Ian Burrell: Launching today, London Live could change the face of broadcasting in this country
Launching a television channel is a big deal. When Channel 5 did it in 1997 they booked the Spice Girls to sing a Manfred Mann classic in reverse: “1-2-3-4-5”. Fifteen years earlier, Channel 4 had launched with a different form of Countdown – the quiz of that name, then hosted by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, which is still on air 32 years later.
London Live, which arrives today on Freeview's channel 8 (Sky channel 117 and Virgin Media 159), will debut at 6.30pm with the suitably titled London Go – its nightly entertainment news show, broadcast live from one of the multitude of gig and cabaret venues, cinemas and theatres around the capital.
London Live is an enormous opportunity to change the British television landscape, restoring faith in the medium among a generation that feels alienated by mainstream channels, and offering a new platform to the growing number of commercial brands that are making their own ambitious films and are seeking an audience.
Within the media village there is a tendency to view these moments with a cool reserve. "Local" television, say the old hands, has been tried before. The Guardian was obliged to close down its Channel M television experiment in Manchester in 2012 because it failed to find an audience. Channel One, a local information network for London and Bristol, was closed down by the publishers of the Daily Mail in 1998.
Like those ventures, London Live is aligned with a newspaper business (broadcaster ESTV is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, publisher of the London Evening Standard, The Independent and i). Because of this, I have had a close-up view of the station's evolution during the year since the licence was awarded. Studios have been built into our newsroom, a team of young presenters and video-journalists (VJs) have been hired, and a raft of smart programmes – from Channel 4's Peep Show and Misfits to the BBC's Twenty Twelve and The Shadow Line – have been acquired to underpin the schedule and help set a suitably youthful and irreverent tone.
But still, the argument goes, 16-to 34-year-old viewers – the declared target audience for London Live – have turned their backs on television. They are watching sitcoms, sports and entertainment films and music videos – but they're consuming them through the medium of YouTube.
London Live's strategy will be to take formats that work on Google's platform and polish them for television without losing their online energy. Football freestylers Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch have already built a 260,000-subscriber base to the YouTube channel to showcase their "F2" tricks. Now their F2 Kicks Show has the chance to find a wider audience.
Other YouTube hits – including sitcoms Brothers With No Game, All About the McKenzies and The Adventures of T-Boy – were made with television as the ultimate goal but have first had to prove themselves by cutting through the dense forest of the internet to get noticed.
London Live can benefit from the recent hiatus in television that came with a collapse in confidence in the face of economic downturn and the internet revolution. Channels retrenched and commissioners stopped taking risks. Although the ad revenues are now starting to return and second-screen viewing with tablets and phones is helping scheduled television to live in harmony with the web, half a generation of talented programme-makers has been lost.
Channel 4 has found it harder to go out on a limb and the recently announced demise of BBC3 as a terrestrial network has called into question its commitment to young audiences. As producer Jimmy Mulville observed in Broadcast magazine last week, the BBC is in danger of "making itself irrelevant in 10 years' time" as it prioritises the high arts over youth programming.
All of this creates space for London Live. "I find it amazing that so much amazing talent has not got through the door at the mainstream channels despite spending so much time trying to get in," says Jane Mote, the channel's programme director.
Former professional DJ Lorna Cole has been hired to give the capital's music scene a television presence. "People say London has the best music scene in the world but there are hardly any music programmes on TV," says Stefano Hatfield, London Live's editorial director. "[The BBC's] Jools Holland [show] is not even filmed in London any more."
Critics question whether young viewers will bother to seek out a new channel in the first place. But here London Live has a huge advantage over Channel M and Channel One, with its position on the first page of the Freeview programme guide. "It's like having a shop between Selfridges and Harrods – it's key real estate," says Jon O'Donnell, ESTV's commercial head.
Unlike previous "local" experiments, London Live will prioritise its online offering – meaning it can be watched beyond the M25. Such is the global status of the capital that there are commercial and editorial possibilities unavailable to other new local licence holders in places such as Norwich and Grimsby.
Commercial partners can show long-form advertising as local licensees are not subject to the seven-ad-minutes-per-hour restrictions on other channels. "Brands are spending an awful lot of money on creating high-quality content which they put on their YouTube channels or websites and it doesn't get many views," says O'Donnell. "We can give it new life."
A one-hour Shop London format, launching in the summer, is something new again – offering brands from all retail sectors the chance to promote their wares within a format that O'Donnell says will offer an "editorial sensibility".
Furthermore, the Government, which proposed this local television scheme, is anxious for it to succeed, as is the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
As with any media adventure, there is the possibility that London Live will lose its way – and rivals will be quick to write it off. But no one should say that an opportunity was not there.
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