I’ll begin by admitting that I’m not and have never been a fan of former Department of Culture, Media and Sport minister Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local television. I think it speaks volumes that when the applications went in, there were remarkably few radio or newspaper groups involved in bids. Here are media organisations already in those communities with resources that could be shared across platforms, and yet they mostly stayed away.
In general, I believe that in 2014, if I want to start a TV station based on a local community, there’s very little to stop me. I certainly don’t government incentives to force the issue.
The one city I thought might be able to get things to work was London. Certainly there had been past failures, but I still feel that a city the size of London should be able to support some kind of local TV presence. The question is whether London Live is the right presence.
The fact that it comes from the same stable as the London Evening Standard (and The Independent) should have meant that it could share resources. The Standard, which as managed to turn around its fortunes by going free, still has a sizeable reporting staff who could potentially serve dual duty.
But the direction that London Live has gone, is not quite in keeping with that view. Starting anything other than a very focused channel seems a foolish thing to do in today’s age. Are you a news channel? An entertainment channel? Do you serve a demographic niche? London Live feels as though it’s trying to be all of these, and that’s just not way channels operate today. Yes, it’s smart trying to reflect the young and ethnically diverse audience that reflect London to a greater extent than more mainstream broadcasters. But they should have honed the offering more.
The trouble is that television is expensive. And that’s why many radio and newspaper groups didn’t bid. So you end up having hours to fill with little money to do so. In London Live’s case that means repeats of dramas and comedies from the BBC and Channel 4 set in and around London.
Then there were the mistakes like going onto the television ratings system BARB too early. On the one hand, getting BARB figures means that you can start to sell advertising to big agencies, it also means that anyone can look at some of your dismal performances. For a fledgling TV service that is only really available in one part of one region to go onto a national ratings service feels foolhardy. It would have been more sensible to get up and running before paying significantly for BARB ratings.
Now we read that London Live has applied to significantly vary its licence to remove lots of the local programming its made from the schedules – including peak. Partly, that’s probably the right thing to do. All those cheaply made documentaries on food, music and entertainment are probably not worthwhile. But on the other hand, they could be doing other things differently. Their most serious news programmes go out in the middle of the day. Why not the evening? And why even bother competing with the BBC and ITV during the 6.00-7.00pm hour? Instead, use the fact that Londoners have a longer rush “hour” than many other parts of the country, and that we’re not all home available to view at 6.30pm. Put something on at 7.00pm. And then repeat it at 8.00pm and 9.00pm. It can still be a bit entertainment led if need be. I’m not expecting hard news. But something reflecting the very broad diaspora of London.
There is a common argument that London is too big to be “local”, but however you define it, people want to know what’s going on around them.
And be prepared to drop everything to broadcast non-stop at a major breaking news event. Sure, you won’t have the manpower or resource of BBC News or Sky News, but social media means everyone can get involved.
A few other pointers:
- If you’re going to buy series like The Shadow Line or Ultraviolet, then sort out your EPG so it includes episode numbers. I know that they’re getting plenty of repeats, but if I can’t work out where to start, then I’m not going to watch a serialised shows. (Yes, the online schedule has this detail, but it’s missing on the Sky EPG).
- I wouldn’t really expect an HD version of a startup channel like London Live, but don’t go for the cheapest carriage possible. The SD encoding of London Live on satellite looks dreadful. Think about how many of your urban affluent viewers have large TVs to show up this shortcoming. It makes viewing painful.
- And The Evening Standard really needs to change how it treats London Live. Yes, plug it daily. But don’t put it to the left of BBC1, BBC2, ITV and C4. That’s nonsense. It’s not more important than those – it needs to earn its place with your readers. Certainly include it – Murdoch titles long ago added Sky 1 just past Channel 5, but even they didn’t somehow make out the channel was “bigger” than the terrestrials. Similarly, don’t try to make some TV previewer find something worthwhile to watch every night on your channel. There’s only so many times an old episode of Peep Show can be considered as one of the best things to watch tonight on telly – even in the height of the summer.
If Ofcom does allow London Live to substantially vary its schedule it’ll be interesting to see what happens in its place. Because if it’s just going to end up a low-rent version of Dave or Comedy Central, then it won’t be able to compete – and it shouldn’t be able to. Those are better funded and much more focused channels. Let’s not forget that ventures like this are receiving £40m of Licence Fee money – £25m for transmission costs (via Comux), and £15m for acquisition from the local TV operators. Incidentally, it’d be good to know what the BBC has acquired thus far for rebroadcasting…
If you were going to start with a local “TV” service today, my first thought is that it wouldn’t be on television – not in the traditional sense. I’d start a YouTube channel and let Google pay for my distribution costs (and viewers through their ISP subscriptions). I therefore don’t need to fill 24 hours of every day with something – just a tightly produced ten minutes daily, or less, would suffice. I’d get interested locals to help, and local colleges and universities.
Using YouTube, I’d automatically find myself “available” on every digital platform as well as many smart TVs (and non-smart ones via Chromecast etc). I’d build a social media presence – Facebook and Twitter would be a large part of the operation.
Indeed I’d do what a large number of enterprising people are already doing – the so-called “YouTubers”.