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16 February 2013

Waking Up to Leeds Local TV

I’m guessing there’ll be a few sore heads this morning down Chapeltown Road, and more specifically at the Savile Road studios of Made in Leeds TV, the proud new holders of a licence to broadcast a local service to the city on channel 8 of the region’s Freeview Digital TV.

Not only because winning any franchise battle against stiff opposition deserves a celebration, but also because the directors, staff and community collaborators involved in the bid will be waking up to the hard realisation that local television for Leeds is no longer just a dream, but something very real they must deliver within two years, and ideally by the target launch date of November this year.

That's a tough challenge.

The process of competitive bidding is designed to ensure that the best possible service is offered for viewers in the service area. At its best it’s a rigorous process designed to test all applicant groups fairly against objective criteria. At its worst it can become a beauty contest in which business backers and creative types have to woo regulators with sequins and makeup .. and by promising something a bit special the opposition can’t match.

This time there were five eager contenders on the catwalk hoping to land the judges’ vote. They all had confusingly similar names, so pay attention.

The bidders were Leeds TV Ltd. (‘Leeds TV’); Made Television Ltd. (‘Made in Leeds’); Metro8 Ltd. (‘Metro 8 Leeds’); TV North Ltd. (‘TV North’); and YourTV Leeds Ltd. (‘YourTV Leeds’).

As well as publishing the criteria on which the rival bids were assessed, the broadcast regulator OFCOM has also published a breakdown of its reasoning in choosing Made in Leeds as the winner.

First back in the dressing room was TV North, with a pretty sniffy OFCOM appraisal that the bid ‘was generally less developed than those from the other four applicants’ and that ‘operational and business planning aspects of the application were not sufficiently developed’. In other words - must try harder.

Metro 8 Leeds, the next to be told ‘It’s not you’, had strong management but ‘did not demonstrate an understanding of the needs of the local population to the same extent as the other four applicants’. OFCOM felt their problem was too little community involvement.

Leeds TV demonstrated strong finance, strong local links and an understanding of the locality; but the wholehearted backing of Leeds United turned out to be a liability, in that OFCOM believed that even though football fans may be over the moon ‘there was a relative lack of engagement with other aspects of the locality’.

With just two contenders remaining, OFCOM clearly faced a difficult choice, as both Made in Leeds and YourTV Leeds ‘proposed services that would meet the broad needs of the local area, and would broaden the range of programmes available for viewing in the local area, and made in and about the local area, by a similar extent’. They’d both ticked all the boxes.

However in their final judgement OFCOM felt that Made in Leeds ‘demonstrated greater understanding of the specific needs of the area and had stronger local links and more developed partnership proposals’, and that the group ‘gave more specific undertakings in its Programming Commitments, giving the Broadcast Licencing Committee confidence that the needs of the area would be met in the way proposed’.

The group has a very local public face, with facilities company boss Isi Abebe heading up a team including such familiar Leeds names such as digital journalist John Baron, writer and commentator Mark O’Brien, Hebe Media’s Lee Hicken, Leeds Salon co-founder Paul Thomas and blogger Georgia Halston, But it’s also part of a much bigger media operation. Made in Leeds is in fact one of four city TV franchises to be won by Made Television, which will also be providing local services in Bristol, Cardiff and Newcastle.

So what can we expect in the way of actual telly programmes? The Made in Leeds website features a graphic promising ... well, just about everything, really.

Output will be original, witty, quirky, challenging and colourful. They’ll grow talent, build character and embrace the unique as well as levelling playing fields and lifting stones (though presumably not both at the same time). It doesn’t actually mention motherhood or apple pie, but I think we can take it as read they’re in favour.

As for their more specific promises, the company website states that ‘60% of locally-produced output will be dedicated to local news and current affairs, including 8 hours of live content every week alongside a daily magazine show and a weekly sports programme broadcast from purpose-built Television studios at The Leeds Media & Broadcasting Centre’.

Made in Leeds is committing to provide two half hour daily local news programmes at 7pm and 9pm, as well as a service of ‘automated 90-second news updates’, for which they’ll draw on the resources of Radio Aire and community contributors as well as the station’s own video journalists.

[UPDATE 17 Feb:  this is the ‘indicative weekly schedule' which Made in Leeds submitted to OFCOM. And no, I have no idea what ‘Tony Love Shaft’ is either. I’m only a simple journalist.]

Moving forward, Made in Leeds’ biggest challenge will be managing expectations.

There was a meeting in April last year in the Howard Assembly Rooms at which representatives from a wide range of community groups made their feelings very clear what they wanted from local television. It was a very long wish list.

And, as I wrote at the time, many of the community aspirations are simply unrealistic, especially in times of austerity.

The day Made in Leeds broadcasts a full, main-house opera live from the stage of the Leeds Grand Theatre I’ll happily streak down the Headrow. It’s simply not affordable.

Likewise the producers face a challenge filling a TV programme with half an hour of specific, local Leeds news every day. I’m expecting that the 7 and 9 programmes will have a lot of content in common. That’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact; watch how often reports are recycled on the BBC News Channel and Sky News.

My postgraduate news trainees at Leeds Trinity University do half an hour of live TV news in a webcast programme called Leeds Today which we put out for three weeks every summer, backed up by five full-time technicians and a two highly experienced TV professionals as tutors.

In less than a month everyone involved is knackered. At that point Made in Leeds will have another 49 weeks to go before they reach their first birthday.

And even though Leeds has more than its fair share of characters to sit on whatever colour couch they decide to use, the producers will inevitably reach a point when the same roster of guests begins to feel tired. That’s a problem common to editors in TV, radio and online.

So, as they reach for the paracetamol, I wish the Made in Leeds team every success in their efforts. There is nothing more exciting than launching a new media project with an enthusiastic team against a tight deadline. Local TV in Leeds could become a fantastic new community resource so long as producers and audiences are realistic about what can really be achieved. Really.

It’s time to store away the sequins and put on the overalls.

This article was originally commissioned by and published on the Leeds Culture Vulture website


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