The democratic case for local television

Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke sets out the case for 'very local television' in Britain. Not only is there demand; local TV is increasingly needed to fill the void left by failing newspapers. It is time to be bold, end the dominance of London and the South East, and protect local democracy

Greg Dyke
20 May 2011

At the start of the year, the Local Television Advisory Committee which I’m on submitted a report to Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. We agreed that I’d make a speech about it in York. Because if genuinely local television is to come – and I think it will – there is a real danger that cities like York will miss out and that instead local television will be concentrated in the dozen or so cities which are already pretty well served by regional television – the likes of Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and London rather than those that aren’t well served like Sheffield, Coventry, Sunderland, Exeter and of course York. 

Flattr this

Be the change we're writing about. Support this article with Flattr. All proceeds are divided 50/50 between the author and openDemocracy

So let me begin. I have one message I want to get across here tonight. One message for the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt.  It’s time to be courageous. It’s time to be brave.

Now in many ways Hunt does understand the potential of local television and when he came into office he asked Nicholas Shott, a City banker, to chair a committee to look at the opportunities and ask the crucial question “Can local television be commercially viable?”. 

The Shott report was published in December. It gave local television the thumbs up but predictably suggested that local television should initially be launched in Britain’s dozen or so largest conurbations which, as you might have guessed, doesn’t include York and dozens of other similar sized cities.

My group, the Local Television Advisory Committee, think Shott is being too cautious. While we welcome his report and some of his recommendations we think he doesn’t understand the potential in cities like York where there are 200,000 inhabitants and another 200,000 in the hinterland. We believe local television can be made to be viable in cities like these because we believe that local television can be cheaper to run than Shott believes, that it could attract more local advertising than Shott believes, and that, arguably, the interest in local news and local features is greater in smaller cities and towns. If we are right, we believe many more areas should have the opportunity to launch local television services. 

So why does any of this matter? Well, let me explain some history and try to paint an exciting future.

There is virtually no local television in Britain. When ITV was set up in the early fifties it was set up as a regional system which, over time, evolved into 15 regional ITV companies, some with a series of sub-regions providing different news services. Central Television, for instance, had three separate news services – one for Birmingham and the West Midlands, one for Nottingham and Leicester and the East Midlands and a third based in Oxford for the South Midlands. 

But this was never local television; it was not even city-based television. It was regional television often merging into one-region places that are totally disconnected like Brighton and Dorset; Norwich and Milton Keynes; Newcastle and parts of York. 

And in the last couple of years, as ITV’s revenue has shrunk and it had to cut costs, even this regional system has been diminished and there are fewer news regions on ITV today than ever. One wonders whether even these macro-regional services will survive on ITV when the current licences come to an end in 2014 because the days when regulators could insist that the broadcaster that plays Coronation Street and the X Factor also plays regional news is coming to an end. In an era where spectrum is increasingly plentiful politicians and regulators will have diminishing power over the likes of ITV.

The BBC’s record is different in that its regional services lagged behind ITV’s for many years. Only in the last decade or so has this begun to change. Remember, in the 1980s, the BBC broadcast a local regional news magazine show called London Plus which covered the whole of London, all of Kent and half the South East. I think it was Michael Grade who nicknamed London Plus as “Fuck Off Kent”. But the BBC has changed and it  has had a regional news service for Kent for nearly a decade.

Today the BBC provides better regional news services than ITV in almost every part of Britain. It has more services and they are better financed and, as a result, it wins the nightly battle for ratings virtually everywhere except Scotland – where STV is now broadcasting a range of more local services –  and Northern Ireland. But these are still regional news services not local. In fact the BBC’s service in the North West, broadcast out on Manchester, covers six and a half million people – that’s certainly not local and it’s charitable to call it a regional service given that it covers a bigger population than Luxembourg, Belgium or even Wales. 

So why hasn’t local television happened earlier in the way it has, say, in the USA? What have been the barriers in the past and what makes it possible now?

Well, the BBC came up with a proposal for local television financed by the licence fee a couple of years back, only for the BBC Trust, heavily lobbied by the owners of local newspapers, to reject it. The Trust did say, however, that it believed a service of this nature would probably work best if it was on Freeview and not just on the internet. So what now seems certain is that if there is to be local television it will almost certainly have to be advertiser-funded.

One argument regularly put forward by the sceptics of local television is that there isn’t the demand from viewers, that people are happy with their regional services.

What is ironic about this argument is that everyone in television knows that the smaller the area covered by the local news the bigger the ratings. Two examples.

For years Border Television got the highest ratings in Britain for its local news show because it was based in a very small area with one significant centre of population – Carlisle. Sadly that service has now been merged into the Tyne Tees service out of Gateshead. Border television covered a population about the same size as York and its surrounding area. 

Example two. In my time as Director General we decided to separate the BBC service here in East Yorkshire from that transmitted from Leeds. We set up a separate regional news service in Hull aimed at the whole region east of York. The impact was immediate – our ratings for the new service went through the roof and the ratings for the Yorkshire wide ITV show Calendar went into decline. Basically the people in Hull, Grimsby and right up to Scarboro suddenly got more news about where they lived which was more interesting to them than news from Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield.  If we could have done three separate services – one for Hull only, one for Grimsby only and a third for Scarboro – the ratings would have been higher still.

It is quite clear there is an appetite for more local news and information if it’s done properly.

The second reason there has never been a ‘very local news service’ on mainstream television is that there hasn’t been enough bandwidth on traditional television – which of course was true until Freeview came along. But with close on 80 per cent of homes now using digital over-the-air television via Freeview, bandwidth is much less of a problem and next year, when the analogue signal is switched off and everyone in Britain is digital, there will be much more spectrum available. 

Now the free marketers and advocates of unregulated markets will no doubt be arguing that all this spectrum should be auctioned off to the highest bidder but our argument, and Shott’s, was that some of this frequency should be made available, for free, for the public good, and that that should be used for local television. 

Of course in some areas there will still be technical problems.  One reason York has always had a poor regional service is that it is in the middle of what is called an 'overlap area'. Because of the transmitter network, half of York gets a news service from Leeds, the other half gets a service from Newcastle. Neither is aimed specifically at York and York is on the periphery of both services which inevitably means it’s not well covered.  All over the country there are areas like this – Reading gets three different services depending what part of the city you live in: one from London, one from Oxford and a third from Hampshire. 

Assuming the new local television services are on Freeview after the analogue switch off is completed next year, then some work will have to be done to put together a transmitter plan to ensure everyone in a particular region is able to receive their own local television service.

Now I’m not a technical man. In fact my knowledge of technology is a bit like that of the security man at IBM who got called in the middle of the night by an irate customer who said his whole system had crashed and that he desperately needed help. The security man listened to him for ten minutes and then said “Sir when I said hallo you got all I know”.

So I’m not to be believed on technology but there are those in our group who are experts and they assure me that with Freeview transmission technology these problems can be fixed if the will is there. As part of the recent truncated licence fee negotiations between government and the BBC, Jeremy Hunt “persuaded” the BBC to set aside £25 million to help with such problems, so there is money available to help with some of these issues if needed. The important point is that digital television technology is not especially expensive – if you need to put digital transmitters up on a couple of hills outside York then it should not break the bank.

So we believe evidence shows the demand for local television, and particularly local news and information, is there; that the frequencies will be available by the end of next year and that the technical problems can be overcome.

We are also suggesting that Government should use its powers to require cable operators to carry local television channels and to ensure they are given prominent position on electronic programme guides so that the viewer knows that channel six, seven or eight is their local channel. 

The third argument put up by those against local television is that to produce a quality local service, and particularly a quality local news service,  is expensive and that there will not be enough advertising revenue to support it.

Our response to this is, what is quality? You could argue that people are willing to accept reduced quality if the content is more local. It could be argued that regional news has never been as good as national news in terms of quality because much less money is spent on it, but this hasn’t impacted the ratings. The same would apply to local versus regional. 

But things have changed in television in the digital world; the technology is cheaper to buy and cheaper to use and there are literally thousands of people – especially young people – who now understand video technology and film in the way the mass of people didn’t in my generation. There is no doubt that film and video will be the main medium of communication in the 21stcentury. Just look at what’s on YouTube. And of course, at universities like this up and down the country literally thousands of students are learning how to make television.

But local television will also bring many other jobs for young people in our society, be they advertising salespeople, journalists, camera operators, technicians or, more likely, people doing a bit of each.

The Shott report reckoned it would cost £1.6 million a year to run and broadcast a local station excluding the costs of a network centre. Our consultants reckon it could be done for much less. Of course it wouldn’t look like BBC One, but that misses the point. Local TV doesn’t need wonderful facilities - a shop front currently used as a Charity shop would do. Cheap doesn’t have to mean worse, it means different. 

And is there enough advertising revenue to support this type of venture? Well the Shott report suggests there might be enough in the larger conurbations, but not in the smaller cities, at least not for the time being. We would argue they take that position because they’ve disproportionately listened to the opinions of the big city based advertising agencies, most of whom have never tried to sell local advertising in their lives. The truth is there is demand for a different sort of advertising – go to any city in the US and turn on the local station and you’ll see it.

The local car dealer, the local insurance man, the local restaurant chain would all advertise on television if it was cheap and local.

I am Chairman of the biggest theatre operator in this country called ATG. We own 39 theatres spread right across the UK. The Opera House here in York is one of our theatres and we would love to advertise on York TV to attract more people to see our shows. Regional television advertising across the whole of Yorkshire is simply too expensive and wasteful in that we would be advertising to a massive geographical area not just the people living in and around York. We’d love to see a local television service in York and in all the other towns and cities where we have theatres – places like Sunderland, Milton Keynes, Woking, Brighton, Torquay and on and on – and we’d love to advertise on these services.

Television advertising is incredibly powerful but historically it has been ridiculously expensive. Local television could change this. And video already has changed the costs of making commercials.

So our argument is that there is an audience for local television; modern technology makes it possible; there is an untapped advertising market to sell to; and that the cost of creating and running local television has reduced enormously in recent years.

In addition there is also a strong democratic argument for developing local television and particularly local news and current affairs. The sales of local and regional newspapers are in sharp decline as is their advertising revenue. Classified ads were the bedrock of local newspapers But that sort of advertising has moved on-line and won’t be coming back. My kids wouldn’t think of looking for a job in a newspaper and many of their peers don’t bother buying newspapers at all.

As the profits of national, regional and local newspapers are squeezed the result is that they employ fewer and fewer journalists. My son is training to be a journalist as I did some 40 odd years ago. Last summer he did a placement at a local newspaper group in London. Just before Christmas he went back there to find three of their newspapers had closed in the past six months.

In terms of local democracy this has to be worrying. Who, in the future, will take on that traditional journalistic role of holding those in authority to account? Who will go and listen at the local courts? And where will local politicians be able to explain to their constituents what they have done and why have they done it?

We’ve been slow in this country to recognise what is happening. We still have hopelessly outdated cross-media rules, which prevent the owners of local newspapers from owning local radio stations or local television stations. Rules that were put in place to encourage media plurality are now diminishing it by actually killing off journalism.

The journalist who works on the local paper and the paper’s web site today should be supplying material to the local radio station and the local television service. If we care about local journalism we have to find more ways of paying trained journalists’ wages and encouraging them to get out and find stories not just copying out the latest PR handout.

This means we have to get rid of all those outdated cross ownership rules – the owners of local newspapers should be encouraged to bid for local television licences not be prevented from owning them by law. Local journalism matters in a democratic society and it should be encouraged in print, on radio, on line and on television.

I am not saying there is only one way to run a local television channel and that it should always involve the local newspaper group. There are other innovative ideas for developing local television, which could involve universities, voluntary organisations, community groups, consortia of local businesses and other local enterprise.

I’d go further. To make local television work, to encourage innovation, I’d advocate a bonfire of regulations. Let local television run a split screen with ads running at the same time as programmes and allow local advertorials. 

The power should be down there not up there at the centre. There will probably have to be some sort of network – I can’t see local television companies filling a whole schedule seven days a week. It should not be owned, controlled and run by a central body. If the whole idea ends up with a central company, no doubt based in London, simply trying to maximise profit - as has happened with ITV - the idea will have failed. Any surplus made centrally through selling national advertising should be distributed to the local stations.  York television should be operated, controlled and if possible owned in York.

Now I know saying this won’t win me friends but this is not an easy time to be a Secretary of State. Historically people go into politics to get things done – whatever party they are in – not to cut and slash services. For most Government ministers today creating something new is not an option given the state of the economy.

But Jeremy Hunt has that opportunity that, to be fair, he has personally created. When he is asked in years to come about his time as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport he could sum it up by saying “I cut the budget for the Arts Council, I killed the UK Film Council and I took a chunk of cash away from Britain’s museums.” He could say that. 

But how much more satisfying it would be for him to say “well at a difficult time economically I created 80 local television services, I created hundreds of new jobs for young people, I strengthened local democracy when it was under threat and I helped build a range of new regional multi-media groups across the UK.”

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData