When Michael Grade and his new director-general head down to the Department of Culture to promote the case for renewing the BBC's charter, they will carry with them a proposal designed to change the way Britain uses television news: truly local news broadcasting, based not on large regions but on individual communities and towns. Senior news and regional executives see it as an antidote to the perception that BBC services have become too commercial. By introducing the pioneering spirit of early local radio to high-technology local television services, they hope to restore the ideal of BBC journalists working in tandem with the communities they serve.
That means expanding an idea first launched during the Dyke era, in the city of Hull. Three years ago, the BBC offered Hull a £25m package of interactive channels including very local news, sport, weather and what's-on services. The service was made possible by the cable technology owned by the local company, Kingston Communications. Kingston's broadband television facility, KiT, is based on copper telephone cables buried in the streets of Hull 80 years ago, but it can carry video on demand. That makes Hull one of the most wired-up cities in the world.
Initially, the experiment was seen as an exercise in popularising broadband. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Hull, welcomed it as such. But Greg Dyke thought it might have more potential. Attending the launch, he declared that Hull was "seeing the future of broadcasting before the rest of the country".
The BBC got involved in the Hull project because it looked like a useful controlled experiment. The results have confirmed Dyke's prediction. Consumption of news services that allow viewers to see sub-regional news, and to mix it with national and international reporting introduced by local presenters, has proved extremely popular. Andy Griffee, the controller of BBC English regions, says: "In Hull we have been getting 63 per cent monthly reach for the 'really local' services. Video diaries about the lives of local people are the single most popular service, but 46 per cent of users go in for news. It is much more local than the local radio station. Radio covers Grimsby too. This is just Hull, and we are struck by how much people like it. They give it rave reviews."
Last week, the BBC announced a new experiment with local TV news. The controller of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, revealed that he hoped to introduce local TV bulletins to run alongside BBC Scotland's existing regional television service. MacQuarrie was responding to audience research from the BBC's news review. It showed that viewers in Scotland preferred the idea of separate bulletins for each city and region.
Andy Griffee has already experimented with local "opt-out" bulletins for Oxfordshire, the Channel Islands, and Kent. But these use traditional analogue transmitters to provide sub-regional news bulletins to fairly large areas. The Hull experiment and the one due in Scotland are about maximising the potential of new technology to target much smaller communities with powerful collective identities.
Technology makes it possible. Developments in technology have allowed the BBC to buy broadcast-standard video cameras for just £2,000 each. That means that a local newsroom that could once afford six television cameras can now deploy 40. The BBC has created a video journalism training school in Nottingham at which dozens of local journalists have learned to film and edit. Andy Griffee says: "When you have that capacity, the instinct to use it is powerful. The thinking now is about how we use that local infrastructure to do more, really local, television news. Hull proves that it works."
Perhaps inevitably, with an idea that had its origins in the Dyke era, there is commercial logic as well as a public service ethos behind the race to go local. One senior BBC insider admits, "Ten to 15 years ago, the big strength of the ITN network was its regional strength. Now the BBC is only behind in a couple of regions. The more local we can go, the more we can capitalise on our lead."
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