Friday, 3 February 2012

Why I objected in Committee to the top down proposals for Local TV put forward by the Govt

Why I objected in Committee to the top down proposals for Local TV put forward by the Govt

On Tuesday 31st January I attended a Delegated Legislation Committee meeting on the subject of the Government's recent statement of policy concerning Local Television. Their policy is outlined in policy documents; A new framework for local TV in the UK, Local TV: Pioneer locations, and Local TV: Making the vision happen. Three Orders have been put before Parliament, and if these enter into force, the result would be a new statutory framework for local television.

I have extremely serious reservations about the direction this legislation is moving in. It has numerous shortfalls, flies in the face of significant evidence to the contrary and will leave the Government lagging far behind the real innovations that are currently occurring in the industry.

The idea which appears to be motivating these policies is undoubtedly an admirable one, which would in principle have my wholehearted support – to encourage local television so communities have access to TV which reflects local issues. All too frequently, communities around the country find national television far too London-centric and rarely touches upon local news. I am very eager to encourage progress in bringing local television opportunities to communities.

These proposed plans, however, are ill-considered, short-termist, and indicate that the Government has been hoodwinked by big-business in the industry. The proposed infrastructure will be antiquated and unused within a few short years, shows a top-down, monopolistic approach that will leave the Government toothless and reduces important funding for the BBC.

I outline my specific concerns below.

The framework the Government is proposing would create an infrastructure to enable 20 local TV services to be broadcast on Freeview for the first time.

This is theoretically a good idea for media plurality and local news, but the reality is extremely disappointing. I believe the legislation fails to reach its admirable intentions, and that this complex issue – which may have a profound impact on the TV industry in UK – should be debated in Parliament rather than in committee alone.

The proposals have not adapted to the distinct lack of interest in the licenses that was quickly evident, and this poses significant risks to the proposals' success. Of the 20 proposed locations for the initial round of licenses, three locations only had one response and four others only had two responses. I fear that this will lead to a situation where Ofcom will have very little choice as to who to grant the licences to, raising serious concerns as to how these licensees should be chosen. Issues such as this unclear selection process should, again, be subject to Parliamentary debate.

This is related to deeper concerns as to the pressures that the new local TV licensees will be under. Local news companies are already suffering from reduced income from advertising and presumably these new local stations will face difficulties in raising revenues from advertising.

I am therefore seriously concerned about making these local stations entirely reliant upon advertising revenue from business – this will undoubtedly mean stations will face difficulty in being truly impartial and unbiased, particularly where they rely on funding from the bigger, more powerful businesses. The proposed guidelines would require local TV content services to include a range of programmes to cover local news and current affairs (among other stipulations) but does not make any requirement of impartiality in news. I do not think that regional news should be provided at the cost of being subjective, uninformative and reduced to pushing the agendas of interest groups.

My concern is clear –a small, local TV station in a non-affluent area is likely to be highly reliant on funding from bigger, national – or multi-national – companies, such as Tesco or BAE Systems. How impartial can the station's news be when there is an oligopoly of big advertisers contributing the majority of funding? Particularly considering that much local news covers issues such as superstores opening or factory job losses.

Furthermore, the top-down approach taken by the Government in creating the infrastructure is involves a monopolistic, inequitable and uncompetitive market which will limit the coverage possibilities for local services. The Government proposes that the entire public subsidy of £25 million from the BBC for the initial engineering costs will go straight to a single supplier – Muxco – to build transmitter masts an engineering expertise to local frequencies. This is monopolistic and will surely be more expensive than opening the opportunity to multiple operators.

My biggest criticism, however, is that the proposals' approach is short-termist and naive in the face of technological developments in the field. We are witnessing the development of seamless convergence and internet streaming that will soon make internet TV available to all. The BBC's new YouView, the development of IPTV and the plans companies such as YouTube, LoveFilm and others have to move into the TV industry clearly indicate what the future of local TV will look like.

We are going to shortly see new technology to bring the internet to our TVs, through TV 'apps' whereby viewers can choose and create their own channels from the vast selection available on the internet. This is the future of television. What need will there be for an advertising-funded local TV channel when any TV content – local, homemade or international – can be found on a truly localised internet TV channel.

The Government thus intends to spend vast sums of money creating an infrastructure that will be redundant and unused within a few short years as internet TV takes off. I strongly believe the money would be better spent in funding projects such as the BBC's YouView or facilitating local projects to set up new internet TV channels.

My concern is that the Government has been hoodwinked by big-business in the TV industry into believing that these local channels are the answer to bringing TV to communities. When the local channels prove financially unsuccessful and unviable, it is easy to imagine the Government being persuaded to remove the local aspect to the channel and provide instead a commercial Channel 6. This is not in the interest of communities and wastes money which could be used to truly localise television.

Sent from my mobile