Ignore the premature epitaphs, argues Torin Douglas. Jeremy Hunt’s vision for a new generation of small TV stations refuses to be buried
If you were to believe the headlines, you might think that local television – dismissed by some as "Jeremy Hunt’s pipe dream" – was dead in the water. The former Culture Secretary’s vision, scorned by most broadcasters, was bulldozed on to the statute book four years ago and the first channels are now 18 months old.
Hunt thought it wrong that Birmingham, Alabama, had eight local-TV stations while Birmingham, UK, had none, and secured some funding and the Channel 8 slot on Freeview (in England, at least) to help the new stations get established.
But his plan quickly ran into difficulties, as the headlines have accurately testified:
- "Birmingham’s City TV is first of Hunt’s local-TV networks to go bust"
- "London Live local-TV station to cut one-third of its staff"
- "YourTV Manchester is no more"
- "It’s very unlikely that all local-TV stations will survive, admits Ofcom"
No one would claim that local-TV is in rude health, but reports of its death – like Mark Twain’s – have been exaggerated.
"Whatever you think about the original Jeremy Hunt plan, local-TV is now a reality, it’s part of the media landscape," says Nigel Dacre, former Editor of ITV News. "It may change and evolve but, in my view, it’s not going away."
As Director of Notts TV, and former Chair of the Local-TV Network, he believes that local-TV has a healthy, if challenging, future.
At a recent Westminster Media Forum event, he spelt out some reasons to be cheerful. 17 local-TV channels have been launched so far, in towns and cities such as Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Grimsby, London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Nottingham.
Ofcom has licensed channels in a further 14 towns and cities, including Aberdeen, Cambridge, Middlesbrough, Reading, Swansea and York, which are due to launch in the next two years.
Moreover, the Birmingham and Manchester licences have been taken over by other local-TV groups.
"We estimate that more than 300 new, full-time jobs have been created in the local-TV sector in the past year," he said, "as well as many freelance opportunities and production company commissions.
"Most channels also have a relationship with local broadcast journalism courses, providing unprecedented levels of training and experience."
The channels are owned by more than a dozen different organisations, with widely differing business models.
They range from established media groups, epitomised by STV, the owner of the Channel 3 company in Scotland, which has launched stations successfully in Glasgow and Edinburgh and won licences for Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, to much smaller community-based channels in places such as Belfast and Sheffield.
We estimate that more than 300 new, full-time jobs have been created in the local-TV sector in the past year
Several newspaper groups are involved, including Archant, which runs Mustard TV in Norwich, the Kent Messenger Group in Maidstone and the Evening Standard in London (owned by Evgeny Lebedev). The problems of the Standard’s station, London Live, have – perhaps inevitably – dominated news and comment about the sector, to the frustration of channels that have made better progress outside the capital.
Launched in a blaze of publicity in March 2014 – not least in its sister paper – London Live has since cut back severely on staff and programme commissions. It has obtained Ofcom’s permission to reduce its local programming obligations.
But Tim Kirkman, the station’s Chief Operating Officer, says things are looking up, after "a dreadful start" a year ago. Then, London Live had an audience share of just 0.16% (compared with a business-plan target of 0.7%). He brandishes charts and figures to support his case.
"Last week was our best ever, with a 0.5% share of all adult viewers," he tells me, as he shows me round the studios and newsroom shared with the Standard and The Independent. SOn Wednesday, we had a 1.1% share with our crime night and we’ve now got consistent growth in audience and revenue.
"In the first half of May, we averaged a 0.42% share of viewing in London, an increase of 147 per cent, year on year.
"When we were showing Miss World for three hours, we had a higher share than Channel 4 or Channel 5. And we have a bigger reach in London than Sky Sports, Sky Atlantic and Gold."
Kirkman has restructured the business, shedding 20 staff and original commissions such as Food Junkies.
He says the initial plans were simply unsustainable on its low audience share but, after cutting costs, this year’s losses will be half last year’s. Kirkman says he is on course to move into a monthly profit by September 2016.
It’s not just in London where there are signs of progress.
"The four Made TV channels, in Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Newcastle, are – according to their own research – [achieving] an average reach of 13% across each of their stations," says Dacre. "Local magazine-style programmes are getting a particularly good response, such as The Mustard Show in Norwich, The 6:30 Show in Nottingham, The Riverside Show in Glasgow, and Talking Sheffield.
"Night after night, these programmes are interviewing local people in a local studio about local stories and events."
When we were showing Miss World for three hours, we had a higher share than Channel 4 or Channel 5
The stations also benefit from a deal with the BBC, negotiated as part of the 2010 licence-fee settlement. Under this, the corporation buys some of their raw news footage to use in its own local-TV bulletins.
Each licensee is guaranteed an income of £150,000 in its first year, for providing 85 stories a month, whether or not the footage is used.
"The public purpose of the scheme is to incentivise the stations to provide local news coverage," says Chris Carnegy, BBC Editor, Local-TV, who co-ordinates the scheme. "They’re using our money to provide two or three stories a day for their local audiences, so it’s pump-priming their news rooms."
Bill Smith of Brighton’s Latest TV told the Westminster event: "We’ve been working with the BBC very successfully and done a lot of co-productions with their Tunbridge Wells team. It’s worked really well, but it’s going to end in a year and a half’s time. I think that’s a massive mistake."
Jeff Henry, Chief Executive of Archant and a former CEO of ITV Consumer and Granada Sky Broadcasting, was less enthusiastic: "My understanding is that the DCMS suggested that £15m of licence fee money be spent with local-TV and the BBC has managed to eke out just over £1.8m so far.
"In Mustard TV, we genuinely believe we have a great local-TV channel but financially it is challenged – or, rather, the model is challenged."
The BBC says the local stations have been slower to launch than expected, but it still expects to spend about two-thirds of the money.
It is actively discussing other ways it can use this budget, beyond news footage. But any continuation of the scheme, as proposed by Smith, would depend on the next licence-fee settlement.
Smith was one of the pioneers of local television, long before Jeremy Hunt got the bee in his bonnet.
"I wrote to Margaret Thatcher in 1983, asking for a TV station in Brighton and it took a while after that to get it," he says. "Our station got 200,000 viewers last month, but you probably didn’t know that. The only print you see about local-TV comes from London, and they don’t really want us to succeed."
That’s one of the companies’ main challenges: not just to win local audiences and advertising, but to persuade sceptical London media types that local-TV has a future.