The News: The days of bwana and his nine attendants draw to a close in Oxford

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The Independent Culture
Early next year an entirely new kind of television will become available in Oxford. Called the Oxford Channel, it will be transmitted from an existing tower at Beckley, near the city, to a potential audience of 450,000 in Oxford and its sprawling suburbs. Viewers will not need to subscribe, or invest in a set-top box, or buy new aerials or remote controls. It will be available on Channel Six of residents' existing sets.

Although snappily advertised as "an Oxford First", the channel will not be quite the first of its kind. One local terrestrial station is already in operation in the Isle of Wight, offering a mixture of programming and text, supported by advertising and sponsorship. The services are authorised under the 1996 Broadcast Act by the Independent Television Commission under Restricted Service Licences (RSLs). As well as the Isle of Wight and Oxford channels, RSLs are in the pipeline for a mini-network of local stations in Scotland, for a student channel in Manchester, and one aimed at Asian viewers in Leicester, among others.

There is no requirement attached to an RSL for any particular range of programming: no need for schools broadcasts, or a "God slot", or news. The Oxford Channel, however, does propose to offer some news. It will be, says Deborah Kackler, one of the founders, "three-hour, rolling news," with news at the top of the hour updated periodically. In addition there will be a sports slot and "community features". Kackler and her husband, Thomas Harding, previously worked on a video magazine, based in Oxford, with a strong emphasis on "social justice and the environment".

So far, so good. The original design of independent television in Britain, based on some civil servant's vague memories of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy (Wessex, Mercia, Anglia and the like), was a crazy model for media markets. Mountains of valuable, truly local, advertising revenue ("Get down to Tesco's, they're doing a great special on tinned ham today!") was going to waste. Even more damaging was the failure in the original architecture of ITV to cover local democracy.

If the new mini-channels succeed in providing an advertising service that wasn't there before, and in tapping revenue that wasn't being tapped before, that's great. But what about their news?

As Deborah Kackler explained it to me, the Oxford Channel will not at first be able to compete with the reporting on Central South, which has several journalists and cameras based in Abingdon, on the southern edge of the Oxford market, and covers an area roughly from Aylesbury to Hereford. International and perhaps national news will be bought from Reuters. So the new local TV stations will not be exposing local councils or other local institutions to much new transparency.

Experience elsewhere suggests that mini-TV may mean minimal investment in news. A new local station in Auckland, in New Zealand, where broadcasting licensing was deregulated recently, found the financial pressures so tough that one young journalist there was presenter, producer and reporter on the same show. She also did her own research and dashed down just before going on air to do her own make-up. It is a far cry from those days when, in the 1960s, I would process, bwana-like, to cover a story like the fall of Nkrumah in Ghana at the head of a team of eight or nine: lighting, cameraman, assistant, sound recordist, boomswinger, director, production assistant and researcher, with sometimes a "grips" thrown in to lug around our 30-odd metal boxes of lighting and other gear.

Those were the bad old days. But Auckland is not the only place where deregulation, financial pressures (or the drive to maximise profit) and new technology have created a new climate where "multi-skilling," as it is somewhat euphemistically known, can threaten journalistic values. Multi-skilling, with the same journalist operating camera and sound as well as doing interviews and "pieces to camera," then editing and writing commentary, is common in the United States and is making an appearance in Britain.

It is not just that it is unlikely that even the most-able and best-trained journalist will be as good as a specialist at operating a camera or editing videotape, even with the latest Avid digital editing gear. There are two less obvious but serious problems.

The first and most important is the likely primacy of process over content. Television journalists researching, shooting, writing and editing their own stories are not likely to have time to go into those stories in depth. They will have enough on their plate just to get the story on air at all.

Then there is the effect of one-man/woman crewing on the choice of story. Suppose you have to go on air at 7pm. If you have to edit, record and dub your own story, you will hardly be able to cover events breaking after, say, three o'clock. In practice, there will be a temptation to cover stories that are known about early in the day. And in practice, all too often, that means public relations stories: a launch, a press conference, or an "opportunity".

What's the answer? More regulation? That's not the way the world is going. The magic of the market? Perhaps mini-channels with innovative local reporting will drive out those that just rip "n" read; but perhaps they'll go broke first. In any case, two cheers for a brave new world in television, about to get its second at Oxford, home of lost causes.