TV revolution among the dreaming spires

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IN A back bedroom in Oxford this week a small television revolution was under way that involved no digital hype, no media moguls and no extra charge to the viewer.

Because this week the first of 14 approved city-wide television franchises opened its doors for business as the Oxford Channel. It is a station that will be free to air, will need no retuning, cable or satellite link, and will sit at Channel 6 on 300,000 buttons only in the university city. It was created by a clause hidden in the last broadcasting Bill largely ignored by the big boys and which allowed for setting up something called Restricted Service Licences for Location (RSLL).

Using small holes in the existing broadcast spectrum and local transmitters, 31 RSLLs will be created over the next year or so. Most will just air a teletext-style service of local news and what's-on information. The Oxford Channel, however, wants to go further.

When it launches in autumn it plans six hours a day of programmes, made by a paid staff of 30 and dozens of volunteers who fancy their chances in television. "For the first time we are really giving people access to the airwaves," said Thomas Harding, joint managing director of Oxford Broadcasting Limited.

"We will have television professionals overseeing the quality control, so it doesn't become unwatchable rubbish like the public-access TV in America. But the idea is to try and get the community involved in programming."

Oxford people are to be used as guests, presenters and technicians. Mr Thomas plans a local news service using local people as video-journalists and editors following their own stories. What's on, entertainment and community information will make up the majority of the output. But it will be delivered in the user-friendly form of chat shows, sports programmes and location reports.

"The idea is that the expansion in television services should not just be about big business," added Mr Thomas. "The obvious development that comes from opening up the spectrum is to make the people responsible for some of their viewing."

The new channel has been freed by the Independent Television Commission from the advertising restrictions that apply to ITV and Channels 4 and 5, so it will be able to air long infomercials, which it believes will encourage local advertisers to support it. "We want the ads to be more part of the service than just hard selling," said Mr Thomas. "Cookery programmes done with local restaurants would meet both our needs." Its business plan has been approved by the ITC and the accountancy firm KPMG, who believe its pounds 1.5m annual budget is easily achievable.

City television in the UK` is not new, but has so far been restricted to cable channels and existing media owners.