BBC we are not an 'ultra local' threat to newspapers

NO-ONE
in the BBC doubts for a moment the importance of the role regional and
local newspaper groups play within the UK’s media ecology.

No-one
in the BBC is seeking, now or in the foreseeable future, to create
rivals to the papers they produce across the length and breadth of the
country.

Nor are we setting out to assault the special relationship they have with their local readers.

Sounds like a statement of the obvious?

Probably,
to most people. But not, perhaps, to readers of Press Gazette, who
could be forgiven for thinking that the BBC is planning an attack on
local papers, given the concerns expressed by several leading editors
about the BBC’s plans to pilot a more local form of television news
(PG, 9 September).

Let’s be clear what the BBC is proposing.

Last
year in Building Public Value the BBC presented a vision of how its
services might develop over the next decade. In it we set out the idea
of using broadband and digital TV technology to deliver a more local
form of television news. In March we announced that the concept would
be tested through a nine-month trial in the West Midlands – in July we
announced that this would start at the end of this year.

There appear to be a number of misunderstandings in circulation about this proposal. Let me try to correct some of them.

Firstly,
we are not setting out to create TV versions of local newspapers, nor
to replicate their print and online content. I agree that we can’t
match “the detail and breadth” of local papers – but we have no
intention of trying.

The BBC is a broadcaster, and we have been
serving our audiences with regional TV news and local radio for the
past four decades. We see local TV as a means of using new digital
technology to continue to provide this distinctive public-service
content.

Secondly, the phrase used by the BBC in Building Public Value – “ultralocal” –
is perhaps misleading. We are talking about “local TV” in the same
sense as our 40 local radio services across England, covering a county
(sometimes more than one) or a major conurbation. With the exception of
a small number of genuinely regional titles, these are much larger
areas than those served by local papers – and a far cry from editors’
fears of “parish pump reporting”.

Thirdly, our pre-testing for
the proposition in market research carried out by MORI indicated
strongly that the audience would like to see the BBC provide more local
television and approved of us spending the licence fee on its provision.

During
the past 40 years, a strong marketplace has been created in both
commercial regional TV and commercial local radio. Public-service
broadcasters and commercial TV and radio have therefore complemented
each other throughout this time – as well as expanding consumer choice.

BBC
Local Radio has a relatively small market share compared to commercial
local radio, but is valued for providing a distinctive public service
within that marketplace. We see no reason why the same approach cannot
apply to developing local television.

Fourthly, the BBC wants to
seek partnerships with like-minded organisations when piloting new
services. For the West Midlands pilot, we have spoken to the Newspaper
Society’s regional and national representatives and senior executives
of local newspapers, and are seeking to explore a range of partnership
opportunities.

Finally, any roll-out of local TV services would
only commence after a thorough “public value test” of the pilot had
been carried out by the BBC Governors. An independent market impact
assessment will also look at local competition issues.

So what
are we proposing? The West Midlands pilot will offer viewers regularly
updated news running for around 10 minutes at roughly the same level of
localness as BBC Local Radio. There will be five separate services for
Shropshire; Hereford and Worcester; Stoke and Staffordshire; Coventry
and Warwickshire; and for the “core” West Midlands region around
Birmingham.

On digital TV we will run these in turn at different points within the hour.

On
broadband internet they will be available on demand. We will also
employ a community producer on each service to work within the area on
developing user-generated content, to provide local views on key issues.

Ofcom’s stated intention is to ensure that there is plurality of provision in any emerging local television ecology.

The
unique skills and perspectives of the regional and local press will
make a rich contribution to developing local multimedia services and
this plurality is something the BBC actively supports.

The BBC
sees its own proposals as a key contribution to this end, and we’d be
happy to share our expertise and experience in appropriate ways with
the industry. The development of healthy competition in local
television can only benefit audiences across the country. Attempts to
create a commercial model for local television have had a very patchy
history across the UK so far. We lag far behind many other countries in
this respect. I believe that far from killing a market that barely
exists at present, the BBC will help to stimulate one.

Andy Griffee is controller of the BBC’s English regions

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