On Standby

Local Television was meant to be a cultural revolution, empowering communities and discovering new talent — why isn't it switching on?

As the polls closed on Thursday and the nation was gripped by the closest election in a generation the viewers of Made in Cardiff were being treated to a run of The Cool Beans Television Show, a programme “guaranteed to educate and entertain, minus the entertain and the educate parts”.

Made in Cardiff was not alone in not having any dedicated election programming during the 6 week campaign- other local channels also provided the minimum of current affairs output that their schedules were obliged to pack in between z-listers on a cream couch and petshop calamities. The cool bean-counters would probably argue that their programming is plugged into the tastes of their weekly audience of 100,000. But the opportunity lost by local stations to engage regions and communities in the democratic process–London Live’s Question Time-style hustings and Notts TV’s debates being notable exceptions- is representative of the broader failing of the local TV initiative to break through and provide a distinct offer.

Local TV is in the midst of a 5 year experiment that is proving to be as wobbly as much of its cinematography. The initiative was the brainchild of Jeremy Hunt when he was culture secretary, an attempt to install a televisual ‘spine’ that links together talent and knowledge across the country. Three years on from the awarding of regional TV licences this revolution is still on standby. Of the 33 licences sold by Ofcom, less than half have materialised into launched channels.

There have been numerous questions about poor viewing figures, delayed launches and operators going bust. It is a sorry state when there is local TV in Grimsby but not in Manchester. Meanwhile in the capital, London Live has been haggling with Ofcom to reduce the amount of local content it is obliged to broadcast. Despite serving 13% of the UK’s population London Live’s flagship morning news programme averages 2,400 viewers, 0.2% of the audience of its national rivals.

None of these issues deterred Ed Vaizey, the culture minister who continues in his role under the new government, from hailing local TV a “stunning success”. Perhaps when compared with his department’s sclerotic roll out of superfast broadband or the appointment of the director of HSBC’s tax evasion unit as the head of the BBC’s ethical watchdog local TV does emerge as a relative triumph for DCMS.

The whole enterprise rings of political egotrip: local communities getting a dose of American-style TV-empowerment. While surveys continue to state the public’s interest in more locally originating programming, the demand for community television was never strong enough justify the expense. At its root, explains London Live’s CEO Steve Auckland in an interview with MediaWeek, the initiative was the government’s cack-handed effort to do something about the decline of local news. “When you get government getting involved in stuff like that it’s just a joke,” says Auckland.

Although by far the most professional of the locals –it’s part of Evgeny Lebedev’s media group- London Live’s difficulties to attract an audience do not bode well for the less resourced outfits beyond the capital. Conversely, it may be that Londoners are already well served by the centralised nature of British cultural and political life and the opportunity lies in the rest of the UK. Either way, it seems odd that in an age of new media and personalised dashboards we are still thinking in terms of the local/national binary. Yes invest in the creative talent pools of the wider UK but why channel this into the micro when it can be uploaded into the clouds?

Gerard Corvin