In My Opinion: Dave Rushton: Local TV and the Scottish Digital Network

Attended by over 200 people, a debate in Glasgow, on November 16, about the Scottish Digital Network – a proposed digital TV channel (with supporting online presence) dedicated to Scottish content – attracted a glittering array of speakers, including former director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke. allmediascotland has already published the speech of Jim Raeburn, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society. Here now, Dave Rushton, director of the Institute of Local Television, airs his views. The SDN is the main recommendation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up three years ago, led by former BBC Scotland head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins. Other speeches to follow….

TV viewers know what they want and when asked, they want a TV service more local in scale than regional; news as accessible as UK and Scotland news; a service with current affairs, local arts, debate and alternative points of view. Most of all viewers want a channel whose faces, voices and places they can recognise; with their own politicians held to account (ideally by themselves); with local policies on hospitals and schools they can defend or question; supporting local enterprise through greater transparency offered by journalistic scrutiny and investigation.

Simply, viewers want their own world to present on their TV set.

This 1950 analogue transmitter network is incapable of delivering local services scaled to address local communities as those communities actually wish to be represented.

This network’s idiosyncracies have for the most part been reproduced in distributing the digital channels. But this approach is not necessary for local services.

Digital local TV on its own multiplex lets us draw a more local map of TV distribution, separating local services from the ITV regional footprints. By aggregating these local service together across Scotland the new civic scale channels can build a federal Scotland-wide scale; allowing local TV channels to import programmes from neighbouring channels as well as from across Scotland and further afield according to local editorial demand sensitive to local interests.

Unlike southern England, the radio spectrum suitable for TV is in abundance in Scotland because its use is not compromised by incoming signals from Europe. When this spectrum is not required for delivery of either national public channels or the proposed new local services in Scotland then it might be leased to incoming national and part-national channels: channels that have no public purpose or value and their lease to provide local income to support local public services. These proposals were put to the Calman Commission.

To me the very novelty of local representation in determining local channel uses shows how far we have yet go. We have not yet broken the mould of centralised broadcasting and communications, as much about who decides as what is decided. We need to raise more strongly the question of who should determine legislation and regulation for communications on a local scale, for spectrum now in abundance and in even greater abundance here more likely to be forgotten in Scotland the further we are from the seat of decision-making. Where there are no local services – where there is no broadband to speak of, no cable and no local or even half-relevant regional services – shouldn’t it be those denied services that decide the introduction of new services provided with the plentiful means of spectrum to devise ways to achieve services?

But small strides are being made … when last week Channel M in Manchester announced they were going to lease the four or five spare channels on their local multiplex to provide revenue for the local TV channel.

In the last two years, there has been a slight change of tone, if not of regulation, as current affairs, arts programming and civil programming has largely dried up on regional TV. Taken with the poor turn-out at elections and the gradual decline in newspaper coverage of council and local business, central government is concerned that support may be necessary for a more localised and publicly accountable media.

In the South of Scotland, the roll out of local TV is viewed as essential to increasing take up and use of broadband. This twin or converged broadband-broadcast strategy became central to local economic planning for the South of Scotland Alliance of local councils and enterprise companies, in 2007.

Local broadband-broadcast strategies are evident in other parts of Scotland. It is widely understood that public purpose will not be achieved without access to both broadband and broadcast platforms, especially in rural areas. One helps the other and the flow moves in both directions.

With the support of Tay Screen and its council partners the TayFife local TV working group has provided plans on advertising and some modelling of smaller scale urban services.

Work undertaken in north Aberdeen in 2007 on a community based model is being reworked with support from Aberdeen City Council and may result in a local news service that includes news from, for and with the oil rigs.

Following this year’s Highland Local TV Forum, local TV planning in the Highlands and Islands is advancing as a local social enterprise initiated by its commercial partners.

With a sophisticated video conferencing link the University of the Highlands and Islands may yet provide Scotland with an Open University on local TV. The Highlands and Islands have also switched to digital: spectrum lies unused.

The Scottish Local TV Federation with its UK partners United for Local Television has been encouraged by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to involve newspapers in local TV. These partners include the rural weekly as well as the regional evening and daily Press.

For newspapers too it has been evident that broadband TV solutions are insufficient; both newspapers and public websites benefit from the ‘barker’ effect of TV stretching viewers to go and gather further information on the web. The market research company think-box found that in combination TV and web advertising was more successful than either on their own.

The local TV plans in Scotland have been consolidated into a Scotland-wide 16 channel service for delivery on Freeview, backed up by broadband, community newspapers and the weekly and regional Press. These plans were first submitted to Ofcom in August 2008 updated in response to a further consultation in December 2008 and then revised for Lord Carter’s Digital Britain in February 2009. As the financial crisis unfolded Ofcom became silent.

But, like any new media competing as well as working alongside existing players to secure attention, local TV will not get off the ground and fulfil its public purpose unless it is able to reach the majority of local viewers from the outset. Without a guarantee of access to the majority of homes a local TV service will secure neither public commitment nor commercial involvement. Only Freeview offers this capacity.

Broadcasting continues to be the best servant of geographic localism. Broadband access can only currently provide a complimentary platform, whose services can be equally if differently positive. The web is not bound to the generality and specifics of serving a particular location. That of course frees web TV to reach out to the diaspora but it also abstracts its message and can diffuse its content.

But isn’t it important, that while we continue to exercise our democratic rights and vote where we live and not by social affinity or tribal association, it is broadcasting and its appointment to view with all around that remains the important objective. All elections are local and the national outcome is won or lost through the combination of local contributions that need a better and more accurate reflection on television.

Dr David Rushton, Scottish Local TV Federation and Institute of Local Television.