Ultra-local: BBC aims to target TV audiences

The
BBC plans to take the digital revolution a stage further by launching
news and information services aimed at individual cities and counties,
and accessible via satellite, cable and broadband. Robin Powell reports

Forget regional. Think local. Ultra-local. Haven’t you heard? It’s the future. That, at least, is what the BBC would have us believe.

The theory’s simple. Regional television was an analogue thing.
Regions were purely arbitrary, the boundaries defined by where the
government chose to put the transmitters. And then there were all those
anomalies, hills and tall buildings consigning millions of us to news
from the wrong region altogether.

None of which matters in the
digital age, when we can all choose the region we want to belong to. So
ex-pat Geordies can now enjoy Mike Neville from the comfort of their
retirement homes in Spain, while doubtless there are London-based
Manchester United fans who watch Granada Reports for the latest
goings-on at Old Trafford.

Now the BBC is proposing to take the
digital revolution one stage further by launching news and information
services aimed not at regions, but at individual cities and counties,
and accessible via satellite, cable and broadband.

Its board of
governors meets next month to discuss funding for a pilot project in
the West Midlands that’s due to start later this year. If all goes to
plan, there could soon be as many 60 such services across the UK.

The corporation claims there’s growing evidence of an un-met demand for more localised programming.

Local
news proved one of the most popular aspects of a separate pilot scheme
for broadband services in Hull, and similar initiatives are apparently
enjoying success overseas.

“Research shows that people are most interested in what’s going on in within 15 miles of their homes,”

says
David Holdsworth, head of the BBC’s West Midlands region. “Newspapers
and radio have always been able to provide a localised service, but the
technology has constrained the localness of television.

Now the technology’s there we should grasp the opportunity and use it.”

Another
appealing aspect of ultra-local (to use the term BBC futurologists like
to give it) is the fact that it’ll be available on demand. The local
slot, probably ten minutes long, will be constantly repeated, and
updated when appropriate, 24 hours a day, so no need to wait until
early evening for your local news fix, and no problem if you arrive
home late.

“Ultra-local is what audiences want,” says Holdsworth. “This is the way we’ll all consume our local news in the future.”

The
Midlands pilot is all part of the BBC’s pledge to “build public value”
in the run-up to its bid for the renewal of its charter. But how much
value will the public really attach to local television?

In some areas, Sarah Rowlands, head of journalism at Staffordshire University, expects ultra-local to be very popular.

“I’ve
known long-term hospital patients in Stokeon- Trent who refuse to watch
Midlands Today because they say it has nothing to do with them.

And they’re a captive audience!” she says.

“Staffordshire
is crying out for a service that recognises its local identity. The
potteries people are fiercely loyal to their heritage – everything from
the pot banks to Sir Stanley Matthews. Don’t try pretending to them
that the centre of the universe is Manchester or Birmingham.”

Holdsworth
insists that ultra-local does not signal the beginning of the end for
regional news. “If you add the audiences together,” he says, “the
regional news is the most popular programme on the BBC.

We plan to offer local TV as well as regional, not instead of.”

As yet ITV Central has no plans yet for a rival local service to the BBC’s.

“There
may be demand, but the test must be whether it’s commercially viable,”
says controller of news Laurie Upshon.”Obviously the BBC sees this as
an extension of licence-funded public service broadcasting, but we’ve
already seen the apparent failure of commercially- funded local
television. Small communities are unlikely to provide the income to
sustain services.

“If you look at the US, towns the size of
Coventry, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Derby and Birmingham do provide
competitive local services. But these form part of a competitive
network schedule, supported by high-quality network programming.”

Steve Harris was one of those who had his fingers burned when local TV in Britain was in its infancy.

Before it folded, he was a director of My TV, which held licences in Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth.

But
Harris, who now works for the Broadcast Journalism Training Council,
strongly rejects the notion that the failure of the first wave of city
stations proves that local television is doomed, and he fully expects
the BBC ultra-local network to face commercial competition.

“The
original system was flawed from the start. There was a lack of
commitment to the concept, and we were severely impaired by technical
limitations”, says Harris.

“But
the Government seems keen on making more space available on the digital
spectrum. If it can put in place a proper regulatory framework for
issuing licences, like the one set up for ILR, then local TV will
become a totally different proposition.

“It’s also far more economically viable nowadays.

Equipment
was very expensive when I joined the industry, but now you can buy a
playout system for £30,000, a camera for £7,000 and a laptop editing
system for £1,500. I’ve always believed that local TV has a very big
future.”

So what are the implications for local newspapers if
local TV does take off? Sam Holliday, editor of the award-winning
weekly Tamworth Herald, one of Staffordshire’s most successful papers
in recent years, is neither complacent nor unduly concerned.

“I’m
sure we can live side by side because, thankfully, there seems to be an
inexhaustible public appetite for local news in whatever media it’s
delivered,” says Holliday.

“As a newspaper, we can offer a
different kind of news service for our marketplace to that provided by
the broadcast media, and they, in turn, can offer something different
to us.

“Local newspapers have faced a variety of threats and
challenges in the past, but in our case we’re still going strong after
130 years.”

The arrival of ultra-local will presumably be warmly
welcomed by all those students trying to break into television. They’ll
be expected to work hard – setting up, shooting and editing their own
stories – and for salaries that might not fully reflect the fact
they’ll be doing a job that two or three people often find hard enough
to share between them.

But at a time when regional newsrooms are
putting the brakes on recruitment, local TV will offer the aspiring
stars of tomorrow that vital first step on the ladder.

Assuming
the governors do approve funding, organisers of the BBC pilot hope to
recruit up to 35 VJs – with jobs possibly being advertised as early as
April.

I can’t say I’ll be a regular viewer, but I’ll certainly
dip in to Staffordshire TV if and when it finally goes on air. Where
else can I listen to a match report on Tamworth versus Leigh RMI in the
middle of the night? Or lambast my local Sainsbury’s for not stocking
North Staffs oatcakes?

And by the way, in case you haven’t heard,
Martley Horticultural Society has had to cancel tonight’s talk –
appropriately entitled “Arctic Flowers” – because of the weather.

How do I know?

It was on the telly.

Robin Powell is a freelance journalist and broadcaster robin.powell@ukgateway.net

Case study

ULTRA-LOCAL EXPERIMENT

A week-long experiment was held a year ago at BBC Hereford and
Worcester. A team comprising three video journalists and a producer was
asked to compile a daily ten-minute programme. As an insight into what
local programming could be like in five years’ time it made fascinating
viewing.

One particular day was cold and icy, and the top story (contain your
excitement, please) features several cars skidding and crashing into
each other on un-gritted roads in Bromsgrove.

OK, it wouldn’t
make the lead on Midlands Today , but great pictures – and doubtless of
far more interest to viewers in Worcestershire than yet another court
case in Stafford.

Then it’s on to a community information
section, with news of all the schools closed and events cancelled
because of the weather. All fairly parochial, but very handy if you’d
rather not risk life and limb trekking over to Stourport Leisure Centre
for a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest that was called off
several hours ago.

Next up, a cracking yarn about controversial
plans for a new Ann Summers store in Worcester, followed by the latest
local sports news presented from Worcester racecourse.

For devotees of the Kidderminster Carolians rugby team, ultra-local will be TV heaven.

Then
it’s time for a regular feature on viewers’ pet hates – today a
ten-year-old girl vents her spleen about people who drop chewing gum –
followed by a diary film about a man coming to terms with his partner’s
obsession with David Beckham.

The weather’s next, followed by
travel – both specifically targeted at local viewers, both very
relevant. In fact, for ultra-local enthusiasts, relevance is the
buzzword. After all, who cares that there’s more snow expected on
higher ground in Northern Ireland? And where the heck are Clacket Lane
services anyway?

Finally, the programme ends with a sequence of
stunning shots of snow on the Malvern Hills, beautifully set to music
(Elgar, of course). You could almost be persuaded to watch it all over
again.

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