Can Local TV really work?

06 Feb 2013  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Although we must applaud the Lebedevs for trying to preserve iconic media institutions, the move to provide London with its own TV channel boils down to a couple of basic questions: can 'London Live' come up with something on a limited budget that will attract an audience - and will advertisers support the new venture? By Raymond Snoddy.

Special medals should be cast for the Lebedevs - father and son - for services to preserving iconic media institutions.

Without their intervention, and financial backing, there is little doubt that The Independent, and probably also the Evening Standard, would no longer be with us.

Now the Lebedevs are going one stage further and risking some more of their money, this time on the future, by trying to breathe life into Jeremy Hunt's very own personal turkey - local TV.

If local TV can succeed anywhere it will be in the enormous London market. If even London is to be financially viable then the best possible chance almost certainly lies with the chosen one - the Evening Standard's London Live bid.

The best hope is to have access to information, journalists and ideas from existing ventures, available at low marginal additional costs. If you have to start buying in all those skills from outside you are almost dead before you begin as previous attempts to create local television channels on cable proved comprehensively.

On this occasion Ofcom, the communications regulator, has got it right - although London8 and City6 also put forward strong bids.

Ofcom found that London Live showed the greatest understanding of the diverse communities of London and that the Evening Standard was in a particularly strong position "to launch and maintain its proposed service, given its proposals for promoting and marketing the channel."

Regulators are such easy targets. In the biblical phrase they neither spin nor sew, but on this occasion they have given local TV a chance - albeit it a modest one.

And although outside its remit - Ofcom may have contributed inadvertently, if the venture is very lucky, to saving the Indy for posterity.

Suddenly the Lebedevs have an opportunity to spread their investment across The Independent, Independent on Sunday, the "i," the Evening Standard and London Live - the creation of a cross-media portfolio.

Of course if all the businesses are losing money it is a strange form of synergy. For the moment, only the Evening Standard is modestly profitable in operational terms.

Imagine though for a moment - and I know there is an element of fantasy here - that London Live were to become an unexpected success much more quickly than anyone thought. It would have a number of very positive consequences.

Minds, particularly in the advertising community, would be changed and there could be a pull through effect that might benefit other local TV licences around the country.

If, as seems more likely, local TV licences outside London start to flounder after the Government engineered BBC "subsidy" runs out after three years, then London could lead the way in saving them.

A buoyant London Live could either snap up failing licences or co-operate with them to create what should have been the case all along - a national spine of entertainment to help pay for truly local services.

There would also be opportunities for cross-promotion with a potential boost for The Independent and the "i."

Yet with the best will in the world, and who wouldn't like to be able to welcome a new medium for the UK into the overall media mix, it is going to be an uphill struggle.

Assume that London Live manages to be able to reach most of the London population through Freeview, Sky and Virgin, what will people actually see that is different from what is already available?

The new station is promising 18 hours a day of news, current affairs, entertainment, weather and sport.

There is a serious problem about London news. The UK is such a London-centric country that most of what happens there makes national news and is fully covered by Sky, BBC News and the main national bulletins.

The impact is seen in the relative thinness of regional television news when it tries to find interesting stories about London.

To get good local stories the Evening Standard might not be enough and perhaps the Lebedevs will need to talk to local newspaper members of the LondonTV consortium such as Archant, Tindle and Trinity Mirror.

What sort of current affairs programmes will the new station be able to offer? Will there be funds to make original material, or are we talking about studio-bound current affairs discussions of the sort we are not exactly short of already?

Showing the diversity of London's communities is a great idea, except that members of those communities may not turn out to be heavy viewers of such a channel.

Entertainment? Well there is certainly plenty of young and emerging talent in London which could be showcased. But you still have to cut through the fact that the majority of the London population have access to 500 channels of television before you even consider what is available online.

Sport is equally problematically. There is a great interest in sport in London with no less than six Premier League clubs but London Live will not have the right to show any of them.

More chat shows and minority sports that few are interested in?

Weather? Of course we are all interested in the weather but again there is no shortage of such information.

It all boils down to a couple of basic questions. Can London Live come up with something on a limited budget that will attract a noticeable audience?

And will the advertiser community support the new venture?

There must be doubt about the first question and market research doesn't help much. Ask citizens if they would like more local television and they will undoubtedly say yes. Whether they actually are prepared to watch is a different matter.

As for advertisers, they are notorious for waiting for a new media venture to become a success before then starting to pile in.

So, just to be sure, Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev should get their medals as soon as possible - just in case.

Thursday 7 February 2013

I must first declare that I am a member of the YourTV London group that applied for the London local license. So I expect to be accused of sour grapes, envy, having a chip on my shoulder and all the other terms that are usually used to dismiss rational argument when it does not want to be heard.

I was also part of the founding group of ChoiceFM and was in Radio for fourteen years so witnessed first hand the development of a new tier of local commercial radio.

Ray Snoddy, from memory, has always been a pessimist when it comes to expansion of any form of new media, hence his low expectation for the future of Local TV. From what he his saying in his piece it would appear Ofcom have thrown a drowning man an anchor rather than a rubber ring.

When Jeremy Hunt so enthusiastically pushed the idea of Local TV he was thinking outside the box but unfortunately, as regulators can only do, Ofcom took the thinking back into the box. Thus we end up with the Evening Standard's London Live as champion of the London bid. So yes, within the existing paradigm of thinking in relation to models for developing commercial TV channels, ES has many existing, developed advantages.

However, from my experience in seeing the radio market expand the greatest driver was new talent being introduced into the industry at every level, from the fella that put his money in to people on air and in the sales force. If ES is to be successful it will have to build a model that is not led by its marginal advantages and it will have to think not just about London but how best to support and collaborate with Local TV around the country.

Their application showed none of this thinking and their arrogance will probably not allow them to amend or alter the course they have chosen. A better option for London and Local TV UK would have been to introduce totally new blood, with ES playing a supporting role. But of course such a decision would have seen Ofcom under siege from raining arrows, probably led by ES columnists or former columnists.

Patrick Berry
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