovative new sector which is truly cross-platform and totally multi-media. Companies able to follow their customers from radio to TV, from newspaper to internet, from iPhone to iPad. 

“And in order to achieve this, the Government is ready to do its bit. We know that what is now needed is a far-reaching re-examination of the communications environment in this country – a process that will culminate in a new Communications Act in the second half of this parliament.

“But we want to start immediately by making path-finding changes at a local level.

“I have already announced that the Government will remove most of the local cross-media ownership regulations – paving the way for local newspaper and commercial radio groups to develop new business models that allow them to move freely from platform to platform.

“Today, I can confirm that the Government will shortly be bringing forward an order to remove all of the remaining local cross-media rules.”

Hunt is to ask broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, to look at how enough emphasis is given to the delivery of local content.

He intends to bring forward new legislation to clarify which PSB channels should get guaranteed positioning on page one of the Electronic Programme Guide and what they need to provide in return, in terms of culturally or socially benefit.

He finished: “Finally, I’ve been strongly encouraged by the serious thought that the BBC has been giving to how it might partner with new local media providers.

“In the weeks and months ahead, I will be looking at a variety of ways in which our existing public service broadcasters can play their part in supporting the development of a viable and sustainable local TV landscape.

“We will produce our full local media action plan before the end of the year – to be published alongside Nicholas Shott’s final report.”

And he concluded: “If we remain centralised, top-down and London-centric – in our media provision as in the rest of government – we will fail to reflect the real demand for stronger local identity that has always existed and that new technologies are now allowing us to meet.

“But if we respond to the challenge we will be able to show that one of the world’s most open, diverse and plural democracies has once again been able to reinvent itself as the country to watch and not the country to leave behind.”