Jeremy Hunt may be a classy lambada dancer but unless he listens he won't shimmy his way out of this one
Raymond Snoddy: As Jeremy Hunt looks to the disastrous "bottom-up" solution for local TV, would-be operators at yesterday's Future of Broadcasting conference had one simple piece of advice for the culture secretary - have the courage to stick to the original plan. It is the only one that will work...
Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt may not realise it, but yesterday morning he was offered a way out of a potentially embarrassing jam.
For reasons that still remain something of a mystery, Hunt has invested a great deal of political capital in trying to breathe life - like some sort of modern day alchemist turning base metal to gold - into local television.
He is in great danger of being remembered for only two things - unfairly as the man who did a sweetheart deal with Rupert Murdoch, and absolutely fairly as the man who had strange delusions about local TV (and who wouldn't give them up whatever the evidence).
If only Hunt had been at the Future of Broadcasting conference in London yesterday to listen to Lia Nici from Channel 7 in Grimsby.
Nici has lived the reality of running a local TV station for 13 years and is helping to keep the concept of local television alive in her region by borrowing, begging and getting help from the local Further Education College and carriage on the local Virgin cable network.
Never mind the big beasts of the media jungle such as Greg Dyke, Clive Jones and Paul Jackson, who would all like to get involved in local TV. Lia Nici knows that local television will never amount to a row of beans unless there is the support of national programming and national advertising.
That was the proposition set out by merchant banker Nick Shott in his report to Hunt, accompanied by the need for a prominent position on the electronic programme guide and access to a Freeview channel covering 100% of the country.
These concepts were apparently accepted by Hunt in January, and then came the backsliding and the idea that there was opposition to a "top-down" approach, and suddenly "bottom-up" was the way to go.
There is no doubt that something can be created with the help of a £40 million subsidy out of the BBC licence fee, particularly if you are only talking about IPTV. If Hunt has any greater ambitions than that he should listen carefully to Lia Nici.
Grimsby is the only significant local television station in the country to survive from the early wave. Isle of Wight, Oxford, even Manchester, which had the backing of the Guardian Media Group, are no more.
There are of course small efforts up and down the country. But what on earth has gone wrong with the big push towards a national network with a prominent EPG slot and national coverage to provide the back-up for the local stations.
There is the polite answer and there is the more likely truth.
One is that it has been rather difficult to persuade the existing cable and satellite broadcasters to give up voluntarily a tasty slot on their EPG for a potential rival. Or as Rupert Murdoch might just conceivably have put it: "Get your ******* hands off my EPG."
To add to the Government's problems, the existing broadcasters found it extremely difficult to identify any suitable spare capacity on Freeview. So in order to solve the EPG problem Hunt would have to go for primary legislation and that won't come before a new communications bill expected in 2014 or 2015.
Too late. So Hunt then reaches out for the disastrous "solution" of the bottom up approach - the one unlikely to lead anywhere.
Yesterday the tangled tale took another turn when a group of the likely rival bidders for a "channel 6" slot in some form announced the creation of a Local TV Alliance, which has now sent an open letter to the culture secretary offering a potential compromise.
It goes like this. The likes of Clive Jones, Richard Horwood, Greg Dyke, Paul Jackson and Nigel Dacre have all signed up for an interim solution to get the project moving. They would be prepared to invest their money in return for "adequate prominence" on the programme guides of a range of broadcast platforms - prominence in keeping with the fact that this would be a public service broadcasting venture. They also believe there is a way of finding enough spectrum to cover up to 80% of the country.
Discussions have already been held on both issues with Ofcom, the communications regulator. The interim stage would then be followed by better terms in primary legislation.
Yesterday at the broadcasting conference, Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards confirmed that both were matters worthy of serious discussion should the Government decide to go in that direction.
Richards also said he thought there was a plausible case to be made for local television in the UK given the level of interest around the country and the £40 million available as a result of the licence fee settlement.
All the would be local TV operators on parade at the conference had one simple piece of advice for Hunt - have the courage to stick to the original plan. It is the only one that will work.
The alternative, the open letter says, would be a series of stand-alone stations. While superficially tempting, this is much more likely to lead to commercial failure.
"As Channel 7 (Grimsby) have put it, based on their 13 years of experience, enthusiasm and commitment are not enough: local broadcasters need the support of a national network to provide a wide range of essential services, without which they cannot survive commercially," the letter says.
Jeremy Hunt may be a classy lambada dancer but unless he listens he won't shimmy his way out of this one.
While the national spine approach won't guarantee success it will at least cause something to happen. Then as Paul Jackson of Local 6 explains, it will be up to investors to try to make it work.
Governments and regulators have been obsessed with 'local' broadcast media for decades. Where is the evidence that there is an untapped demand for this?
Potential audiences have the choice of local BBC and commercial radio services, significant amounts of local TV programming both commercial and BBC (+ heavily subsidised minority language services in Wales and Scotland).
They also have community services and RSLs in some areas. They are served by paid for and/or free daily and weekly newspapers - and these, like some commercial radio stations, are finding things tough. In some cases, radio stations are deliberately becoming 'less local' by networking significant periods of their output; whilst the effect of this on audience levels and engagement has still to be seen, they are obviously making this move at least partly in response to financial pressures.
It may be regrettable but as populations become more heterogeneous and family links with particular areas or communities weaken, I think demand for real local information and entertainment (as opposed to 'parish pump' news and tittle-tattle) will continue to decline. The government should not be diverting scarce financial resources into this venture - it will fail not least because the available budgets will not support the quality of programme that potential viewers will expect.
Why is the whole debate about Local TV so apparently myopic, and entirely backward facing? Raymond Snoddy presents the Top Down network vision as the only option and appears not to deal with any of the detailed alternatives set out by those who believe in genuinely local TV.
The BJTC identified the opportunity to create a strong credible alternative local TV strategy nearly three years ago, building from the bottom up around the huge and untapped resources of our Colleges and Universities, and the communities in which they are sited. I have argued this case very strongly to Jeremy Hunt and sent a copy of that argument to the MediaGuardian and Maggie Brown, but the lette was studiously ignored by the Guardian. The FT and other newspapers also seem to wish to be oblivious, and the only person who seems to be getting any publicity is this guy Horwood. But there is a cogent and remarkably well thought through alternative.
For a start, there are certainly lessons from history and the best one is the development of Independent Local Radio in the seventies and eighties. I know, I was there too. I started Pennine Radio in Bradford - it worked, it made consistent profits and it's still going strong through sadly called, The Pulse. It never made a loss.
A network superstructure for the new independent local radio stations very quickly developed - national news, national sales and a ratecard based on local audience research. When ILR started we only had the traditional BARB methods for measuring audiences, but ILR soon developed its own reliable systems for measuring purely local audiences - and they were very quickly found to be equally satisfactory for national advertisers. But, what was more important was the development of a new type of local advertising, in many cases the ILR stations were taking a higher proportion of their revenues from local, as opposed to national advertising. I have already approached a major media research company who have come up with a highly cost effective methodology, which every local station should be able to afford.
Traditionally, television was technically far more complex and vastly more expensive, and of course local radio could fall back on recorded music, but digital technology is transforming the cost base of television production, while technical advances are putting fairly sophisticated editing and post production processes within the easy reach of the competences schoolchildren, thus making local TV possible in a way we could barely have dreamed off when I was involved with the analogue local TV stations at Southampton and Portsmouth ten years ago.
But then we were skewered by a whole range of factors as well, not least that local TV had the lowest priority when it came to the use of spectrum, so we even had to fall in behind the walkie talkie folk. We were also skewered by exorbitantly expensive transmission charges, but again, there are highly effective and vastly cheaper self help alternatives that can deliver a great service.
The real priority now is not simply pushing through this bottom up model, but ensuring that each local station owns the means of production and transmission - both processes can be done remarkably efficiently and at cost that the folk from big TV and I guess, even the DCMS cannot even imagine. As for EPG and the argument for a place at the top table is not the deal breaker the top downers seem to suggest. As long as the local stations are somewhere in the Top 100, provide good and involving local news, current affairs and general programming content and local advertising, above content across the day that has a distinct brand and image the, in the words of Kevin Costner, they will find us.
As it happens, the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, which is the largest Journalism Accreditation body in the UK, already representing more than 60 courses across the UK will be holding a special conference in the morning of July 7th in London, with speakers from all over the country telling and showing how this could be done, and in fairness, this also includes those who currently believe that the Top Down approach might work better. The core message remains - the Higher and Further Education sector has a massive role to play in Local TV, something which was entirely ignored by Roger Parry, Nicholas Shott and, for that matter, Richard Horwood, until I pointed out the omission at the Westminster Media Forum in January.
This is a crucial time because it is probably the last viable opportunity to create an entirely new and stimulating level and layer of media enterprise. And this movement will encompass not just the journalism courses, but also a range of media production, graphics and animation courses across the country. I have been calculating the massive public investment in new accommodation, facilities and equipment that has been made across this sector of Higher and Further Education - and even at the early stages of my calculation I am at into the hundreds of millions of pounds. That's a public taxpayer investment, and every institution I have spoken to is eager to be fully involved in the leading the development of local TV in their areas partly as a means of paying back something to the communities in which they work and operate - and increasingly, from which their students now come. Some already have their own full service community radio stations, others are involved with local newspapers and magazines, but Local TV is the ideal vehicle to express this massive pent up creative potential.
There is a a wealth of new and developing talent out there, and I see it a great deal as I travel round the country. While I could simply and blandly claim that this is the talent which will lead our industry in the future, there is a far more serious and fundamental issue here. At local and regional level the vital first rung up the ladder to a sustained and sustainable media career, is being rapidly eroded. Local press, local radio, both BBC and commercial, together with regional television are all in rapid decline and there is a massive gap opening up in terms of opportunity. Looking at the issue from a broader 'Big Society' perspective, there is also a massive democratic deficit opening up, in that communities are no longer able to communicate with themselves in the way they used to only a short time ago.
It's a small, but significant point - but how many new jobs and work opportunities will the top down model create, compared to a Local Television network?
Genuinely Local TV is an exciting opportunity to address all these issues. There is an alternative, it might also be surprisingly viable as well. While our conference is by invitation, it might well be useful for Mr Snoddy to come along and hear some different views and strategies, because they're sure as hell not getting into the mainstream media at the moment.