Tuesday 31 July 2018

Can Local TV Survive?

Ofcom tells us this week that local TV rollout is not to progress “in the light of the significant financial challenges that the local TV sector is facing”. For those who know anything about local advertising revenues that’s not a surprise.

It  was the idea of a smiling Jeremy Hunt in 2010, sat in his Culture Secretary chair. He described UK media as "chronically over-centralised”. He famously questioned why local television could work in Birmingham, Alabama but not Birmingham in the West Midlands.

Per chance, at that stage, I was working at the major heritage commercial radio station in Birmingham, England. We gave some cursory thought to whether local TV would be a useful strand to our business. We didn’t even get through all the biscuits at that meeting. Even when sharing resources and televising radio programmes, it would still be challenging.  And that was in England’s second city.

We were also treated to some bubbly presentations from alternative bidders for the Birmingham licence, who sought to work with us. Their programming aspirations were high. As were their revenue expectations. It seems to me they’d worked out what they wanted to spend and, miraculously, their revenues appeared to match. No-one had troubled to write to all local car dealers informing them they’d they needed to double their advertising budgets.

You cannot just double the amount of money in the local advertising economy just because you want to. And, of course, this was just at the stage when digital media was starting to eat giant-sized portions of our lunch.

As it transpired, the Birmingham channel was late to launch, suffered early issues and is now in the hands of one of the two companies which own many of the UK local channels.
Now, as Chairman of the channel in Notts, Notts TV, I am not embarrassed to say I was a cynic. The idea was flawed.

I believe that, in the UK at least, you simply cannot create decent local television on the likely budgets from local advertisers alone. And the channel audiences combined across the UK would likely not be sufficient to reap any useful national revenues.

In Nottingham, Notts TV is privileged to be supported by NTU. This ambitious league-topping University, which prides itself on giving its graduates real career prospects - encouraging entrepreneurship and outreach, gives us a range of support, some financial. Alongside our team of salaried media professionals, we make use of their students, not only of journalism, but also in, for example, history for the local history programme - and design for our sets. Any TV company draws upon all manner of skills, and when we boost our own resources by giving students hands-on experience of the real world, then they become the sort of graduates I’d hire tomorrow. They know what life in media is really like.

Some early funding was also provided by the BBC to all channels. The Corporation paid an agreed sum - in exchange, we supplied them with any useful content they requested. Whilst in some areas, I gather, usage was low, I was pleased that the BBC in the East Midlands made good use of an appreciable proportion of our content. Even beyond that agreement, relations have been excellent and further material has been purchased on an ad hoc basis.

It is not the BBC’s fault that its guaranteed funding has ceased, that was the design of Government’s plan. It is, however, puzzling that at a time when ‘fake news’, ‘media plurality’ and ‘local democracy’ are buzz-words and local press is ailing, the rug is pulled from our feet. We can survive without it, but even this modest amount would make a significant difference to our abilities. By modest, I mean the sort of figure I could save tomorrow from BBC budgets, without any damage.

Commercially, we’ve found our niche, principally helping local companies create quality video advertising ‘profiles’ and branded content which they can use on their social media and online, and we broadcast. These revenues complement the non-traditional funding. Sadly, we don’t get a sniff of the ‘community radio fund’. That’s reserved just for, well, radio.

Notwithstanding the challenges, I am hugely proud of what Notts TV has achieved in the last four years. It is now a small, confident operation generating content 24 hours a day. It is not perfect - but its award-winning achievements are impressive. ‘Championing Notts’ is its brand - and that’s what we do. From the fresh and energetic evening magazine, ‘Ey Up Notts’ to the weekly insight into local sport ‘Sportsweek’, the weekly ‘Notts On Stage’ programme and the history programme ‘Rediscovering Notts’.

It’s easy to be sniffy. Whilst the quality of our programming will never be Blue Planet  - it is certainly as good as - if not better than - some lower budget material from many broadcasters. I’d ask the sniffers to try doing better on our resources. I am simply astounded by some of what is achieved by a small team of creative hard-workers.

And, to those locally, who may feel that a particular valuable programming strand is absent, this is your channel - come to us with a suitable idea and a way of funding that content, and we’d be happy to work together.

Early audiences, when we had the luxury of Sky carriage which has sadly been a casualty of cost-savings, were impressive, placing us alongside local radio offerings in terms of weekly penetration. Now, on Freeview, Virgin and also streaming, response continues to be excellent.

As a Nottingham lad, I am proud that  - with the support of NTU and the vision and effort of our CEO, Confetti’s remarkable Craig Chettle - Nottingham has a TV channel of its own. I’ll do my best to see it continue to be something to be proud of.  The number of talented individuals who have already emerged from Notts TV on local and national TV and radio is impressive.

As for the other channels around the country, they will plough their own furrows. I believe only with very inventive solutions, as we have engineered, can local TV survive and flourish.  Jeremy should have thought of that.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via www.davidlloydradio.com

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1 comment:

  1. It works in Birmingham AL as in all other cities because in most cases the stations are either owned by or are an affiliate of the big networks of ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX.

    The FOX stations are local 22 hours a day in the week made up of 6 hours of morning news from 4am or 4.30, more news at lunchtime, in the early evening and late night. The rest of the time it's syndicated shows and 2 hours of network shows (Gotham, The Simpsons etc) annd sports at weekend. The other follow a similar pattern but have more hours supplied by their networks.

    The key here is local when you need to be-Morning drive, evening teatime and late night, the rest of the time be in a network or show popular syndicated shows. A lot like the old ITV network.

    Trying to be local 24/7 with little budget and not much archive to fall back on while having to create your own shows as well, was a recipe for disaster. It could have worked but needed to be like the US stations with a network to fall back on .


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