In My Opinion: Dave Rushton: A different take on Hunt’s Local TV plan

LOCAL TV plans from Jeremy Hunt have twisted and turned these last two years.

When he was Shadow Culture Secretary, he was enthusiastic about a proposal by Roger Parry, the former chair of Johnston Press, who, two years ago, said that it was possible to set up 81 new television stations covering four-fifths of the country after 2012.

That’s 81 TV stations, each operating separately. Now, it’s completely different, with two days ago the deadline for notes of interest to run a single, UK-wide channel that allows local providers to opt-out with their own programmes.

And today, as reported on allmediascotland, STV is the latest to have thrown its weight behind one of the bidders, Channel 6.

In Scotland, there is a body of opinion that disagrees, a federation – including some local authorities – that subscribes to the view that it is indeed possible for a multiplicity of separate local TV stations to operate.

‘The Scottish Network Channel’ – different to the Scottish Digital Network, as proposed two-and-half years ago by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, chaired by Blair Jenkins – would take advantage of the 15 TV transmitters in Scotland, to allow for separate stations operating their own programming.

And yes, the federation – the Scottish Local TV Federation, to give it its full name – has submitted its note of interest to Hunt, to operate the Scottish Network Channel.

What the SNC would do would be to source and supply programmes that might be relevant for broadcasting across a number of these stations. In other words, not local affiliates opting out from a national service, but separate channels being able to pick and choose from a nationally-provided programming resource to add to what they each produce themselves.

This would enable local channels broadcasting from Scotland’s rural as well as urban transmitters to retain their identities throughout the day. Each local TV channel would schedule its local programming at suitable times and carry messages with advertising, with the SNC adopting a background, supporting role.

Parry identified a key element in the demand for local TV when he suggested that local TV would only succeed if it is part of a network, not as a stand-alone service surrounded by local emptiness or even as an opt-out of a nationally-marketed channel supported by national advertising.

Significantly, local TV needs to be universally available at an appropriate local scale everywhere to enable all to have a stake in their local channel.

For the smaller urban or rural services, it is important that each start-up channel knows it has programme support from other channels on a similar scale whose audiences have much in common as well as the support of larger neighbouring areas to whom services might be sold.

Each local TV is a piece in a mosaic of mutually-supporting channels, of several scales and audience interests throughout Scotland. Similar as well as contrasting programmes can be exchanged, contrasting programmes that might draw viewers as visitors to unique events or activities best served in one area than another.

Parry’s 2009 plan endorsed the approach that was adopted in Scotland in 2007 in constructing a federation of local TV channels to be sustained by a simple network service that would not impose its own identity upon each local service, but appear instead to each viewer to be brought to the TV screen entirely by the local channel understanding the demands of the local audience.

Those who have not been involved with local TV can easily underestimate the significance of local loyalty and an audience’s identification with ‘their’ service. This attachment is closer to that of local radio and local newspapers or the local football team, where many players are not local at all but come together in what is still a ‘local team’.

It is important for local TV to find its different role that the sustaining content supplied by a network channel is not exported into each area, and risk being seen by the viewer as outside or imposed schedule, but is available as a pool of content to be imported for local relevance, interest and sensitivity.

The key to demonstrate that a local appearance of ownership is vital to building incrementally the reality of local control, an appearance and local intervention that takes place throughout the day in providing a service that is of interest when there are local viewers with varied interests available.

The comparison with local radio is worth making. While each local radio station will broadcast more or less the same music content, the local message and identity is woven throughout to provide a local schedule.

And it is in these small differences in exercising choice that the filter and identity of each local service becomes clearly understood.

The Scottish Network Channel will be supported by sponsorship rather than spot advertising and take care of the initial housekeeping issues on behalf of local services, until each local channel can control content and scheduling.

While the Shetland Isles may not be able to sustain as many minutes or hours of production as Glasgow or Aberdeen, as part of a Highlands and Islands regional network the Shetland Isles can provide content it can support alongside programming shared with neighbouring channels in the Highlands and Islands.

We propose that from launch next year that each local channel will be able offer its own unique service, and also provide a facility in which viewers in each area are able to dial-up the local channel’s server and select for themselves video clips to be broadcast across their area.

From experience, viewer intervention in the schedule and content encourages local bands, local comedians and performers to provide their own videos to showcase alongside the network clips supplied and helps provide the local channel with valuable early insights into viewing patterns and the shape of demand.

Local TV channels, and the producers working with them, will build new programming strands. Some of these new strands will involve shared graphics to reduce costs and for screening across one, several or all of Scotland’s local TV channels.

With this stepped approach to increased broadcast access for content we’re building a new, more textured approach to avoid the flattening effect of programmes made to a national consensus, and instead localising growth for each media economy.

Some programmes will be commissioned by producers to include a carriage fee for their distribution, locally or further afield. Programmes will be devised to help tease out national as well as local contents, to help identify what is missing for the Scottish viewer throughout Scotland.

What new national programmes might we make if each were contextualised locally, with local introductions and relevance added?

The Scottish Network Channel would evaporate as and when and if plans for the Scottish Digital Network, materialise.

Indirectly, we are heading for that goal by building the content of a new national TV channel for Scotland upwards and outwards from the local channels, allowing for a new national service to arrive attuned to an entirely new understanding of a Scottish channel in which content and production can operate locally and nationally on TV, broadband and later on IPTV.

Dave Rushton is co-ordinator of the Scottish Local TV Federation.