The Secretary of State has asked Nicholas Shott a media financier to review the economics of local TV for him. I am seeing Mr Shott today at his request (Monday 9 August 2010). I presume i have been asked as an exponent of the local web as a source of news, information and entertainment (although I have a wider background in broadcast regulation declared at the end of this post). This rather hurried post (now tidied up a bit) has been submitted to the Shott team as written evidence.
For me the overarching question is why do local video programming on TV rather than the internet? The internet does almost everything that small audience local TV can do but far cheaper and more flexibly.
I am grateful to Nick Booth a former regional BBC TV producer and now leading light of the grass roots internet in Birmingham for talking this through ‐ his constant repetition of ‘why not the internet?’ was most helpful.
The amount of information about the secretary of states thinking is limited to a couple of speeches. So I have made some working assumptions about his views and the state of the market ‐ these are all open to challenge of course:
- The audiences for a new local TV channel with limited marketing resources will be small.
- Democratic accountability in a big society with power devolved to neighbourhoods is a public good the Secretary of State seeks to acquire, but no others
- There is a willingness to look at all fundamentals of regulation ‐ eg news, content, technical standards
Regulatory concessions to increase revenue are limited in scope and impact (eg DTTV EPG positioning)
- The Parry vision of ‘multimedia’ stations is secondary to the desire to do ‘television’ ‐ i.e. electromagnetic transmission of moving pictures for simultaneous reception in multiple dwelling places
- Media ownership laws will be changed to allow local newspapers or radio companies to own local TV stations
- Approximately 80 transmitters covering about 90% of the population are in play for local TV, not the thousands of small repeaters.
In summary form against this background here is a list of issues, questions and observations:
Why use television as a medium of transmission at all? What does using television as a medium of transmission add that the internet can’t do at a fraction of the cost? The normal pro-TV argument of mass simultaneous audiences reaching millions of eyeballs doesn’t wash for these tiny local stations. Audiences will be small, easily manageable in YouYube or Vimeo without an expensive playout facility. Although up to one third of the population isn’t online it is hard to make a case that these predominately elderly, poor C2DEs sadly of little interest to advertisers will form the backbone of a successful commercial television enterprise. Nor that new local TV stations will suddenly make content to appeal to them.
TV is not local ‐ an MP for instance would never consider a citizen’s business to be local if it was in another MPs constituency ‐ yet even the smallest transmitter area will cover many constituencies. TV is national, regional or slightly sub regional.
For small audience local TV there is no need to regulate news in the traditional way. The local internet and local papers can drive plurality. The TV audiences will be so small the old ‘regulate the powerful news oligopolies argument’ fall away. Most hyperlocal websites in the UK are studiously balanced and demonstrate marvellous public service without regulation and importantly without a profit motive ‐ they are mainly volunteer run. Sadly the commentariat rarely looks beyond the ranting political blogs and newspaper discussion forums.
The footprint for any of the 80-odd transmitters is orders of magnitude too large for a real big society impact. I have a long track record of grass roots campaigning and acitivism, using the web to drive more effective traditional campaigns and spread news and information. London’s local TV has been of no use to me in this – the area covered is too big, it’s too time consuming for a volunteer to engage with the palaver of TV and their understanding of neighbourhood issues is weak. The big society is mainly about grass roots activism in a neighbourhood e.g. my square mile ‐ some communities such as a valley or hilly area might theoretically benefit from access to their local repeater for broadcast. But it would be far cheaper for them to do video on the internet (say a $50 Vimeo Plus account or YouTube for free and a £130 Kodak HD flip style camera, £20 mic) or, more practically use a simple free website in wordpress.com
Birmingham UK v Birmingham Alabama is often used as an example. Birmingham UK has a superb set of local, volunteer run grass roots internet media covering news, entertainment, events and culture. Excellent stimulus of this scene by Screen West Midlands has played an important role. This web scene surpasses anything local TV has ever produced in the UK. Against the background of the excellent local new media scene the Birmingham proposals for CityTV look tired and dated.
If you start with the internet, instead of TV low cost public service models are apparent. The internet is a better alternative to local tv for local public service content. Working with Aquila TV, Paul Hadley Stoke news site PitsnPots and others, talk about local conceived a grass roots, low cost public service model, featuring video that could work in a city like Birmingham, particularly if attached to an existing media company such as a newspaper. Lacking resources we have sketched it out as follows:
- Create a small not for profit ‐ either a CIC or a trading arm of a civic charity. Appoint a Controller ‐ someone with a broad social media background ‐ to run a website, monitor news feeds and commission simple news coverage 9-5 and run a team of volunteers. The Controller would be the only full time employee.
- Create a simple robust framework website using say wordpress or drupal with some cheap hosting ‐ it will only need to cope with several thousand uniques per day, the costs should be trivial.
- Create a simple public service charter like the Dogme Manifesto/vow of chastity ‐ a set of principles not detailed rules that content on the site has to abide by.
- Public service video mainly has to be paid for ‐ it is too time consuming and fiddly for people to create themselves for nothing. Start to ‘commission’ video from local practitioners on a daily basis, using an approach basedon contnet farming:
‘Cllr Miggins has said/done something controversial £100 for the first video interview up in YouTube of either Cllr Miggins or someone affected putting their point of view.’
- The video is then embedded in the site – the number of videos commissioned per day would obviously be determined by the budget
- In Birmingham at least there is plenty of public service content being produced for free – there already is a rich online subculture that can be tapped into. The controller scours the local internet for text and images about things happening in the City, builds relationships with the authors and embed them in the site and in general curate local content. If the relationship is handled right and the project is generally non commercial people value the recognition and the shop window effect. The Guardian local websites in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Leeds are similar to this approach but without paying for video contributions.
Of the hundreds of good local websites in the UK very few regularly use video to tell stories. The weak track record of video in local newspapers also illustrates that in a constrained cost environment you don’t always need video to tell a story and hold people to account. Indeed one only rarely absolutely requires it ‐ unless of course you run a TV station in which case you are locked into a high cost method of telling story.
Britain has vast regional film and video archive resources that can be deployed if archivists charge a realistic price as a public service (ie the marginal cost of digitisation which should be close a zero) and digitisation is done in an economic way ‐ see Swindon Viewpoint’s superb home brewed online local TV archive.
There is a tension between sinking money into a few hours a day of video in a metropolitan area and using the same or smaller resource to provide or curate a full suite of content ‐ video, audio, images, text on the internet. The local and national interests would be better served by the latter.
People don’t turn to TV for the sort of information they need locally ‐and haven’t done since the heady days of teletext. They turn to newspapers and the web.
Public service news done in the traditional British broadcast way is too expensive for local TV, as GMG Manchester experiment demonstrated. The IFNC process also showed that traditional British broadcast public service news providers are incapable of thinking outside of the regulatory box. New-ish entrants such as Ten Alps, PA, UTV and Tinoplis were by far the most promising. Alex Connock’s article on the similarities between commercial radio and local tv remains the best insight do far. It’s notable that ITN did not win any of the packages. The further one gets away from London the better the thinking gets.
Newspapers have not been able to demonstrate that they can consistently make useful video news that adds value or that people want to watch. Newspapers made a strategic mistake in ‘seeing-off’ the BBC in local news they now have little good video content they can run. The BBC is now uncharacteristically cowed in this space. However, the BBC does not do local news ‐ it does regional news, as its flawed proposals for video showed. The sadly neglected BBC local radio provides a better model for local public service TV.
Technical quality can be reduced to save money. Engineering-led arguments about video production ‘quality’ are spurious ‐ if technical quality were important to viewers no one would be watching YouTube. The Evolution of Dance has been watched over 300million times ‐ yet the clips ‘production values’ are awful to the extent it is hard to see what is going on. The Dogme movement in film showed the huge potential of getting back to basics in filming and production.
Declarations: Elsewhere I have been involved in TV regulation on and off over the years ‐ i was one of the authors of the 2000 Communications White Paper and the 1996 Broadcasting Bill and one of Tony Blair’s media policy advisors from 2001-2004. I appointed by the last government to the IFNC panel. I now run talk about local, a business that trains people in deprived communities to produce local websites as a public service funded by Channel4 through 4IP and Screen West Midlands. I have a long history of local activism in London’s Kings Cross set up Kings Cross TV as a joke/experiment one afternoon in 2008
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