UK's smallest TV station rivals BBC and Murdoch

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The Independent Online
IN A CONVERTED caretaker's bungalow in the grounds of a school on the Isle of Wight, a small television revolution is under way. A revolution that does not involve the word digital, where the big player is a ferry company rather than Rupert Murdoch, and where a cafe owner can be the guest on a prime-time chat show.

For in the island's main town of Newport is TV-12, Britain's smallest television station. It is the first beneficiary of legislation that allows local communities to get their hands on the airwaves.

It began broadcasting to a potential 500,000 people in the Solent region on 31 October thanks to a clause in the 1996 Broadcasting Act. This allowed restricted service licences for stations to broadcast direct to aerials on spare frequencies.

The station has 12 staff, one studio and seven cameras. It costs pounds 500 an hour to put out and needed only pounds 250,000 to set up. It is the fulfilment of a dream for Paul Mead, the station director, sometime presenter and equipment carrier.

"My idea was originally for a small cable station, but this is much better; it means anyone can get it, he said.

"I worked in the US for 10 years, for NBC and CBS stations in Washington state, then as the station manager of a small community station in southern Utah. Community television is much more established over there, but it can be made to work here."

Mr Mead got the backing of the Isle of Wight's main ferry company, Wightlink, and islander Graham Benson, owner of the independent production company that makes the Ruth Rendell series.

The station broadcasts 23 different programmes across the week, every night from 5-11pm. The rest of the time it puts out a teletext-style community notice board and advertising service.

"Everything we air is local programmes made by TV-12," Mr Mead said. "We film local bands playing in pubs, we have a programme called Club 98, which visits clubs on the island. We visit local gardens and we have chat shows and dramas, just like bigger stations."

TV-12's chat show, Hanam, focuses on "island characters" and recently starred a cafe owner who dresses as a Teddy Boy. Its dramas are provided by the island's amateur dramatic society, The Ferret Theatre Company.

"The glamour of television brings in volunteers," Mr Mead said. "An unemployed man came in to help log tapes and move things about and now has his own vintage car show."

TV-12 has a two-year licence to broadcast and Mr Mead is confident that advertising from businesses will give investors a return.

The station is likely to be the first of a wave of local operations that will cover Britain. The Independent Television Commission has received 70 applications from companies and community groups that want to start stations.

So far 37 have been found some frequency space, including a station in Northern Ireland that aims not just to supply local programming but to be part of the peace process by broadcasting items made by members of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.

"We have file after file of programme ideas," Mr Mead said. "There is so much going on on the Island and in the Solent and indeed in every local community, that we will never run out of material."