Local TV - squaring the impossible circle

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Ofcom has recently published a report that investigates various technical solutions for delivering television services to more localised areas than the current broadcast infrastructure reaches.

There is no definition as to what Local TV is, however according to the pressure group “United for Local TV” (www.unitedforlocaltv.com) the UK is one of the only countries in the entire democratic world not to have a thriving local TV sector. Local TV is seen by many as a way to help create local identities or communities and the content of local TV would reflect issues, news and culture of the local environment. Local TV therefore slots neatly into the Coalition Government’s “Big Society” idea.

And it is a seductive idea. But is it feasible?

There are a number of issues that need to be explored, not least of which is how local is local?

The Ofcom report considers 25 areas that are the most populous urban areas in the UK, so local may not be very local. These 25 areas vary massively in size, from “London” (population 8,278,251 with 3,507,000 households) to Swansea (population 270,506 with 115,000 households). I live in Maidenhead and the closest “Local TV” area is defined in the Ofcom report as Reading/Woking + Bracknell, none of which are particularly local to me and by extension not of great interest in terms of local events or indeed identity.

Why can’t these 25 regions that Ofcom have identified simply be broadcast to? What’s the problem? 

The roots of the problem lie in the current television broadcast network infrastructure as well as the newer digital networks which we are switching over to. “Local TV” just was not designed into the system from the start and it’s technically hard, and therefore expensive, to bend the networks into a shape suitable for Local TV delivery. 

In addition is the complication that this infrastructure is in use 24/7 and can’t be disrupted. There would be a public outcry if the BBC’s services went down and advertisers’ lawyers would no doubt have a field day with the commercial channels if their services failed.

The reason that traditional TV broadcast areas are large is that traditional TV is largely dependent on large audience sizes and the reason for that is the expensive of it all. For the BBC they can demonstrate a good return for the license fee if they can attract large audiences. For the commercial channels, they have a stronger sales pitch to advertisers if they have audiences of millions. And building traditional broadcast television infrastructure is expensive, even if digital technology is used.

There are 17 BBC local news regions in mainland UK and 14 “Channel 3” (ITV) regions, so the proposed 25 “Local TV’ regions in the Ofcom report is not even doubling the granularity of either of these existing broadcast areas. As Ofcom says in their report, they have suggest the top 25 urban areas as it seems likely that the economic drivers for Local TV will be most favourable in those areas. In other words they are the smallest areas where the audiences may be large enough to sustain the commercial model for Local TV.

So we come back to the unanswered question of what is local? 

For me Local TV has to reflect Maidenhead, a population of some 60,000. How many of those would watch Maidenhead TV to make it sustainable? How many advertisers would be willing to advertise to a percentage of this 60,000? How much would it cost to build infrastructure to reach this 60,000? 

If the existing broadcast paraphernalia isn’t used, by way of it being too expensive, then what are the other options? We do after all have a Cable TV service in the UK which reaches approximately half the UK’s households. Couldn’t we simply broadcast local TV over the CableTV (Virgin Media) network?

In principle, yes we could. But. The issue is that Cable coverage is only 50% of the UK and even within one local area, coverage isn’t ubiquitous. I don’t have Cable running down my street and even if I did there would have to be some engineering (and therefore cost) undertaken for me to get on to the network. As far as I am aware Virgin Media are not undertaking any civil engineering work to expand the size of their network either so their network reach isn’t increasing (albeit they do resell BT Wholesale services as well).

But putting side the issue of network reach there are still problems with the Cable infrastructure as it has become centralised. This makes it difficult (read expensive) to “inject” localised services into, which once again adversely affects the business case.

OK so what about the internet - we all know of, if not use YouTube, or the BBC’s iPlayer, can’t we simply deliver over the web? Yes we can. But. The web delivers to computers, not TVs. Yes you can buy Apple TVs and GoogleTV is soon to be upon us and there are some new TV sets that are internet aware but this is all early stage stuff and not mainstream, if indeed it ever becomes so. 

And there’s also that fact there isn’t enough broadband out there to support quality simultaneous streaming of multiple programs into people’s houses. The much publicised “Super Fast Fibre Optic” broadband for the most part isn’t fibre optic and is still a shared or contended service which isn’t ubiquitously available either. We are years away from having true fibre to the home services, with all the benefits of at least 100Mbps connectivity, if we ever get there at all, which at times I doubt very much.

But nonetheless I believe web-based services, known as Over The Top services, offer the best way to deliver broadcast media into the home, or download to takeaway on devices such as iPads. Bandwidth is increasing, albeit slowly, and we’re becoming more used to turning to the internet for our televisual experience.

So far I’ve only looked at distribution or broadcast options. The other aspect of Local TV, or any TV, is program or content production. We have become used to a certain level of quality as a result of a lifetime of watching TV. The production values of some shows are very high indeed - but look at the list of people in the credits to achieve that standard. I wouldn’t be surprised if the budget for a single episode of Top Gear was in excess of £100,000.

To make a show that covers the events in, or news of, a local area may not require a production crew of 35 and for sure end-to-end digital production tools and techniques can mean a crew can be very small indeed. But even so there would probably need to be two cameramen, a presenter, a producer/director and an editor, a hefty annual salary bill not far short of £100,000. How many of such teams would be needed to produce enough content to make the Local TV channel worth watching?

And don’t forget that Local TV by definition has a small audience so can’t command premium advertising rates. Can a sustainable business case be developed? If the service is non-subscription then it has to be advert supported. But can local business afford to pay for spot ads?

As attractive as the idea of Local TV is, unless there is financial support from the local authorities, which in this “Age of Austerity” is hardly likely to happen, as well as commercial support from advertisers willing to support smaller audiences, quality local TV that is truly local won’t work and the circle can’t be squared.

Which is a shame.

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First published Oct 2010