Neighbourhood watch

The demand exists but can they work? Two years since the first licences for local TV stations were awarded Antonia Charlesworth looks at the picture in the north

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Local TV has an uneasy history. As far back as the seventies there were experiments with channels such as the shortlived Sheffield Cablestation. More recent in the north was Manchester’s Channel M, which had a difficult but nevertheless lengthy 12-year run. 

Its former non-executive chair, media commentator Steve Hewlett, points out that the station came very close to financial viability but was born during an “uncomfortable middle-ground between old style TV and the internet”, costs were high and it struggled to get advertising. It closed in 2012 citing government plans for localised television services as the nail in its coffin.

That concept was based on the US model of local television stations offering a new voice for communities, with perspectives that are directly relevant to them. This month marks two years since the first local licences were awarded by media regulator Ofcom and the deadline for those stations to go live.

David Prior, editor of northern media news provider Prolific North, says: “The project feels like one giant broadcasting experiment, the product of the optimistic imagination of [former culture secretary] Jeremy Hunt, who as health minister now has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Among those in the north to be awarded in that first round of licensing in 2013 were Estuary TV in Grimsby, Made in Leeds, Bay TV Liverpool and Sheffield Live TV – which are all on air. YourTV Manchester and YourTV

Ofcom admitted that it is very unlikely all local stations will survive

Preston/Blackpool are yet to launch and fast running out of time. The Big Issue in the North was unable to get hold of anyone from the YourTV group to find out if they will in fact launch, but Ofcom explained that if a local station fails to meet the deadline it will “carefully consider the reasons before deciding whether it is appropriate in the circumstances to agree to a delayed launch date”.

It added that it was currently in discussion with YourTV about its plans.

Following that first phase of local licences, a further 30 areas were selected to invite bids for local stations. In the north they were awarded to Yorkshire Coast TV in Scarborough and the York Channel, which have until October and November this year to launch.

There is a consensus that the demand for local TV exists but Ofcom itself admitted, in September last year, that it is very unlikely all local stations will survive. Problems faced include the owners of Birmingham licence City8 entering administration before it launched, while London Live successfully applied to Ofcom to reduce its output within four months of its launch.

Criticism in the media is widespread. John Myers, former chief executive of the Guardian Media Group’s radio division, said: “Asking for local TV to work in this decade is like asking for the return of long wave… the boat has sailed.” Media commentator Roy Greenslade has called the initiative “a dead duck”. Both critics argue that the demand is not there – London Live initially had zero viewers for some of its programmes – but the picture in the capital, which for many is an adopted home where “local” is meaningless, is very different from the north.

“There’s evidence there is plenty of demand,” says Hewlett. “People want local news and local information but there’s always the question of whether television is the best way of delivering it. Once you go into the TV space you’re stuck with having to compete with everything else. Granada Reports is outstanding, with really high production values. It’s one of the best regional TV outlets in the UK and the only way of beating it is doing something it doesn’t already do.”

One of the big problems local stations face is attracting advertising, a key source of revenue.

That is exactly what these hyper-local stations intend to do, points out – “fill the gaps left behind by dwindling regional coverage”.

Chris Kerr, creative director of Liverpool’s Bay TV, illustrates the point. “We may not have the resources the BBC and Granada have but they have 25 minutes a day to cover the whole of the North West while we have 24 hours a day for Liverpool… It’s a fantastic city for stories so we are never short of things to think about.”

But it is early days for the station, which launched in December. And resolving the underlying commercial dilemma remains a priority.

One of the big problems local stations face is attracting advertising, a key source of revenue. Hewlett points out that the “elephant in the corner of the commercial room is that the local advertising market is already stretched”, with local papers and radio competing hard to attract local businesses. Local TV is at a disadvantage as it isn’t established and there is no proof it works – but a greater problem is that it can’t easily measure viewership.

Justin Sampson, CEO of the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), which compiles television ratings in the UK, explains that it collects information based on regions rather than cities, but it is trying to collate some meaningful data.

“A couple of local television stations broadcast to cities or conurbations that have a large enough sample of BARB homes for us to report their audiences, and BARB is also working with local television stations to measure audiences to content that they share, although this won’t deliver programme audience numbers for most local TV stations.”

But stations sharing content to provide advertisers with a bigger audience presents more problems, as Hewlett points out. “If you connect all the stations up in one network then you can get a national sell, but even if you can do that, then the problem is how do you split up the cash?”

To give them a fighting chance there are some measures in place. Advertising regulations have been relaxed so that local stations can provide advertorial (a blend of editorial and advertising) content and the BBC, which has been criticised for being monopolistic and taking traffic away from commercial media, agreed to help local stations by making up to £25 million of licence fee money available for it in exchange for content, which also helps shines a light on local talent. Each participating licensee will provide the BBC with 85 stories a month and be guaranteed an income of £150,000 in year one. This will decrease to £110,000 in year two (62 stories) and £40,000 in year three (23 stories), by which point it is hoped the channels will be independently financially viable. The involvement with the BBC means that mentors are on hand to provide guidance and support to the new stations and that a quality threshold is set – in theory raising the bar on production values, vital amongst technologically-savvy audiences with growing expectations and standards.

“It’s very early days, and the viewing public at large is likely to be wholly unaware of even the concept of local television,” points out Prior. “It needs time to develop and mature, and sooner or later a channel will emerge from the pack as a success story for others to follow. It remains to be seen whether the majority of stations have the time, energy and resources to last that long… As with any foray into uncharted territory, I suspect that only the very best will survive.”


“Chris Johnson [chief executive] and I have been talking about a local station for Liverpool for the past 15 years. The city needed it as it wasn’t getting enough coverage from Granada and the BBC. We wanted somewhere Liverpool people could see their city.

“We launched a website in November 2011 because that was the only way we could think of doing it and that coincided with the government decision to launch the local stations. By the time we applied we had already done a lot of thinking about what we wanted to do so our programme outline was there and the main work between then and now has been finding staff, finding a studio, finding the money and making the programmes.

“Getting the money was very, very difficult, partly because local TV has been tried before and failed. It’s left a bad legacy but as far as quality is concerned we’d like to say that all our programmes are of the highest possible standard.

“We’re sandwiched between BBC Three and BBC Four so we don’t want to look any worse than them. We have highly qualified staff working to the highest possible standard.

“There is no way of measuring viewership at this point so we really don’t know about numbers beyond what we pick up from Twitter and Facebook. There are one or two saying we’re a load of rubbish, garage TV, but the general reaction is ‘good on you for doing it because Liverpool needs it’.
“One reaction was we’re a bit rough around the edges but they recognised we’ve only been on air a few weeks and we have a tiny budget so they’ll stick with us.”


“Estuary TV began broadcasting on 26 November 2013. Prior to that it was broadcast as Channel 7 on Virgin Media since 1998 in northern Lincolnshire. Having that existing infrastructure in place made for a smooth transition and since going on to Freeview we have opened up to more viewers across East Yorkshire and we now reach around 400,000 homes.

“It’s very easy to think of local TV as a Mickey Mouse operation, full of amateurs. We’re not. The people behind Estuary have worked in the industry and we have the right technology to make it easy for us to run and succeed.

“We do have a lot of graduates because they have to start somewhere. Local TV gives them that opportunity, a foot in the door with room to make mistakes because it’s a bit more forgiving.

“What it offers viewers, in comparison to other stations, is truly local content. People like to switch on and see people and places they know and feel part of the Estuary family. There is a real sense of community.

“Our big remit is to provide local news, so we provide hourly news bulletins, broadcasting for 18 hours a day. In house we produce two sports programmes, which people love, and we make other programmes, which could be historical or natural. Other content we get in from local independent producers and some from further afield who are looking for their first outlet.

“There is a need for local TV and we offer something very different to the regionals. I hope it continues to grow because we’re good at not just informing, educating and entertaining a local audience but also at nurturing and developing new talent.”

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