Is Jeremy Hunt serious about the growth of local TV in the UK? A look at Video Production Costs and the Role of the BBC. Article by Graham Majin, first published in the Folkestone Herald.
So Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has confirmed plans to support the growth of local TV services in Britain. Mr Hunt is asking OFCOM to look at the impact of relaxing the rules preventing companies from owning more than one media outlet in a single area. Here in Kent for example, it could mean local newspapers getting into video production. It’s already happening to a limited extent. If you look at the websites of papers in Kent UK such as the Kent on Sunday or the Kent Messenger of Kent Regional Newspapers (who publish titles such as the Dover Express and Folkestone Herald) you’ll find online video production. No-one’s suggesting that these online, web based Kent video production websites are the real deal when it comes to local TV, but they’re certainly dipping their toes into the water.
But the government’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt points out, “New York has six local TV stations – compared to London which has not one. Birmingham, Alabama, an example some of you may have heard me use before, has eight local TV stations, despite being a quarter the size of our Birmingham that, again, doesn’t even have one. ”Paris, Lyon and Marseilles have local TV.
Why not Glasgow, Sheffield and Bristol? [He might add Kent, Maidstone, Medway, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Thanet, Dover etc]. “Unfortunately even as politicians have paid lip service to localism, our broadcasting ecology has pursued the polar opposite model – with a large proportion of news beamed shamelessly from the centre.” But isn’t Mr Hunt missing the blinding obvious reason why local TV thrives in other countries, but is unable to gain a foothold here in the UK?
The reason is simple; competition from the publicly funded BBC. Video production is an expensive business; here in Kent for example, the BBC spends more than £8 million a year producing local TV. (I know because I helped set up BBC South East Today in Tunbridge Wells and worked as Assistant Editor producing the evening TV news for a number of years before launching Kent video production company Kersh Media).
Imagine a town with a huge, publically funded restaurant in the middle of the High Street. Imagine that everyone household had to pay £145.50 a year to fund the restaurant – whether they visited it or not. In return, this huge restaurant provided free meals for everyone. Then imagine the government saying, “We want to help nurture a new generation of hungry, ambitious and profitable local restaurants”. What obstacle might stand in the way of new restaurants springing up? You don’t have to be a Professor of Business Studies to work out that the state subsidised restaurant offering free meals might be an issue.
What Mr Hunt actually said was, “we want to help nurture a new generation of hungry, ambitious and profitable local media companies”. But if he’s serious, then the government needs to make some pretty tough decisions about the BBC. If the BBC was not allowed to provide local news, then into the vacuum will spring local TV; it’s as simple as that. On the other hand, if it’s all-powerful, publically-funded presence is allowed to squat brooding over the UK’s local TV landscape; then there will be no independent local TV worth talking about.
Those with long memories will remember TVS “Coast to Coast” which provided ITV’s local TV news in Kent. It wilted in the face of competition from the BBC. Its successor ITV Meridian’s evening news is a pale imitation based in Southampton. Very little video production in Kent takes place. As I say, video production can be an expensive business – I know because I run a video production Kent company. If the government’s serious, it needs to address the issue of unfair competition.