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Local TV won't catch on

Local enthusiasm about new TV franchises is not shared.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Having previously been highly sceptical of Jeremy Hunt’s plans to set up a new shoestring local TV network across the UK I have to admit to this week being carried along by the enthusiasm of the many bidders for the local TV licences.

Some 57 bids are in place for the right to broadcast on Freeview, Sky and Virgin cable to homes in 20 towns and cities across the UK (you can see the full list here).

Talking to many of the bidders up and down the country it feels a little like the enthusiasm there must have been around print in the early days of newspapers.

In most of the relevant towns and cities across the UK, enthusiastic locals with the necessary skills have teamed up with local business people and key organisations to put together bids to create their own TV stations. They are brimming with pride for their areas and excited about the idea that TV – previously just a national and region-wide activity – could be coming to their doorstep.

Publishing entrepreneur Bill Smith in Brighton is behind the Latest TV bid, spun off from his property and listing mag The Latest. He says all political parties in the city have signed up to his bid and he has support from the football club and various local TV production companies.

He sees it as a chance for Brighton to create its own TV industry and, in a dig at existing regional TV news provision, says people in Brighton aren’t interested in Maidstone and Tonbridge Wells, or even Hastings, about 30 miles along the coast, they want to see TV news about their city.

The prize for the winning bidders is a place on Channel 8 of the Freevew dial (in England and Wales) and free access to a new broadcasting infrastructure which should ensure every home in their area receives the signal.

The whole project is being supported by £25m of capital funding (mainly to cover the cost of the transmitters) and then £5m a year for three years.

This equates to £150,000 guaranteed income for each broadcaster in the first year at least, which will come via the BBC being forced to buy content.

But it is a prize that the big four regional newspaper publishers evidently view as a poisoned chalice.
Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press – despite being the dominant media
presence in many of the above areas – do not appear to want to touch local TV with the proverbial bargepole.

Trinity Mirror has said it will work with whoever wins the franchises in its areas. But the lack of any involvement in bids suggests publishers do not think local TV stacks up.
The £150,000 of public subsidy will be a drop in the ocean compared to the start-up and ongoing running costs of the channels.

When all of those four publishers are retrenching, they cannot see a case for investing in something which has yet to be shown to be viable anywhere in the UK.

It is probably no coincidence that the only publishers to put together their own local TV bids are privately owned: the Evening Standard in London and Archant in Norwich. While the plcs remain chiefly concerned with short-term cost cutting and profit return, the likes of the Lebedevs and the family shareholders who control Archant can perhaps afford to take a longer-term view.