Local TV: setting Jeremy Hunt straight

A lot of the gloom-laden chat about the “crisis in journalism” (which is, naturally, a massive problem for democracy) tends to focus on newspapers. And rather less on television, which outside London is in no better shape than papers. Possibly worse.

Coming into office, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government dumped a series of pilot schemes under which coalitions of news organisations in locality could combine to compete for (probably modest) subsidies for local broadcasting, suspending rules prohibiting newspapers cooperating with local TV. By way of replacement the government has commissioned work (interim report so far) on what conditions are needed to revive local TV and talked about licensing some 15-20 experiments under new rules, as yet unwritten. One thing is clear: subsidies are very unlikely.

We gathered 70 or so experts at City University yesterday to discuss these embryonic plans. General conclusion: almost no one thinks that the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt is yet making sense (example here). Here’s a quick summary of the takeouts:

  • The most striking division in the day-long conversation was between those who think that traditional broadcast television is worth sustaining and those who think that this weighty infrastructure is “steam-driven” and not worth worrying about when you can tell stories, with moving pictures and sound if you want, over the internet. “We don’t do masts. We don’t need to,” said someone from the online camp, with evident scorn.
  • No one can come up with convincing evidence of local advertising money which will float new enterprises. There is probably a bit of spare money to buy advertising time in London which is currently unspent, but nowhere else. As Claire Enders, a member of the group that assembled the interim report to the government, put it: “There is no clear-cut case for viable local TV.” She was contradicting senior DCMS official Jon Zeff, who said that there is investment and advertising to meet demand for more local TV. But Enders spoke for the majority.
  • The existing broadcasters have been slow to scale down from the vast “regions” into the smaller areas which are the natural size for internet-linked communities. An alliance of local newspapers drove the BBC out of any idea of “hyperlocal” broadcasting. The only counter-example on offer was from Scottish TV’s project to localise some news down to district council level. This even gets the seal of approval from Rick Waghorn, who had organised the previous day’s “Thousand Flowers” meeting of local bloggers in Norwich.
  • But in general the proliferating dozens of local news sites online weren’t impressed (tweets give the flavour). Grand, top-down plans look to them less likely to work that just getting out and discovering what a community wants. Will Perrin, one of whose many activities is a community site in King’s Cross, aims at a community of 13,000 people and gets 400 visits a day to the website; he reckons that audience is proportionate to Newsnight’s for the country as a whole.
  • Perrin found himself in an improbable alliance with Kelvin McKenzie: they both stressed that volunteer labour, energy and determination was more likely to deliver useful community news than worrying about large-scale business plans.
  • Enders rounded that off: regulation-issue TV will always need subsidy. The stuff that is already happening may be variable but doesn’t need subsidy. The government has framed a policy which doesn’t seem to understand this basic truth.

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1 comment

  1. I found the conference at City much more encouraging about local TV. I thought Rick Waghorn and Will Perrin were fascinating from a journalistic point of view, but neither provided an answer and they neither of them have real passion for moving pictures. I don’t care whether you call it television (the very word seems to make Will’s lip curl) or videos or movies or whatever, but pictures on a screen work for millions of people. I found loads of enthusiasm in the room at the City University conference on Friday, for the DTT based local TV model. And my final take was that Claire Enders said “Give it a go. There’s the political will and the passion”. Mark Oliver and John Furlong were both suggesting a financial model that worked for about 200,000 people, and Channel M is to relaunch on that basis! Over the weekend, out of interest I looked at South Kirkless (Huddersfield area) with about 242,000 people, average age 38, average houseprice £125,000, several big engineering companies, a university,4 Wetherspoons and a Vodaphone shop – if they think it’s worthwhile being, there why not local TV? Don’t confuse the local telly issue with the crisis in print. A lot of newspaper types seem to want local telly to fail. Websites might feel jealous or threatened too – they certainly seem to encourage a ‘them and us’ mentality which is very strange in supposedly new media types. There’s a long history of rivalry and distrust between media which could lead to this baby being strangled at birth but which really only makes fools of all of us. Embrace everything – even old steam driven telly (how patronising is that attitude when millions in the UK watch it every week and viewing figures are actually growing!). Sneering about relative technology is so unproductive. As Roger Parry said, make the space available and see what happens. Scrap some regulatory constraints, and let the people who want to, give local DTT TV a go! That was the message I got from the day. But then I’m a telly person…..