Tuesday, 28 September 2010

TV local news plan doomed

THE new coalition government is not too busy slashing public services and cutting budgets to interfere in the commercial viability of the media, despite numerous warnings of how it is doomed to failure.
The last Labour Government got in a dreadful mess trying to save local independent television news from the bean-counters who run ITV.
In the old days ITV was run by regionally based stations who were obliged by conditions in their licences to provide local news programmes.
Since the internet stole what little remains in advertisement revenues in the lingering recession, independent television has gone down the route of economies of scale so there is in effect just the one national station. When it wants to squeeze costs, then local news in which it has no interest is an easy target.
Labour’s answer was the concisely-named Independently Funded News Consortia. These were conglomerate of current media companies who thought they could provide a service for local TV.
Trinity Mirror's bid to run regional TV news in the North-East and Borders region was joined by The CN Group, publishers of the News and Star, Carlisle, and the North West Evening Mail, in Barrow, joining the Press Association and production company Ten Alps.
It geared up to do battle for the right to broadcast regional TV news on Channel 3 with a rival team featuring Newsquest, publishers of the Northern Echo, and Johnston Press, which owns the Sunderland Echo and Hartlepool Mail. Johnston Press and Newsquest have joined forces with ITN, Metro Radio and the University of Sunderland to form a consortium to provide broadcast news in Border and Tyne Tees.
The groups were seeking to win the public funding which was to have been made available for one of three broadcasting pilot projects to replace ITV news in Wales, Scotland and this English region. If the pilots had been successful, Independently Funded News Consortia could be rolled out across the UK.
Luckily for all concerned this idea bit the dust in the lead up to the election.
Now the new Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is believed to be pressing ahead with plans for local TV stations despite a critical report on the idea.
A panel set up under investment banker Nicholas Shott to look into the idea has cast further doubt on its viability in an interim report published today. It says advertising alone will not be enough to pay for the network of new stations and that it may need a big corporate sponsor to get off the ground.
He cites Barclays Bank’s sponsorship of the London cycle scheme to the tune of £25 million as a role model. But cycles do not have sensitive issues like freedom of expression.
Would the likes of Barclays want to sponsor a news outlet that may ridicule the record of its new chief executive, or attack the closure of local bank branches for example?
Mr Hunt told the Today Programme on BBC Radio Four this morning that the absense of a city TV sector in the UK represented a "market failure." Well the virtual closure of Manchester Evening News’s M Channel, despite that city’s vibrant economy is not a good omen.
Mr Hunt thinks the answer is to life restrictions on cross-media ownership to allow newspaper publishers who already own big city titles to also control TV stations. But regional publisher Trinity Mirror, which owns the major newspaper titles in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff, has previously expressed strong reservations about the business model.
In a letter to Mr Hunt today, Mr Shott said the stations were more likely to succeed in urban areas, despite the Manchester experience, although he did accept that even there "the economics of a TV business funded mainly by advertising will still be challenging" and "additional revenue sources" would have to be explored, hence the sponsorship idea.
He added that stations could be hosted by existing channels and that discussions had started with "senior management" at the BBC which were showing "early promise". Well we all know what BBC managers know about viability and value for money.
Mr Hunt will argue the case for more local television in a speech to the Royal Television Society at the Barbican Centre in London.
He will say that an expansion of superfast broadband and the removal of cross-media rules preventing companies controlling newspapers, television and radio stations will all help make the plan more likely to succeed.
Still the old media and their supporters flail around in the post-Internet world. If broadband is to continue to improve then the obvious source of local news is web-based local providers.
These can be existing local media companies, like Newsquest or Trinity Mirror, or new independent entrepreneurs like the excellent Lakes TV. Keep television out of it.
And better still, keep the Government out of it. They have other more important issues to focus on than worrying about who provides your local TV news.