At last regional news is sexy!

British local media is in trouble, we need a much more lively and intelligent approach than just government cuts and schemes imported from the US
Lis Howell
27 September 2010

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will be speaking about local news at the Royal Television Society tomorrow. Jeremy made local news into news by killing the potentially subsidised local ‘Independently Funded News Consortia’ (IFNCs) - and coming up with City TV stations instead.

What controversy this has caused!

Most media pundits seem to feel that City Stations won’t work here, and they’re right (see below). But Nicholas Shott, described as a ‘media financier’, has the tough brief of currently looking at the economics of local TV for the government, with the City TV model in mind. Conferences and symposia are springing up all over the place. Suddenly, lots of people who wouldn’t know the Selkirk opt-out from the Bilsdale transmitter, are in on the act.

Why should we bother?
Regional TV is accused of being a low quality, unwanted, unneeded offering run for elderly women by subsidy junkies, so why don’t we all walk away from it faster than you can say local democracy? The answer is twofold: lefties feels it should inform the plebs, and the righties feel that somehow, somewhere, it should make money.

The attitude to local news has always been confused. When I was a reporter (for Border, Tyne Tees and Granada) the view was that anyone with half a brain should really work in London or for the ‘network’. Then when the Mirror Group set up local stations in 1995 they thought real newspaper hacks could do better than provincial TV reporters. Both attitudes were wrong. Regional TV post ‘70s always suffered from being seen as second class. Local TV news was only an obligation; neither money making nor prestigious.

This warped perception has left a legacy. The years of treating local/regional TV news as a ‘must do’ and ‘also ran’ means opinion formers have no concept of how it could work financially. Politicians don’t know how to support it (though they want to appear on it); and the public has vastly differing needs in Twickenham or Tadcaster  - with no way to express them. The ‘one size fits all’ approach to regional news now practiced in ITV (and possibly not for long) seems like a suicide bid with plummeting ratings, and great tranches of the country get little attention.

So what should opinion formers be taking on board?

  • First, though it’s counter intuitive, anyone who has worked in the regions knows that it is most watched in the rural hinterlands or places with small town populations. People there are by nature more insular. If I had fifty pounds to invest I’d invest in Berkshire rather than Birmingham TV.
  • Second, I would want local news on my TV not my PC. The telly still publicises things, whereas the computer personalizes things. Although to be frank, I’m at the stage where the delivery system is pretty irrelevant - as long as I can see my kid on the big screen, I don’t care. But mostly, I want to know that everyone else can see my kid on the screen too. Telly works best for this. It can’t be beaten for sending live events to a lot of people whether it’s the Cumberland Show or the Pope’s visit. The argument that television costs make it uneconomic doesn’t entirely wash. Video streaming to a decent standard has costs too, and it’s the video we all want. So let’s have it on the box with supporting websites.
  • Third, there are those who apparently believe that the English regional economy is literally shot. Many people in Hampstead think everyone in Halifax is either on benefits or working for the NHS. But there is money out there. The regions aren’t all rust and handouts. Of course they cannot support the sort of overpaid, over-crafted content of the past. But if they can support branches of the Vodafone shop or Wetherspoons, it ain’t all bad. Regional TV could easily be made far, far cheaper than it was, and digital transmission costs a fraction of the old analogue system.

So what would I recommend?
Regulation: I’d scrap the idea of subsidy but embrace the idea of help. If the state can suddenly let farmers shoot badgers and put bike stands round London it can help other interest groups too. It could settle the issue of where local TV goes on the EPG. It could allocate the new available digital (DTT) carriage and ’must carry’ status on cable to interested companies. It could make conditions easier and force big companies to help. Lots of fledgling ideas fall off the nest because big birds squeeze them out. The big birds could stand having their wings clipped a tad - especially when they fly on government support, via the licence fee or guaranteed spectrum.

BBC: I’d tackle the big broadcasters. The BBC is a ‘national treasure’ but you don’t have to be Warren Buffet to see that the Beeb sucks oxygen out of the broadcasting economy and stops people investing. And it could soon have a monopoly in local TV if ITV pulls out. Somehow that feels wrong. If you mention ‘top-slicing’ the head honchos at the BBC act as if you have suggested cutting an artery. However - there are other ways the BBC could be made to pay back a little bit ‘in kind’ for its privileged position. They could share live event footage or supply extra material (the Pope’s in your town? Five minutes on the BBC and the same crew supplies 5 hours to your small local commercial station at a reduced fee.) If the BBC and the new commercial channels worked together on sport, for example, the public would be infinitely better served for very little more outlay. The Beeb could help at very little extra cost.

ITV: presents a much sadder case. ITV’s local news was (and I would say this) much better than the BBC’s, particularly in some of the less urban regions. But they have let 80% audience shares go. I would be tempted to release them from their obligations – agree to cut the Contracts Rights Renewal deal in return for just a small amount of the revenue gained being farmed back into local news through new arrangements with other commercial companies. An ITV spine providing news shows at 6pm and support in kind for commercial rivals would be a win-win, surely? And it would be a form of public service provision which would win ITV brownie points.

A new idea:
Most controversially, as an extension of the ‘help but not subsidy’ philosophy, the state should sponsor a program strand? Sponsorship should be unchained anyway when it comes to regional news and current affairs. I can’t see a news strand sponsored by Specsavers or Sofa Warehouse being more theoretically dodgy than News International’s relationship with Sky News and that works fine in practice. And why not extend the idea? Why not a programme sponsored by your local council? It can still be editorially neutral – isn’t that exactly what happens with the BBC? Independent programs paid for by a small amount of Government raised finance? Local and national government has a huge PR budget…. Seriously, this could provide work, and income, and support for new broadcasting businesses and be of use as well.

Plus: And why not be even more outrageous and have local councils broadcast live like the House of Commons? It couldn’t be more boring. In fact it could be really interesting. Some truly outrageous things happen at council level. A little bit of exposure might go a long way? It might cost quite a lot for the infrastructure but it would truly make for open democracy. Councils are spending million on propaganda disguised as local newspapers. Let’s cut the spin and see it for real.

And scrap the name City TV: It’s absolutely not about cities. Local TV doesn’t work for metropolitan people unless you have a really strong identity and those of us who have worked in it, know that you get much more response in Maryport than Manchester. Let new local channels be widely different in tone, content and economic models, but give them all a break and don’t alienate non City dwellers from the start. I can’t believe a Conservative Minister is making such a mistake. Think small towns and shires!

Above all we need to have people debating about regional news who care about it and have experienced it both as viewers and workers. Sadly, London based pundits have never been able to enjoy Calendar or Border Lookaround. So now, policy is in danger of being made by intelligent well informed people who just don’t get it (technically and emotionally!)

We need to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that most people who enjoy local news are lower middle class, middle aged, slightly more likely to be female and not metropolitan, And that actually they can be economically sexy too. These people go to work, buy stuff for their kids and grandchildren, vote in local elections, and serve as volunteers. They watched local TV in their millions yet suddenly we’re being told that there’s no market. The argument that they did it to fill time before Neighbours or Corrie doesn’t really hold water. Six o’clock in the evening was not the greatest slot and the idea that local news needs to be hammocked by expensive buy-ins or high rating soaps isn’t borne out by the facts.

Finally, don’t make a mountain out of molehill. Making local TV work doesn’t seem to me to be such a difficult proposition and some companies want to have a go. Let them! Match the costs to the income and most important of all, government should acknowledge and pay for its political usefulness.

If we did these simple things local and regional news and broadcasting could be sexy for many more years to come.

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