Local News: the next steps

15 Dec 2011 - By Nigel Dacre

Blog update by Inclusive's Nigel Dacre on our progress with Local TV. 

Monday 17th October 2011

I was on the panel last week at the Westminster Media Forum, debating the government’s plan to licence 50 Local TV channels in the next two years.

For Inclusive, it was a good opportunity to outline how we had set up Local Digital News to offer consultancy and a digital platform to organisations applying for the licences.

As a whole, the forum turned out to be a really interesting event.

The MuxCo Controversy

A lot of the debate was about the role of MuxCo – the organisation which will be tasked with setting up the DTT engineering structure for the new channels. There were concerns about how it will operate, what fees it will charge, and whether it would be too powerful.

In general, I support the setting up of MuxCo (unlike fellow-panellist Greg Dyke, who argued that transmission should be organised at a local level).

My view is based on two arguments.

Firstly, it seems to make sense to have a central provider for the technical infrastructure – allowing the local TV operators to focus on content and production, rather than on the complex and highly specialised area of DTT transmission.

Clearly, as MuxCo will in effect be a monopoly provider, with a substantial £24m BBC grant, DCMS and Ofcom will need to ensure that its pricing and operations are tightly controlled. That is, prices which the local TV operators can afford; and an operational structure which includes transmission as well as signal distribution.

But if the outcome is a technical infrastructure which carries the signals efficiently for a regulated and cost-effective price all the way from local TV production offices right through to DTT home sets, then I think that would be a good result.

Secondly, I think that we’ve got to stop arguing about local TV, and get on with producing it. The debate over the role of local news on ITV, the 2009 IFNC plans, and now the Action Plan, seems to have gone on for a long time.

I argued in my presentation last week, that the government’s latest plans may not be a perfect model, but they are a workable model – particularly with the BBC funding and EPG concessions.

There are a still lot of crucial areas that need to be clarified by DCMS before the tendering process can begin.

But assuming these are sorted out before the end of the year, then it’s surely time to move on, and try to make the proposals work.

Private/Public Partnerships

My other point last week was about how the Local TV licensing process is bringing together interesting combinations of organisations.

In particular, the tight budgets forecast for Local TV are leading to the emergence of innovative  private/public partnerships – with media and production companies, university media departments, and local business and community organisations coming together in a medley of groupings and consortia.

I welcome this development.

To run a completely stand-alone commercial local TV station, relying entirely on sponsorship and spot advertising for its revenue, and having to do all its own marketing, is clearly going to be a tough call.

But organisations coming together to contribute and share resources, and to provide promotion through their existing marketing channels, could create a more stable and sustainable model.

Certainly, my experience with launching Kent TV was that local organisations, from the universities to the local health authorities, were increasingly keen to get involved in the various cross-platform projects as the channel developed.

It’s not just that this collaborative, Public/Private approach would work well for Local TV. It may be more than that. It may be the only way that, in the long term, Local TV will survive.

The next stage is for DCMS to announce its response to the latest consultation exercise – and then to say which towns or cities will be selected as the first 20 of what they call pioneer locations. We should hear that in the next month or so.

Unless there’s some last minute hitch, DCMS would then hand the baton over to Ofcom, who will oversee next year’s licence process.

I really hope that the latest concerns and criticisms don’t slow this timetable own.

Less words, more action!

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