Former BBC director general Greg Dyke used a speech last night to outline a more ambitious plan for local TV than the one set out by investment banker Nicholas Shott.
Like Shott, Dyke was asked by the Government to carry out an investigation into the prospects for a new local TV network for the UK.
Publishing his advice to Government last month, Shott said he believed the UK could support a network of up to a dozen local TV station in major cities, with an annual running cost of around £1.6m per station.
Dyke told an audience at York University last night that his Local Television Advisory Committee would tell Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt a network of up to 80 stations is possible with running costs of just £500,000 a year.
Hunt has already signalled his commitment to local TV and is expected to further outline his plans in an address to the Oxford Media Convention next Wednesday.
Hunt has already indicated that the BBC should provide £15m start-up costs plus £5m a year for local TV. This compares with the estimated £50m a year subsidy given by ITV to its regional news network under the current system.
The future of that regional ITV News network is in question after the current ITV licence expires in 2014.
Dyke said: “If local television is to come – and I think it will – there is a real danger that cities like York will miss out.
“Instead local television will be concentrated in the dozen or so cities which are already well served by regional television – the likes of Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and London rather than those that aren’t well served like Sheffield, Coventry, Sunderland, Exeter and of course York.”
He said that his message for Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is: “It’s time to be courageous. It’s time to be brave.”
Dyke said Shott’s plan was “too cautious”, adding: “While we welcome his report and some of his recommendations we think he doesn’t understand the potential in cities like York where there are 200,000 inhabitants and another 200,000 in the hinterland.”
“We believe local television can be made to be viable in cities like these because we believe that local television can be cheaper to run than Shott believes, that it could attract more local advertising than Shott believes, and that, arguably, the interest in local news and local features is greater in smaller cities and towns.
“If we are right we believe many more areas should have the opportunity to launch local television services.”
One of the major arguments against local TV is that there is not enough advertising available to support a quality service.
But in response to this, Dyke said: “You could argue that people are willing to accept reduced quality if the content is more local.
“It could be argued that regional news has never been as good as national news in terms of quality because much less money is spent on it, but this hasn’t impacted the ratings. The same would apply to local versus regional.”
Dyke said his committee believed stations could be established quickly in smaller at a reduced cost.
“We could establish a York local station in a matter of months, broadcast either from wonderful facilities like these at the university or, if we couldn’t afford them, from a shop front currently used as a charity shop in the centre of York,” he said.
“Cheap doesn’t mean worse, it means different.”
Making the “democratic argument” for local TV, Dyke noted that local newspapers are in decline, employ fewer journalists, and that a new service could help hold local authorities to account. To aid this, he added, the rules safeguarding media plurality should be relaxed.
“The journalist who works on the local paper and the paper’s website today should also be supplying material to the local radio station and the local television service,” he said.
“If we care about local journalism we have to find more ways of paying trained journalists’ wages and encouraging them to get out there finding stories not just copying out the latest PR handout.”
Urging Jeremy Hunt to back his vision for local TV, Dyke said Hunt could be remembered as the man who cut the budget for the Arts Council, killed the UK Film Council and took money away from Britain’s museums.
Or else, Dyke said, Hunt could look back in the years to come and say: “At a difficult time economically I created 80 local television services, I created hundreds of new jobs for young people, I strengthened local democracy when it was under threat and I helped build a range of new regional multi-media groups across the UK.”