'Loony TV', the first local channel, faces closedown

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The Independent Online

If you tuned in yesterday to Britain's first local television channel, you might think blizzards had hit Scotland. In fact, Lanarkshire TV has transmitter problems.

If you tuned in yesterday to Britain's first local television channel, you might think blizzards had hit Scotland. In fact, Lanarkshire TV has transmitter problems.

Another problem is LTV's failure to pay any of its 32 staff since Christmas Eve, prompting Shereen Tulloch, the blond breakfast show anchor, to leave suddenly. Her erstwhile colleagues say she left "to become a weather girl in London" but, whatever the reason, it spelt the end of Good Morning Lanarkshire. Since last week, LTV broadcasts begin at 4pm.

To reach the LTV studios, one must drive past the razor-wired fences of Shotts prison, down a remote lane across moorland and then up to the semi-derelict Hartwood sanatorium. This former Victorian asylum is a far cry from the breezy American stations it imitates. There the top presenters can earn millions of dollars; here most staff are on less than £10,000.

Thanks to the asylum, LTV has been dubbed "Loony TV". Yet, once inside, there is a buzz of young enthusiasm alongside the familiar editing suites and hi-tech studios churning out the daily news. "Fire struck a house in Newmains last night," announced Gary Pews, before an item from the Newmains library to mark World Book Day.

Gary did one report on Lanarkshire street cleaning from inside a wheelie bin but some other original concepts have had to be scrapped. Cupboard Cuisine, in which a presenter was meant to call on unsuspecting householders and cook a meal from their larders, never reached the airwaves. But there is still Talented Lanarkshire, which spots the stars of the future and Remote Control, a quiz programme, coming this week from Lanark Grammar.

Tall Tales has a puppet called Bookworm reading to the under-fives and the nature slot - Animal Magic - is a camera crew dispatched to the zoo. The cookery programme amounts to a visit to a local restaurant, where the chef of the house cooks a meal.

The station went on air last April to provide community-based programmes for this part of central Scotland. Yesterday, staff were putting a brave face on reports that it is nearing closure because of the financial crisis.

"The tidal wave of goodwill is ebbing away, but we're still here," said one staff member, unpaid for two months and admitting that some people are having trouble paying their bus fares into work. Hours are long and some of the staff sleep over to avoid travelling back and forth to work.

A number say that, for all its faults, LTV may be their one chance to make it into the glamorous world of television. "I was on work experience at a local paper before I came here," said one. "There was no way I could be doing what I'm doing now at the BBC or STV."

The station has already proved a good platform for an out-of-work signmaker and a former fireman who are LTV's resident comedy duo, Tam and Shug. Almost every night Jim Walker and John McQuiston entertain the few in Lanarkshire who can tune in. The double act have just won a BBC contract.

John MacKenzie, 64, LTV's managing director, is stunned at the loyalty of his staff. "It is incredible. There can be no other industry like this, where people are not paid and they still come to work. We have had one defection. I am amazed and grateful for the dedication."

Yesterday, Mr MacKenzie was trying to secure a £400,000 investment to save the station so that he can pay the staff and begin broadcasting from a new, bigger transmitter.

LTV was set up with a £2,000, four-year licence from the Independent Television Commission and is the model for up to 60 other local television stations that are expected to start transmitting in the next few years. Stations for the Isle of Wight and Oxford have already been approved.

Funding is meant to come from advertising and sponsorship as local shops and businesses see the opportunities of buying airtime. Mr MacKenzie says that once his transmitter is set up properly, more than 500,000 people should be able to tune in, although at the moment only the lucky few in central parts of the county - probably fewer than 100,000 - can receive a snow-free picture.

The ITC, which has the power to close down television companies, has heaped praise on the pioneering station in the face of heavy criticism from newspapers, who are suspected of reflecting their owners' own broadcasting ambitions.

"The problem," said one dogged staff member "is that the management was overambitious at the beginning, trying to broadcast from 8am till midnight, with 90 per cent of the output home produced. But there is still a lot of commitment to make this work."