Hunt's plan to put the local back into TV

The Culture Secretary wants to encourage regional programming but is it economically viable?

Jeremy Hunt is a passionate believer in local media. Yesterday, he outlined proposals to foster a new generation of regional broadcasting in an attempt to help reverse an increasingly "atomised" society. Yet critics complained the plan leaves too many questions unanswered.

The Culture Secretary told members of the Royal Television Society that the TV industry was "deeply, desperately centralised".

He called the regional news broadcasts "token" and said they had been increasingly stretched across vast geographical areas. The Government wants this to change.

"The idea that somehow the UK can't sustain local TV will seem very quaint when compared to other countries," he said. The US has six local channels even in small cities, There are 100 such broadcasters in France and 80 in Sweden.

Mr Hunt outlined his vision as a "landscape of local TV services", which would broadcast for as little as one hour a day.

Industry insiders were sceptical. One said: "Many media companies are very reluctant to embrace the digital era, and now they are being asked to do something where the economics are severely in question."

The Government is to bring forward plans removing the remaining bars governing local cross-media ownership, "paving the way for local newspaper and commercial radio groups to develop new business models that allow them to move freely from platform to platform", he said. He hopes this will create independent broadcasters prepared to focus on local content.

Mr Hunt said he plans to redefine public service broadcasting for the digital age, asking Ofcom how to ensure enough emphasis is given to the delivery of local content. This could see the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 lose their guaranteed position on the first page of the electronic programme guide (EPG), should they fail to do so. Ofcom recently estimated the prominence on the EPG was worth a combined £30m to the public service broadcasters.

"This is likely to become the principle intervention through which we repay broadcasters who invest in content with a social or cultural benefit," Mr Hunt said.

Dan Sabbagh, co-founder of media news website Beehive City, said Mr Hunt's speech left "far too many question marks. It's not an obviously coherent policy." He said that the content provided by a local commercial station was unlikely to sit on the BBC, and the economics would not be viable for Channel 5. "It could do a deal with ITV in return for a favour, such as the EPG, or possibly with Channel 4," he added.

Mr Hunt has torn up the plans implemented by the previous government. Labour said it would lift the burden for regional news on ITV, which could instead be provided by subsidised regional news consortiums. Mr Hunt scrapped it this summer, favouring the US model of city local TV stations instead. He has previously said that Birmingham, Alabama has eight local stations, while Birmingham in the UK, which is larger, "doesn't even have one".

The minister called on the television industry to reinvent itself "and not leave the country behind".

He pointed to 8tv in Catalonia, which is profitable as a standalone commercial operation. LCM in Marseille uses other TV businesses to support its local broadcasting model, while in Sweden four of the six local stations are run by local newspaper groups.

The Government believes up to40 new media companies could emerge across the UK to make local programming.

One media company adviser said: "I find it hard to understand Jeremy Hunt's fixation on local media. He believes in the American model, but local TV hasn't worked in the UK because you don't have massive conglomerations of population to view it. And it is more expensive over here."

Markets including North America and Germany already have widespread cable infrastructure, which keeps costs down for local TV companies. Mr Hunt has also shied away from subsidies such as in Spain and France. The source added that the only way he could see local news working was with user generated content online.

Mr Hunt has called in Nicholas Schott, the head of investment banking for Lazard in the UK, to advise on creating a commercially viable local TV industry. Mr Schott's panel will produce a full report later this year, but several preliminary findings were released yesterday, which asked: "If alternative sources of revenue such as subscription, carriage fees, product placement and sponsored programming can work for national TV, why can't they do so for local stations?"

Mr Schott admitted local television would not work on Freeview in remote regional areas because of the transmission costs and weak advertiser demand. And despite a better chance of success in cities an advertising model "would still be challenging" because of the structural decline in the local and regional ad market.

Mr Schott believed companies should look "exhaustively" at other revenue streams. This could include selling local news content to other broadcasters, as well as corporate sponsorship for local TV, as Barclays have done with London's bicycle scheme. He added that further rules may need to be relaxed. "Having a channel number for local TV, which is common to all such services and which is in a prominent position on the electronic programme guide is highly desirable," Mr Schott said.

Yet some support would still be needed from existing networks, he said. Whether through an existing national channel acting as a "host" or pop-up prompts emerging on public service broadcasters. The panel is also looking at emerging technologies such as mobile platforms and the forthcoming YouView.

Mr Schott concluded that it had been "difficult to see a clear path to commercial viability for local TV," adding more work was needed before the panel could say it was commercially viable.

Mr Sabbagh said: "Nick Schott is saying: 'We barely see this as viable.' He has taken a woolly proposal, which was not financially viable into something that might work. He has injected some realism."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Guru Careers: Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant

£16 - 20k: Guru Careers: A Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant is needed to ...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine