Local TV won't catch on

Local enthusiasm about new TV franchises is not shared.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.