Local TVs Time Has Come

Local Television's Time Has Come - by Dave Greenhalgh - (December 2011)

With the first 20 cities to receive local television announced, the bidding process for the new licences in the UK is about to begin. We ask what are the constraints and opportunities for local television and what are the workable models. Particularly, we look at a model for a typical city the size of Bristol, where we are based.

In its July 2011 document, 'A New Framework for Local TV in the UK', The Department for Culture, Media and Sport set out its vision for local television networks across the UK. The DCMS and OfCom have consulted widely about the potential for local television and Ofcom is currently consulting on how its powers and duties should be exercised. Bids are set to be assessed in late spring with the winners announced in the summer of 2012. Stations are expected to go live in 2013. The debate still continues as to the exact criteria for bids, but it looks as though there is an emphasis on both commercial viability and social gain.

12 Years ago, in our 1999 article, 'Will the Television be Revolutionized' we discussed the potential for a genuinely local service. It would address local interests and would be created by local people. It would advertise local businesses and promote local communities. Moreover, it would be interesting.

Sadly, while local television has thrived for years in the United States, Canada and Europe, it has failed to establish itself in the UK. Use of broadband and delivery systems such as IPTV are changing this but local terrestrial television channels for local people with sufficient audience numbers to ensure sustained quality of output have not yet materialized.

What is Local Television?

In a country where oddly it doesn't yet exist, there is no clear consensus on what local television actually is. So debates have raged often at cross purposes. For some it is simply means secondary local delivery from a centralised network spine of locally impertinent material. For others local television is diametrically opposed to mainstream broadcast: it is entirely produced from the grass roots of the community; engagement, democratic values and social gain take precedence over production standards or economic sustainability.

Criteria for the tranche of licence bidding process about to be launched have remained inexplicit, perhaps to allow a multitude of views and potentially diverse models to emerge before criteria are set out.

Several themes and suggestions allow a guess as to what a successful bid might look like and the picture is becoming increasingly clear. It is likely to follow to a considerable degree the bidding criteria for local radio licences:

  • It will be economically sustainable.

  • There must be a demand.

  • It will address local issues and contribute social gain.

  • Does this mean that it can go out on a shoestring budget with a largely volunteer workforce and output 2 or 3 hours of wholly locally produced programming at peak time.

  • It will enhance the process of democracy.

  • It must be accountable to its audience.

Local television is about increasing democracy and developing community through local accountability and participation. Opposing points of view continue to be commended, depending on different interests, between models of complete local autonomy and a national network spine. We actually believe that somewhere between the two is likely to provide the greatest opportunity for local democracy and community to be represented.

The autonomous local approach usually emphasises bottom-up growth and the democratic values of local community participation while the national network spine approach emphasizes commercial viability.

Local advocates often suspect advocates of the national approach as being led by the desire to turn large profits by divesting themselves of the burden of idiosyncratic local output. This would follow the now dropped Channel Six model. This would, say local advocates, result in yet more trashy generic network TV, but at a lower budget. At the same time too many local advocates remain uncomfortable when presenting their own commercial proposals, which are often come across as being attached as an afterthought. National advocates on the other hand are more likely to have sound commercial models. They suspect local advocates of being woolly-headed when it comes to finances and growing out of a culture of subsidy. However, the national advocates have often paid little regard to the values and opportunities of local engagement and output. Their models are often based on formulaic data and lack imagination.

The DCMS seem to be consciously favouring the term 'local television' over 'community television' and this is correct. Over-emphasis of the term 'community television' runs the risk of embroiling numerous local institutions in velutinous campaigns over representation, practical control probably ending up with a compromised social sector coterie. Real social gain derives from a statement of intent for deep and wide representation of local services, underpinned where appropriate on Memorandums of Understanding with various institutions. The station should not be constrained though from a duty to the community to scrutinize public service provision, in the spirit of a free, but sensibly regulated press. This is not to say that different models for different localities shouldn't be followed and indeed there should be some allowance for different approaches, so there can be a rich learning process. There are many opportunities for community to be involved in content and production, probably far exceeding what current network TV is able to offer. Satisfying a wide community in close communication with itself is to win the audience. Running a successful television station is competitive. It should be led by sound business principles and a healthy battle for a loyal audience.

The practical constraints are that for stations to be commercially viable they have to meet and repay set up and ongoing costs, including paying the workforce. While there have been attempts at entirely voluntarily run television stations, more often than not these have resulted in a poor quality of service and eventual failure. A number of models may yet emerge, particularly in regard to more isolated rural areas that serve smaller populations, but a rule of thumb for a station reaching a population of around 500,000 is a running cost of about £3,000 a day or around £1 million a year. The only way to practically fund this is through advertising, including possibly forms of programme sponsorship. Let's say we have 24 hour TV with seven minutes of 30 second advertising slots every hour, that's 336 ads per viewing day, about £9.00 per slot if you do the maths. This is operating income, not the cost to the advertiser, as these figures do not include ad sales overheads, profits and so forth. And of course space for peak viewing times is going to be considerably more expensive than space at 3.00 am. Local advertising is an entirely different market to national advertising. National advertising is largely about brand awareness, but on a local level it may not be considered cost effective to persuade people that a particular brand of toothpaste is the only one to buy. Local advertising will contain a greater mix of double glazing, car salesrooms and other local business services. Direct measurement of ratings doesn't seem to be technically feasible for local television, so stations will need to develop ways of addressing this in order to sell advertising. This crude model at least outlines what needs to be addressed to present a viable business model.

The Key to Successful Local Television

Advertising is sold by increasing audience share and this is ensured by quality programming that local people want to watch. This is the key to successful local television. Simply emulating mainstream networked television is not the answer. Output produced entirely by the local station is also not feasible. It is too costly to produce sufficient quantity of sufficient quality. So how do you produce great local TV? The answer is in understanding the unique opportunities and branding of local television as being quite different from national networked television.

iContact is based in Bristol and Bristol provides a pertinent model. It is to be one of the first 20 cities to receive a TV licence. The population reach is likely to be 500,000 plus, depending on the extent of coverage. Using the example of Bristol the following bullet points outline some of the issues and how our view of a successful local TV station might look - and we will try to avoid using the term 'stakeholder'.

  • Firstly, a local channel is differentiated by its need to engage the actual locality and local population. Bristol is a shining example of a globally aware medium-sized Creative City. This is the reason for and view of companies like the double Oscar winning Aardman Animations. There is a significant cost/quality equation for living and doing business here. It has a very large student population from both a top flight university, Bristol, and one of the largest and most successful new universities in the country, UWE. Along with Brighton (pro rata), it has one of the largest populations of people opting to live here post-graduation in the country. It's a great place for families to live and a great place to go out at night for the young and young-at-heart alike. It's a music-loving city. Beautiful countryside is easily accessible in four directions. As a once powerful international sea port it has a unique history with a diverse culture and real sense of growing cohesion for which it is rightfully proud. It has of course as broad an age range as any large city. It is a growing and confident commercial hub 100 miles due west along the M4 corridor and gateway to the Southwest. There's a lot more to the city's demographics, but this outlines a few of the key considerations which point towards a unique local service.

  • A local channel needs to have a sense of ownership by its viewers and has the ability to engage and galvanise a local audience. It can do this and is indeed expected to this in ways which national and regional television cannot.

  • Its bedrock will be its breadth of real-time local news, and related live services such as traffic and weather reports. Local people have real interest in local news about people and places they see

  • It should provide a wide range of access services: council services; health and environmental services; access to education, work and the voluntary sector; access to democracy.

  • It can encourage and support local dialogue in all sorts of areas, whether leisure, cultural, or topical and can engage a wide range of communities.

  • It can provide leisure, entertainment and local business news to inform people about their city both on a day to day basis and in a broader sense.

  • It should provide a mix of programming and all sections of the population should be represented. Pigeon-holing race, age, class and gender will be challenged though as engagement with the channel reflects and enriches dialogue in the community.

  • 'High-concept' networked (arguably exploitative) programmes are probably not particularly suited to local television. We believe that local television is more likely to be rewarded by inclusivity than competition. Extreme Reality TV for example wouldn't provide the level of anonymity to ensure against potentially unhealthy exposure in the community. Emulating the rigged juggernauts of Saturday night X-Factor type of entertainment may seem distasteful or bogus to sufficient numbers to turn a local audience away. Besides, this form of entertainment is already provided so there is little point in trying to recreate it on a lower budget from a smaller demographic. In fact, there is a close parallel with the differences in the type of advertising revenue likely to be secured on local television: just as people are less likely to be sold toothpaste brand aspirations on local TV, so they are less likely to welcome or respond to the kind of mass global news gossip typified by enhanced-breast female archetypes and are far more likely to be interested in the genuine character behind the facade.

    However, there is still considerable potential for talk shows as part of the live ongoing stream of newsand infotainment. Localised entertainment can also feature prominently. For example, Bristol is a music-loving city and a localized low-budget Jools Holland-type of programme could work really well. Local bands would have the opportunity to promote themselves and receive a show reel. This could be studio or venue-based. If venue-based it could be a form of promotion for the club as well. There may still be some element of voting or audience approval as a way of promoting opportunity and involving local audiences. There is also scope for visiting bands and inter-locality exchange. Rather than simply competition though, which is not the essence of people's enjoyment of music, beyond some friendly local or inter-local rivalry, identity with and appreciation of home grown talent is far more likely to be the attraction. The same could apply to local theatre, comedy, poetry slams and the like. There is also considerable potential for screening and supporting local film production and other digital media, particularly in a media-rich city like Bristol.

  • Local does not have to be only geographically local. There are communities of interest as well as communities of place. Here, there is definite potential for collaboration with other local channels around the country or even the world. Also, issues and interests which are experienced as geographically local, often share close parallels in other localities and it can be enlightening to compare how they are approached elsewhere. This form of collaboration implies joint productions and syndication of programming. Successfully run, this co-production approach can do a lot to create high-quality programming whilst mitigating high production costs.

For this reason there is real scope for a co-ordinated approach where back-end services and expertise could be provided by a more central body serving several stations in different localities. The important issue here will be to retain a genuinely local service with a sense of local ownership, local editorial control and regulatory vigilance against monopolism. Further benefits of co-ordinated production include broader advertising sic revenue stream, skills and knowledge sharing, centralized finance and purchasing power. All of these can help ensure sustainability without detracting from commitment to the local. To those who instinctively fear a loss of local control from this approach, it is worth recognising that a local service might be just as easily isolated and dominated by a local economic caucus acting in its own interests as it is to achieve a genuinely representative position.

  • The chance to experiment and develop. Local television will be attractive to audiences because there are different expectations. Budgets will be lower, potential operating profits will be lower and content is likely to dominate over style. In fact this is where the charm and major Unique Selling Point of local television lies. Audiences are likely to overlook deficiencies in slick production values and enjoy the authentic approach on offer. This means far lower barriers to entry for low cost productions which are based on great ideas, genuine enthusiasm and belief. Bristol, as well as many other places, already has some charming examples of home-spun but highly entertaining internet-based shows. These may easily be enhanced to meet the production values required for public service broadcast.

  • Localism. Specifically local geographic programming works over networked television because people are able to easily go out and experience first-hand local facilities which they may have discovered on the local channel. This is a clear motivator for staying tuned into the local service.

  • Padding out. Local television will need to be padded out late at night with low cost programming which is in all likelihood bought in. This will include for example, movies and music videos. There is no reason however though why imaginative very low-cost programming ideas cannot also occupy and gradually replace these spaces, as long as they ensure the same kinds of audiences. Local and inter-local low-budget films and shorts (sometimes quite quirky) may well attract local audiences, particularly in a town like Bristol, over other networked programming. The probably low viewing numbers at night leave a lot of room for test-running programme streams and a strategically-place lack of predictability may well engage curious late night channel hoppers.

  • The local channel should also have a counterpart in other digital media to provide an interactive and comprehensive local service. This is particularly relevant with the speed of change in digital services and innovations such as IPTV. In the case of Bristol, local information is currently provided by the local newspapers, but fondly remembered perhaps, is the heyday of Venue Magazine in its original form, a successful listings-based magazine which has not yet come near to being digitally improved upon and which provides a useful print-based metaphor for much of how the new local channel should look and feel.

  • There are many other reasons local television can win audience over networked television. A final thought is for people who are not living locally, but have some stake locally; perhaps they are living abroad, have family locally, once lived here, are considering moving to or visiting the area, or are covering or interested in a local story of wider interest. The local channel and its related digital service should become the natural place for this diaspora to congregate.

Local TV's time has come. Let it be entertaining, exciting and innovate service and communication across the whole spectrum of our localities.