A bit more for those of you interested in the government’s consultation about its proposals for a new series of local TV channels. I was asked to write a guest article about the issue for the blog of journalist Ed Walker, and so I’ve republished it below. You can see it in its original context by clicking here.
A LOT OF PEOPLE seem to be having trouble knowing what to make of Jeremy Hunt and his idea of setting up dozens of new local TV stations around the country.
London-based commentators have been predictably sniffy, querying why the ambitious Culture Secretary, as likely as anyone to become the next Prime Minister, would bother spending so much of his personal political capital on delivering local news to Keighley, Mold and Elgin.
Meanwhile, those already involved in the local and regional media appear rather conflicted. Local TV could mean more jobs and
potentially more revenue, two things which have been increasingly hard to come by.
But (and there are plenty of buts) how best to deliver local TV? Will we really be able to attract enough advertising? Why does Barnstaple get its own channel but Barnsley and Berwick and Bury don’t? And does anyone in Barnstaple really want to watch Barnstaple TV anyway?
These and other questions and grumbles were raised last week, when Mr Hunt came to Manchester for a second time to speak to local media folks about his proposals.
The government’s current thinking is for new channels in up to 65 locations, put into your telly using existing digital terrestrial technology, with assurances they’ll be guaranteed good places on the electronic programme guide. Licenses will begin to be awarded next year, with the first channels broadcasting in 2013.
The channels will lead to improved scrutiny of councils and other public bodies, Mr Hunt said. They’ll also provide another outlet for
small businesses to advertise, and boost the creative industries outside London.
Lurking behind all this though, as in just about every sector of the media, is the internet. More specifically in this case IPTV or, in other words, the thing that will put programmes into your TV set using broadband rather than transmitters.
Proponents of this approach say that, while superfast broadband isn’t superfast enough yet, it soon will be, and suggest internet telly will leave the digital system looking all rather old-fashioned and expensive. Better then, that argument goes, to invest everything we can in IPTV. Then, one day soon, 65 stations will be superseded by 650, or 6,500.
Besides, why would one station for Greater Manchester be enough? If you’re living in Stockport, a murder in Bury or council scandal in Salford is still not likely to be especially interesting to you. That’s one reason why the existing regional news programmes zip through all their proper news so they can get on with the magazine items, sport and weather.
Mr Hunt told the Manchester seminar that IPTV is still too far away. “We don’t want to wait,” he said, adding that his proposal could be a “transitional phase” and provide a “headstart” for local TV. However, he acknowledged that in a decade or so, Greater Manchester might well have ten or more local TV channels, delivered via IPTV.
In the meantime, the kind of local video service that I produced over the past year at Saddleworth News, in partnership with media
production students from The Oldham College, might be as close as many places get to truly local TV. It was only one bulletin a month, hosted on YouTube, but it was video news about Saddleworth which you could access anytime, something Saddleworth has never had before.
It actually generated enough local interest that I found myself being stopped in the street and asked if I was the bloke off Saddleworth TV. If nothing else, the whole experience demonstrated to me the excitement and power that TV still has. Getting your picture in the paper or going on the radio is one thing, but there is a certain magic about seeing your own village or street on video.
I believe tapping into that appetite for very local TV will be crucial to the success of any operation, and that the on-demand capability and flexibility of IPTV will do a much better job of delivering that than DTT ever can.
Looking ahead, and contrary to all the scepticism, I predict Mr Hunt’s proposals will come into being. His enthusiasm for local TV is clear, and as long as he remains in his job I’ve no doubt he’ll make the project happen.
Lots of existing media companies will be involved one way and another, along with new players. Some channels which learn how to provide distinctive programmes on a tiny budget, probably using the existing facilities of university and college media departments, may succeed. Others, run along too-similar lines to traditional and costly news operations, will probably collapse in spectacular style, owing money all over the place.
Eventually, technology will allow the variety of local services that Mr Hunt wants. But whether his desire to get channels up and running on DTT first proves a help or a messy and expensive hindrance, we’ll have to wait and see.