Is Now the Time for Local TV?

Local TV is not new to Scotland. Local and community channels ran on Clyde and Aberdeen Cable in the 1980s and 90s and, in the mid-90s, Edinburgh Live ran on the Telewest network from Edinburgh through Dundee and Perth to the east of Glasgow.

Local terrestrial TV services were on air between 1999 and 2003 serving Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and Dundee with licences secured – or services on test – in Stirling, Perth, Dumbarton, Ayr, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Whether on cable or terrestrial TV, these services did not survive or prosper because only a small percentage of viewers were able to see the service. This was just as unsatisfactory for the commercial channels as it was for community providers operating with a public service ambition.

However, with digital switchover, spectrum will be released that will finally offer local channels nearly 100 per cent coverage on Freeview, the same access as BBC and ITV.

Revisiting local TV almost a decade after the Scottish experiments on analogue, viewers’ enthusiasm for local services has not diminished.

Broadcasting regulator, Ofcom’s many surveys since 2003 – and the recent study by TNS System Three for the Scottish Government – find viewers hungry for local news from an area, administrative region or city, with which they identify.

Regional TV is simply too big to provide the detail or engagement wanted.

Local TV retains its strong public demand from viewers just as regional ITV begins to fade away – no longer able to deliver, commercially, a regional public service offering programmes that are themselves wide of the local mark.

Local TV has always maintained that it should be recognised as ‘local public service television’, and, whether delivered by commercial or not-for-profit companies, the service should address the needs of citizens as well as consumers in each local area.

Local TV on a civic scale is the missing tier of public broadcasting – following state-wide public service broadcasting, region and nation PSB, there is a need to reflect and encourage debate on local issues within each local public sphere through ‘local public service television’.

Because Scotland is further from continental Europe, the nation has an extra cluster of channels (or a seventh multiplex) providing several channels in excess of those Ofcom currently propose to auction throughout the UK.

In February this year, Ofcom invited the Institute of Local Television to help co-ordinate local TV interest and develop business plans for local TV in Scotland. Following this work, Ofcom is beginning to consider plans to deliver local TV services using the so-called ‘seventh mux’ spectrum.

Digital switchover begins in Scotland next month and is expected to be completed by 2011.

So, here is how it might work…

Local TV would begin in the South of Scotland, with two linked services supported by Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Enterprise – through their South of Scotland Alliance.

As it is, actual plans for ‘SoSTV’ are fairly well advanced.

Services in the Highlands and Islands would follow, then those for Aberdeenshire and down the east coast for Perth & Kinross, Angus and Aberdeen and Fife.

Factored into the mix in 2010 would be the Scottish Network, the digital TV channel dedicated to Scottish content, as recommended recently by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and which – the other day – received full backing from the Scottish Parliament. At this point, services for Glasgow, Edinburgh Central Scotland and the west of Scotland would go on air.

These local services would begin in a co-ordinated and federal pattern – offering educational programmes, music and arts and rolling news, combined with the local news and current affairs the viewers most want to see.

These local services would offer spin offs and catch-up on broadband while being available without charge to all Freeview viewers in each area. Local councils, newspapers, colleges and universities would be encouraged by local working-groups in each area to take a stake in constructing their local channel.

For councils, services and communications could be delivered and the public engaged in a combined TV and broadband approach that reaches all homes (at least on TV).

The opportunities for newspapers would be to develop a combined commercial proposition linking TV to their current print and broadband operations.

For schools, colleges and universities local TV would offer the ‘nursery slopes’ to build up expertise in broadcasting, in making series and programmes for a specific audience and to offer outreach courses and showcase the work of their courses.

Twelve or more local channels would be launched in Scotland over the next four years, drawing down a public investment of