Written by TV

The Failure of London Live

“Local TV” has not been a rip-roaring success. It was former Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt’s passion project, before a reshuffle saw him move to Health. But once the train had started rolling it couldn’t be stopped, and Ofcom has dutifully carried out DCMS’s wishes and rolled out a series of stations. It’s still doing so.

Hunt had misconstrued what television in America is – “If Birmingham, Alabama can have eight local TV stations, why not Birmingham, England?” He failed to really grasp that national broadcasters in the US are mostly networks – networks of local stations that affiliate with national networks. He also didn’t really understand the direction television is going. In essence, there is nothing to stop anybody launching a new TV channel today. But they’d probably choose to give it a specialism on a national scale, or choose a more optimal delivery platform on a local level.

Not every station has been a failure. To date, the standout appears to be STV Glasgow, owned by STV itself. But there it’s able to utilise both STV’s own library of programming at minimal cost, and share news resources with its older sibling. STV also has a strong local sales offering, meaning that advertising can be bundled with the local station, and there can be cross-promotion at programme junctions. STV Edinburgh has only recently come on stream, and I’d expect the same success. And I note that STV has also successfully won licences for Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee.

But there is nobody else with quite the same opportunity. There are quasi-networks which save in costs, like Made in [Bristol / Cardiff / Tyne & Wear / Leeds / Teesside] and That’s [Oxford / Solent / Surrey / Reading / Salisbury]. But set against this is the case of Birmingham where the winning bidder collapsed before launch, and a replacement had to be found at short notice while adhering to many of the promises made by the previous bidder. And more than that, there are licences where Ofcom has rejected a sole bidder.

I don’t wish ill on any them, and hope that they are successful.

But I suppose the station that’s closest to home is the one that gets channel 8 in my region – London Live. It launched on 31 March 2014 with “Alright?” and has been basically struggling since then.

Probably the first issue they had is that they subscribed to BARB TV ratings, and journalists who get those ratings were suddenly posting some remarkably low viewing figures.

On the one hand, they felt they needed to subscribe to ratings because unlike most of their fellow Local TV stations, their broadcast area was close to an existing TV region, which is essential since BARB was designed and works on a regional TV level. And having those ratings potentially gives them access to national advertising from agencies. Advertising is a critical part of the financing of these channels.

The problem with taking BARB is that it isn’t really set up right for a channel of their scale, and their programmes are under-represented as a result. BARB locally is mostly used by the five major channels, in the most part for advertising and local news. But this all meant that their level of success or failure was instantly identifiable. They had overnights in the low thousands or even zero rated programmes.

Beyond their ratings problems, they’d made some big promises about how much local programming they’d deliver. As the original tender was partly a “beauty contest” – in that Ofcom considered the range of programming they would be offering – London Live offered a lot. They were up against four other bidders.

They went back to Ofcom for the right to reduce the levels on several occassions, most notably in the autumn of 2014 when they successfully petitioned for reductions in the number of hours of local programming they needed to broadast in peak-time.

I must admit that of all the bidders for the London local TV licence, I did think that London Live had the best chance of success. It’s owned by the Lebedevs who also own The Independent, and crucially, the Evening standard. Simply put, they have the opportunity to share news resources between their papers and their TV service.

But it’s not as simple as that. In Glasgow, STV is able run the very same package on both STV and STV Glasgow – perhaps airing a longer version for the Glasgow audience. In London, a reporter at a press conference probably can’t both write 500 words for the Standard, and then put together a TV package of the same story. Not in a timely manner anyway. TV production always takes longer than you think. And although the combined resources of the newspapers provide plenty of opportunities on-air, it’s not always that simple, and sometimes appears very awkward on-air.

However having the Standard did give London Live some essential free promotion which few others would be able to access. According to ABC, the Standard currently distributes 883,000 newspapers a day! It went free in 2009, and is now reported to be profitable. This is a promotional opportunity that is worth millions.

So not only did the channel launch with free wraparounds on the paper, regular advertising within it and even promotional paint jobs on the paper’s delivery vans, but the paper went one step further. It gave prime real estate to London Live in one of the most important places in any evening newspaper – it’s TV pages.

We’re a bit old fashioned in how we present TV in newspapers in this country. Until digital switchover, it was mostly about channels 1-5. Other channels were mostly relegated to the smallprint. I remember when Rupert Murdoch’s Times started giving Sky 1 the sixth spot and thought it “a bit rum.” But it’s fine of course, and depending on a paper’s readers’ interests, channels like E4 or BBC Four get prime spots in listings today, just beyond Channel 5.

The Standard however, bumped everyone else down and gave London Live the first spot – despite everyone else basically listing channels in EPG order. It didn’t just feel awkward because the numbering was out of kilter, but because it was evident the channel was being run on a shoestring but should somehow be considered the equivalent of BBC1 or ITV.

I should point out that in times past, the Standard had very strong TV coverage – for example the excellent Victor Lewis Smith was its daily TV reviewer for many years. So when the TV preview column also clearly came under specific instructions to promote London Live’s programming it was awful.

In the early months of the channel, they did at least have some new programming to promote. It might have been cheaply made, but it was at least new. Today the channel has shifted nearly all its original programming out of primetime, where it relies heavily on acquired material. But the TV preview mostly has to promote the peak-time schedule – that’s when the paper’s readers are available to watch. And that leads to problems.

To give you an example, here’s a sample day’s peak time schedule:

1900-2000 Cookery School (Channel 4, 2011)
2000-2100 Made in Chelsea (Channel 4, 2012)
2100-2200 The Fried Chicken Shop (Channel 4, 2013)
2200-2300 Misfits (E4, 2013)
2300-0100 Dot The I (Film, 2003)

Also airing right now on other days and in other dayparts are episodes of Trigger Happy TV, River Cottage Life, Peep Show and London’s Burning. You will note that for the most part the schedule is drawn from C4’s archives.

And entertainingly, here are the three programmes that the same day’s Evening Standard highlighted as Pick of the Day:

Misfits
Spaced (Channel 4, 1999, available on their website)
The Headline Interview: Iqbal Wahhab (London Live, tomorrow at 10am)

So all London Live programmes then? The Sky-sponsored Game of Thrones watch-along column is probably more appealing. OK – the entire “feature” says London Live at the top, but to the reader it’s an editorial piece with the most warped editorial judgment immaginable.

They do run news programming, but I’ll be honest and say that I’ve barely ever watched it – mostly because it’s not on when I’m in. They have 90 minutes between 0830 and 1000, another two hours at 1200, and a further 90 minutes at 1730.

This is basically madness.

They don’t have the local news resources that either the BBC or ITV has, yet they run their local news programming right up against that of their main rivals. At teatime, in particular, I would stay completely clear of the competition. Many Londoners with long commutes don’t get home in time for either ITV’s local bulletin at 1800 or the BBC’s at 1830. Why don’t they run something at 2000?

They did for a long time have “Not the One Show” which was probably a funny idea when someone wrote it on a whiteboard during a brainstorm, but really shouldn’t have made it through to commission. Not the Nine O’Clock News was first broadcast in 1979. In any case, it wasn’t news but, er, lighter stuff. So basically like The One Show then?

As it stands, the channel is basically a mish-mash of programming I can get anyway through Channel 4’s recently relaunched All 4 app. As a channel it’s just not a compelling offering. It’s neither fish nor fowl.

When you end up with a primetime full of reheated acquisitions, then other channels might fairly ask why London Live gets subsidised by the licence fee payer, and a very valuable prime EPG slot.

I’ve no idea how much the station is costing the Lebedevs to run, but they’re reported to have let a third of staff go at the start of the year, and frankly I’d prefer to see their money propping up The Independent than wasted on this.

There is a school of thought that says that London is too big to be local – that a viewer in Barnet doesn’t really care what’s happening in Ewell. And that’s probably true to an extent. But I think the bigger failing is being a mixed channel. These days you’ve got to be one thing or another. If you’re doing news, then just do news, really well. You don’t have to make it expensive if you cant afford it. Get a few good interviewers and put on regular hour long interview shows. You can re-run these a lot. Or run a 15 minute news sequence and then just repeat for several hours of the day. You’ll probably get a decent viewership for your traffic and weather alone (yes we all have apps for that, but us Brits still love this sort of thing, and can your app show you video of how busy the Dartford crossing is?).

Or if it’s acquired programming you’re going to run, then do it well. Get something exlusively. Run stuff that everyone likes, but nobody’s seen for years – Larry Sanders for example.

Find a niche and then fill it.

But programming that has been run to death on E4 and More4 isn’t the answer, and nor are films that your local pound shop couldn’t shift on DVD in the early 2000s.

Actually, if you want to start a local TV station today, don’t bother with winning Ofcom licences.

In the words of Wittertainment, if you want to start a local TV station, just start a local TV station.

Do it online.

Don’t try to fill a 24 hour schedule.

Make it mobile optimised, and make it social.

Meet a need, and make it better than anything anybody else is doing.

Because if it’s worse, then nobody apart from your mum is going to watch (and even she is only telling you she’s watching).