It is going to have a lot of adverts and reality shows
How it’s done in San Diego
Why does Birmingham, Alabama have eight local television stations while the larger Birmingham in the West Midlands has none? The question so irked Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary until last year, that he decided to do something about it. Now his vision is taking shape. Local TV licences have been awarded in 16 of 19 pioneer areas. By the end of the year the currently defunct Freeview channel eight will start to glow with local fare.
In America, local stations are affiliated with national broadcasters; they rely on huge shows like “American Idol” to drive viewers to their news programmes. Britain’s local outfits will have to survive without such support. Andrew Mullins, managing director of the Evening Standard, which won London’s franchise, expects to start turning a profit only in the fourth year. And the capital has the advantage of reliable viewing figures. Most of the new stations will lack them, making it hard to sell advertising. Businesses may treat local TV more as a target for sponsorship, says Sean McGuire of Oliver and Ohlbaum Associates, a consultancy. There may be a lot: local TV licences are not bound by an EU cap on commercials. With several bid-winners promising less than two hours of original programming each day, repeats and teleshopping will also abound.
Where local television flourishes, in Canada and America, news is at its core. Many local newspapers have disappeared in the past few years. But Simon Terrington, another consultant, reckons demand for neighbourhood news is high. The eight or so bid-winners that are subsidiaries of local media groups should find this easiest to provide. Mr Mullins says the Evening Standard will offer screen tests to all its journalists.
Bill Smith of Latest TV in Brighton and Hove thinks local television will unlock creativity. “If you make it we’ll show it,” he says. Localism may be defined rather loosely. Latest TV has “International Chef Exchange”, a reality show in which Dutch and English cooks swap lives for a few days. City TV Birmingham will offer “Reach for the Top”, a secondary-school quiz show resembling “University Challenge”. Such formats could migrate to bigger channels if they work. The BBC has pledged to spend 15m pounds on local content over the next three years.
Despite their local roots, the stations are drawing together. Their representatives meet monthly. Debra Davis, who heads City TV, argues that they will attract national advertisers only if they act collectively. Mr Smith is pushing for the local stations to pool successful shows. Expect a miscellany of little Britain, punctuated by cheap ads.