In 2012 Ofcom awarded 19 local television licenses for local television channels to start up across the UK. Since the channels started launching earlier this year there have been varied results.
In just four months 19 local television licences were awarded by Ofcom at the start of 2012. While there have been successes with the new wave of local licensing contracts, disagreements on programming commitments have made it a difficult first couple of years for some regions in meeting with the terms of the licensing contract set by Ofcom. For other regions the main issue has been the struggle to raise the required funding. Ofcom find themselves in a difficult position of ensuring both consistency in the license as well as allowing local channels to represent the cultural individuality of their regions.
For the City of Birmingham there have been a number of issues in starting up their new local channel. The existing joint owner of the Birmingham license, Birmingham Local Television City TV Broadcasting [BLTV], went into administration in the summer. As a result Ofcom extended the deadline for itself and administrators, Duff & Phelps, to agree on the transfer of the Birmingham licence. Debra Davis, former chief executive at BLTV, explained, “Simply put, we were under-capitalised. We could not raise the projected £3million”. Davis did give praise to the original legislation saying that: “The LDTPS [Local Digital Television Programme Services] framework allowed for flexibility according to market needs and interests.”
“How could [Ofcom] have successfully evaluated such a dysfunctional bid? I personally wouldn’t have approved a company that couldn’t prove it had any financial backing for a new venture”.
However, the issue remains for Birmingham that there is still no local television channel. This has angered local MP Steve McCabe who feels that Ofcom simply hasn’t gone about the evaluation process in the right way, “How could [Ofcom] have successfully evaluated such a dysfunctional bid? I personally wouldn’t have approved a company that couldn’t prove it had any financial backing for a new venture”. Mr McCabe believes that this could lead to the wrong precedent set by Ofcom in awarding the license, "you know anyone off the street can say ‘hey I’ve got an idea for local television’ couldn’t they?". McCabe said that it could take up to another couple of years before any TV channel goes live in Birmingham: “At this stage my view is that [Ofcom] try to learn some lessons and not repeat the same mistakes.”
While Ofcom have been criticised for their role in Birmingham’s future local TV station, London Live’s chief operating officer has praised the body. A recent decision on October 6th allowing London Live to modify its programming shows that Ofcom can be flexible in helping stations deliver the terms of their license to suit the needs of their audience. London’s local television station requested a reduction in the hours it was required to broadcast repeat local programming. London Live’s chief operating officer, Tim Kirkman, said: “I’m really pleased with Ofcom’s decision as it allows us further flexibility within our schedule.” Ofcom accepted the new bid only after it had assurances that the cleared hours in the schedule would not be used for gambling or teleshopping programmes.
One of the first local channel successes was Mustard TV in Norwich who have been broadcasting since March of this year. Fiona Ryder, Managing Director at Mustard TV, explained Mustard’s “unashamedly local” service. The station meets the needs of the local population by providing 15-minute community programme slots for local businesses and charities, giving access to a broadcasting platform that they would not normally get. Mustard TV never repeats national headlines on its news so that it remains strictly locally focused. At peak viewing hours Mustard TV is viewed by as many as 58,000 households even though their team is made up of just 15 people. As part of the Archant media group Mustard TV benefits greatly as Archant already owns Norwich Evening News, Eastern Daily Press and the North Norfolk News. This existing platform helped secure the licence for Mustard TV, winning against NR One, a group made up of a number of broadcast professionals working for Norwich Television Limited and was headed by former ITV Anglia head of sport Kevin Piper.
Cardiff launched their own local TV channel, Made in Cardiff on 15th October this year. Like Mustard TV, Made in Cardiff is made up of a very small team that consists of just 12 people producing 14 hours worth of programming a week. Although Made in Cardiff is still in its early days as a channel, station manager Bryn Roberts believes that their local TV channel will be a success because of their smaller more local approach. He told the BBC, "London has tried [local television] - and hasn't been particularly successful - because I think London is too big.” Roberts linked Cardiff’s size to other similar cities in the UK which have launched successful channels, "Some of the smaller places like Norwich and Nottingham have been doing very well, and Glasgow in particular”.
The last few months suggest that local television has had some mixed results since Ofcom awarded its 19 local licenses. In some situations the issue has been ensuring organisations that are awarded the license are financially viable to successfully launch a local TV channel. In others, Ofcom has demonstrated that smaller local television channels such as Mustard TV can be successful in meeting the needs of their viewers, while larger broadcasters like London Live have been given the flexibility to adjust their schedules to suit their audience. As Fiona Ryder at Mustard TV put it the relationship with Ofcom is an ongoing living relationship but ultimately one that is healthy.
By Jonathan Parr and Alastair Ballantyne