local tv

Winding Down Local TV

In the dim and distant past of 2011, Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, kicked off “Local TV.”

“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content,” he said.

In due course, he saw through the legislation to create a series of local TV services. This included the requirement for channels to be carried on all the main broadcast platforms. Furthermore, the new services would find positions fairly high their respective EPGs. Broadly speaking, the higher a channel appears in the EPG, the more viewing it is able to capture.

The BBC’s then licence fee settlement included funding that it must pay to the new services, both to build out a transmitter network and provide funding for each channel over the first three years. In theory programming might find its way back to the BBC.

Famously Hunt said, “Birmingham Alabama … has eight local TV stations – despite being a quarter the size of our Birmingham that, again, doesn’t even have one.”

But the idea was flawed from the outset.

First of all, equating UK and US TV stations was an irrelevance. US TV networks don’t exist in the same way. They are networks of largely independently owned stations, each of which affiliates itself to a major network in a given market. Sometimes there are big operators who own multiple stations, while their station in one city might be an affiliate of CBS, but in another, it is an affiliate of NBC. Mornings and evenings are filled with network programming, while afternoons are filled with nationally syndicated programming (Judge Judy, Ellen, etc).

Those “eight” local TV services in Birmingham, Alabama are basically ABC, NBC, CBS and so on, with local news bulletins scattered throughout the day when they’re not playing syndicated or network programming. Pretty much the same as watching BBC1 or ITV from a viewer’s perspective then. There are barely any true local services that operate around the clock. Sure, an affiliate might break away from the main network to cover a major breaking news story in its area, or more likely a car chase live from a helicopter, but they’re not truly “local” beyond news programmes and advertising sales.

Nonetheless, a variety of people applied for the early local TV licences advertised by Ofcom and they were duly handed out, via a “beauty parade.” In other words, to a win a licence, you had to promise the best programming. Another flawed part of the process, since to win a licence, applicants tended to over-promise.

The new owners of the licences varied. In London, it was the group that owned both the London Evening Standard and The Independent that got the licence. In Glasgow and later Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, the local ITV franchise STV (which is still independent of the rest of ITV) won the licences. They were more successful than some others because they had a large news operation anyway across Scotland, as well as a healthy library of STV owned catalogue programming. However even these channels, collectively known as STV2, are facing a review over their future.

In Norwich, Mustard TV was operated by newspaper publisher Archant. They published the major daily and weekly newspaper titles in the area, and as in London, would be able to share resources with their stablemates.

But a couple of groups emerged to run what were effectively wider groups: “Made In…” and “That’s…” Your local service might be That’s Oxfordshire or That’s Lancashire, Made In North Wales or Made In Tyne and Wear.

Made Television has six stations while its larger rival That’s TV has fourteen.

Sometimes these groups won the licences from the outset; other times, they took over failing local stations (including the aforementioned Mustard TV).

But all the time, while these quasi groups were being built, something else was happening. A series of “change requests” was going through. Each of these would see a reduction in the number of hours of new original programming each station had to broadcast. The initial bidders had been wildly optimistic about the volume of new television they could make – indeed the “beauty parade” aspect to licencing actively encouraged them to make these promises. But it’s hard to make good television. It’s also hard to make cheap television. And it’s very hard to make good, cheap television.

Every so often, the stations went back to the regulator and asked to be relieved of some of the promises they’d made. That mostly meant reductions in locally made programming.

If they weren’t making original local programming, then how did they fill their schedules? Well they could licence old programming from various parties and save costs.

London Live, for example, licences large swathes of Channel 4 programming, and fits that between cheap Danny Dyer films that it has also licenced.

Made Television is able to licence episodes of Judge Judy, It Takes a Killer and Medical Detectives – all cheap syndicated fare.

Any channel could licence a lot of this programming, but not every channel gets a prime EPG slot as the local services get. Discovery or UKTV would kill to get Freeview channels 7 or 8. Viewers find those channels much more easily.

On the plus side, local TV has probably been a boon for Talking Pictures TV, the classic film channel. It has had an agreement in place that saw carriage of its channel across a lot of That’s TV stations.

Which all brings us to today’s news that Ofcom wants to end the local rollout of new services. This hasn’t come soon enough, because the economics just don’t work.

If a group wants to start a TV channel in 2018, then they should be perfectly able to do it on their own without any government assistance. And building expensive broadcast infrastructure really doesn’t feel the way to go. While there are definitely advantages to broadcast versus IP delivery, building a community TV channel on, say, YouTube would be a perfectly sensible and viable thing to do. Committed volunteers using cheap cameras and open source software can produce decent quality video – tens of thousands of YouTubers show what’s possible.

Indeed, the idea that a small TV channel is capable of filling 24 hours a day is laughable, so concentrating on a decent quality single programme that can be watched at the viewer’s convenience is definitely the most pragmatic solution.

TV is not easy, and most of the groups that started out with local TV services have struggled. Viewing figures are low – indeed for the most part they’re not collected by the ratings body BARB (Be very dubious of claims of viewership that come from other surveys).

The only real good I can think that came out of this experiment was as a training opportunity for new people into the television marketplace which is far too London-centric. But even then, I’d love to know whether everyone is being paid or not.

The idea was flawed from the outset, and while channels that remain will probably be able to struggle by for a while, they simply can’t afford to make quality local TV programming – especially news. While some UK TV regions are large, meaning that viewers feel distant even from their local BBC or ITV news programmes, they shouldn’t underestimate how expensive that programming is for both the BBC and ITV to make. It’s hard to see how a cost effective local TV service can truly feel that void.

And anyone who’s spent any time actually watching local TV bulletins in the US will know that for the most part, they’re not high quality, often concentrating on stories that make good pictures (car crashes, fires, the aftermath of murders), and filling their bulletins with syndicated material of often dubious quality. (See, for example, the scandal surrounding Sinclair Broadcasting recently.)

The whole plan was wrongheaded from the outset, taking up resource at the regulator, and costing licence fee payers money that won’t up on the services that they’re paying for. Even in 2011, the future of hyper local services was clearly the internet, and the US TV model was both irrelevant to the UK market, and in any case, not very good.

I would never want to see services closed down, but this an experiment that has completely failed.

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:

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).

London Live

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”.

Elsewhere: Roy Greenslade picks up on a good piece from John Myers on the lack of viability of these channels’ business plans.