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07 April 2012

Local TV; Tell Me Why I'm Wrong

Let me start out by saying that I really hope that city-based TV in Leeds and other parts of the UK actually happens, and is a success. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appears to be driving the project hard, and he's made positive noises to the effect that the broadcast media are too London-centric (which they undoubtedly are).

I have to say though that I'm a sceptic, although one who really hopes to be proven wrong.

If it works city-level TV could boost the creative industries in the regions and, very importantly for me as a journalism trainer, it could provide entry-level opportunities for newly qualified video journalists to get screen time working for a real audience.

At the moment there are no 'nursery slopes' to climb in TV; nothing between the self-publishing video blogger and the regional newsrooms of Calendar and Look North.

Aspiring VJs are urged to seek work in radio and print; and whilst some may find a niche on newspaper-linked websites, in today's slimmed-down radio industry the wannabe tellyheads stand out even more than they always did.

I've been to various meetings discussing proposals for local TV in Leeds. I've also engaged in Twitter discussions of the recent meeting in the Howard Assembly Rooms I couldn't attend. On each occasion I've felt uneasy, and in a spirit of frank and open debate I want to share my thoughts as to why.

I repeat again;  I want this to work, but I'm worried. So here goes.

Everyone in the room has a different concept for the service. Community types aspire to create a voice for the voiceless. Arts enthusiasts fantasise about live Opera North from the Grand. Sports clubs, commercial and amateur, want TV exposure for sponsors. Nostalgics, many from the craft side of television, dream of a rebirth for 'proper' YTV.

Regionally-based independent producers (who know that isn't going to happen) generally lie low whilst trying to assess who else is in the room, and what rival bidders are up to.
A lot of the visions are mutually exclusive. Even if the different interests could somehow be cobbled together, who will watch it? This is a fundamental problem which plagues the whole local TV project, but I've not yet heard any group state clearly who their target viewer is and how their needs will be served.

As far as I can work out a typical evening's viewing might consist of a news bulletin or magazine followed by a 'sofa show' in which local artists or interest groups discuss their work and activities followed by a short student-produced fine-art video. We then cut live to the Civic Hall for a televised Scrutiny Committee meeting before rounding off a wet Wednesday with a kind of 'Old Grey Whistle Test' featuring unsigned local musicians in studio.

To be brutally honest I don't see an audience piling in for much of that in sufficient numbers to make any such service sustainable. Nor do I see enough genuinely interesting or talented participants to keep the sofas occupied with original thoughts for more than a few weeks.

It's a classic example of  'notice board media'; in most cases you could reach the audience that's interested in any of the elements by sticking a poster on a notice board where they already congregate, work or socialise. The additional potential audience served by the broadcast is (I would argue) too small to justify the expense of the mediation.

That's before you factor in the costs of production. The more fanciful suggestions for content include drama from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, dance from Northern Ballet and live performance from Opera North.

I'd definitely be up for all of those .. as I wouldn't have to pay for my seats any more.

So would the performers be up for doing it for free?  What about our presenters on the sofa? The guys on the cameras at the Civic?  Best not even mention the rapacious demands of the Performing Rights Society.

News costs as well; my Broadcast Journalism postgraduate trainees at Leeds Trinity provide three weeks of live 'Leeds Today' TV news broadcasts as part of their training. In total they produce ten hours of output a year to something approaching industry standard (must be so, as the trainees keep winning awards with stuff they've produced). But that ten-hour drop in the ocean is the maximum we can deliver to that standard with the available human and technical resources.

The only way to increase the volume of output would be to reduce the standards or increase the resources.

The £25 million BBC 'start up money' plus £5 million a year levy for running costs touted for local TV is a tiny, tiny amount diluted across twenty-odd cities and 365-day broadcast years. And it would kick the BBC yet again as it grapples with its own cost savings. Money from commercials, on the other hand, would probably mean targeting the small pool of advertisers who keep local radio solvent.

In the final analysis, in austerity Britain, it all comes down to the F-word.


In simpler words ... WHO PAYS?


  1. Well said. I too would love it too succeed but am very sceptical. A couple of further figures, claims and comment to throw into the mix...

    3%: the claimed share required to make the service sustainable. That's bigger than Sky One. In fact, only the 5 national terrestrial channels do at least this well.

    £165,000. The claimed likely amount of subsidy (licence fee income) the licencee in Leeds will receive in year one. This will reduce to approx £65,000 in year two and £40,000 in year three.

    The Canadian comparison. The Secretary of State has quoted Canada as a model the UK can emulate. A former Canadian TV producer now working in Leeds claims there are three flaws here. First, the individual stations have reduced to becoming no more than an hour of local news daily with the remainder of the schedule devoted to syndicated US imports (mainly old feature films). Secondly, the Canadian market has no history of regional TV programming, so there are two tiers: local and national (compared with the current two tiers in the UK: regional and national - though how long will ITV1 have a regional presence?). Finally, geography. Canadians live in conurbations far from the next conurbation. So one lives/sleeps/eats/works all in the same city TV area. In the much more densely populated UK, this doesn't happen, not least in metropolitan areas where towns and cities blend into one another. So, while I work in Leeds and am quite interested in what happens there -what entertainment is going on etc - I won't be able to watch it in York, and why would I, if it's editorial is exclusively Leeds: lives in the UK are not lived as 'locally' as in Canada.

    All reasons that come back to your original question: how will these stations sustain themselves and break-even as not-for-profit trusts, let alone make a return for shareholders? But I wish all involved every success.

  2. IP TV might work. Local TV in a traditional form has no chance. Unless you have deep pockets and a wealthy parent you are doomed. The problem is not one person I have met have said... I really wish we mad more local news. People know where to go to find it and that world is changing fast. If I were a shareholder of LeedsTV I would be selling fast. This is not personal just wise words. In fact, the screen image looks good. They no doubt have great staff, lots of ambition and tons of ideas. That won't be enough. Good luck to them though. I mean that.