The BBC Strategy Review: United for Local Television responds

United for Local Television
23 June 2010


1. United for Local Television (“ULTV”) is a coalition representing groups seeking to develop a new tier of television services catering for local communities (“local TV”).

2. ULTV congratulates BBC management and the BBC Trust on its initiative in undertaking a comprehensive review of strategy. ULTV restricts its comments on the potential for BBC intervention in local and regional markets to maximise public value and consideration of how to minimise the potential for negative market impact.

3. ULTV members have always found the BBC Trust to be open and responsive to comments made to it. ULTV has been impressed by the manner in which the BBC Trust has conducted its previous consultations including making efforts to engage with small-scale media providers when reviewing the BBC local video proposals and, more recently, Project Canvas.

4. ULTV supports a strong and independent BBC. ULTV believes it is in the public interest that the BBC is often seen as a ‘rival’ but not as a ‘threat’ by local and community media operators. ULTV believes that the Memorandum of Understanding between the BBC and the Community Media Association demonstrates what can be achieved when the BBC and independent operators engage together in a genuine spirit of partnership and collaboration.

Setting new boundaries

5. ULTV welcomes the explicit proposal from the BBC Executive in “Putting Quality First” that:

“The BBC will be no more local in England than it is today on all platforms—that is, it will not increase the BBC’s number of local services on television, radio and online.”

6. ULTV believes this commitment goes some way towards meeting the legitimate concerns of existing and prospective local and regional media providers. However, whilst ULTV supports the continuation of much of the BBC’s existing provision in local and regional markets, ULTV believes there are some areas where further review would be beneficial.

7. In a limited number of areas the BBC has over the past decade introduced the innovation of ‘local TV opt-outs within regional TV opt-outs’. ULTV believes there is a risk that BBC One news bulletins serving areas comparable to BBC local radio areas will damage the prospects for new independent local TV services.

8. ULTV accepts that some ‘enhancements’ to the terrestrial BBC regional news map may not have been regarded as controversial at a time when few were considering the prospect of a roll-out of a new tier of local TV. However, today, it appears certain that Ofcom and government will ensure that spectrum is made available to enable local TV to gain access to the digital terrestrial television (“DTT”) platform across the UK.

9. ULTV expects new local TV services on DTT to also secure carriage on other platforms such as cable and broadband. ULTV anticipates these services often targeting cities, counties or sub-regions – generally not dissimilar to the areas proposed by BBC management for BBC local video (rejected by the BBC Trust). In a small number of areas the BBC is already providing local video services – albeit they commenced at a time when the BBC’s expansion was not subjected to the same regulatory regime it is today.

10. As a general rule, ULTV questions whether the BBC should be producing significant dedicated ‘opt outs’ on BBC One for areas so small there is no accurate BARB audience data available. ULTV believes there is a strong case for the BBC to focus on a broadly consistent level of regional news provision across the English regions in order to leave a more level playing field for new market entrants seeking to develop viable local media businesses funded by advertising or other market-based mechanisms.

Local media partnerships

11. ULTV welcomes the recognition in “Putting Quality First” that:

“Partnership is also a way of unlocking the scale, resources and know-how of the BBC in ways which can significantly support other broadcasters and providers of public service content, yet without weakening the BBC itself.”

12. It is clear to ULTV that the objectives of local TV services are often likely to be synergistic with the BBC’s public service commitments. ULTV believes there is an exciting opportunity to develop a new tier of local TV in the coming months and years which significantly enhances local democratic participation and civil society.

13. ULTV has participated in constructive dialogue with members of the BBC management team regarding opportunities for partnership and collaboration between existing BBC local and regional newsrooms and the new tier of local TV which ULTV is working towards.

14. ULTV welcomes the strong commitment made by the BBC to the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport committee to seek to develop appropriate partnerships with new local TV operators:

“We are exploring which aspects of the proposed regional news partnership could be extended to local TV operators if a sustainable network were to emerge. There is a willingness to share picture material with local TV news operators (as well as ITV) and, subject to capacity constraints, other news infrastructure facilities. Partnerships with the BBC could help reduce barriers to entry for local TV news providers and also create the opportunity for more diverse and differentiated coverage.”

15. ULTV believes that a number of the aspects of the proposed regional news partnership with ITV plc could be transferred to local TV operators (subject to approval of the BBC Executive and Trust where appropriate and due consideration of market impact). ULTV agrees with the BBC that:

“The partnership should be more valuable to local media who do not have ITV's existing infrastructure and legacy cost base. Third parties without access to news production facilities/technology could significantly reduce start-up costs as a result of the partnership. All third parties should benefit from access to the BBC's newsgathering operation including local news bureaux, picture material and potentially live facilities. Benefit to consortia in operating costs is likely to be £10 million per annum at full roll-out (this assumes that the BBC charges at incremental cost for the majority of services/facilities under the partnership).”

16. ULTV believes that both the BBC and local TV services could potentially benefit from a number of other mutually-beneficial opportunities such as:

  • local DTT multiplexes making capacity available to carry BBC local radio services;
  • the BBC commissioning local TV services to produce content for broadcast on BBC local radio and regional TV;
  • co-productions bringing UK and world content together with local and community content;
  • potential for close cooperation between BBC local radio and local TV including occasional use of BBC presenters and reporters as guest contributors to local TV programming;
  • local TV services potentially broadcasting some ‘archive’ BBC programming; and
  • a number of other ideas for discussion including potential technology sharing and BBC support for a new local TV network centre.

17. ULTV requests the BBC consider the opportunity to test some of these ideas through pilot schemes with existing local TV operators.

Supporting the development of the DTT platform

18. ULTV believes the BBC Trust should have one primary concern – to put the interests of the licence fee payer first.

19. ULTV believes the BBC has a particular role to play as a leading member of established cross-industry groups such as the Freeview consortium, the Digital TV Group (DTG), Digital Multiplex Operators (DMOL) and British Audience Research Board (BARB). ULTV believes that a new tier of local TV cannot achieve its full potential without the active support and cooperation of each of these groups.

20. For many years UK consumers have invested in digital switchover through the licence fee, gifted spectrum and, directly, by upgrading their own reception equipment. ULTV is concerned that the licence fee payer who has invested in digital switchover is likely to be unaware of new local TV services when they launch on DTT unless incumbent broadcasters such as the BBC help to promote awareness of the requirement to re-tune DTT receivers.

21. The technology exists for all DTT users to be made aware when new DTT multiplexes launch through on-screen messages and, for some receivers, over-the-air updates. ULTV is keen to explore options to cooperate with the BBC and others to display these messages and updates on a region-by-region basis as new local DTT multiplexes launch. ULTV notes that these methods are already used to support the digital switchover process and believes it is in the interests of licence fee payers to be fully aware of all the services available to them on the DTT platform which they have invested in receiving.

22. ULTV believes that it is neither practical or desirable for small-scale local TV operators to expend significant marketing budgets merely to make viewers aware of the requirement to retune their receivers to obtain new services. ULTV is confident that local TV services will be keen to play their own productive and collaborative role in the successful development of the DTT platform. Cooperation between local and UK-wide DTT multiplexes is, in ULTV’s view, essential to serve the public interest.

23. ULTV looks to the BBC to support its campaign for appropriate priority on the electronic programme guide to be granted to local TV providers on all relevant platforms including, potentially in the future, Project Canvas.

24. ULTV believes that if the BBC chooses to be a supportive ally it can play a significant role in the successful development of the new tier of local TV. ULTV would be delighted to continue its constructive dialogue with BBC management and the Trust.

25. ULTV looks forward to the outcome of this consultation and future consultations on the BBC’s nations/regions services.

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