Why BBC's £3m Local TV pilot points the way forward for news

After a day spent visiting the BBC’s Local TV pilot in Birmingham, I switched on the television and saw on the Six O’Clock News the video journalist I had been shadowing.

VJ Julie Peacock had gone out to a seemingly predictable story in the Kings Heath district of Birmingham — children were planting trees as part of the regeneration process following the freak tornado that devastated the area last July.

But when she arrived she found local residents protesting against the pace at which their community was being rebuilt. She called the regional news Midlands Today in on the story, and its footage, which caught her filming for Local TV, made the Six.

Her appearance came just nine weeks into the BBC’s £3m Local TV pilot in the West Midlands, which started in December and will run until August.

Already, stories filmed by journalists working on the pilot have made it on to BBC News 24.

Based on the existing BBC local radio infrastructure, the pilot covers six areas in the West Midlands — Birmingham, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Hereford and Worcester, the Black Country, and Coventry and Warwickshire.

It employs around 40 editorial staff made up of VJs and community content producers. Each Local TV area produces 10-minute bulletins updated over a 24-hour period.

Around a quarter of all content is produced by the local community and comes from a range of sources including media students, community groups and individual filmmakers. The latest bulletin can be watched at any time on broadband and at a certain point in every hour on digital TV and Sky.

Individual packages On broadband the viewer has the added option of choosing to watch individual packages from the bulletin, rather than the whole 10 minutes. The service is an early version of the tailor-made, ondemand news we may all grow to prefer over passive, scheduled bulletins.

BBC VJ Mark Egan, who works on the pilot, believes it is a forerunner of how TV news will look in the future.

"As technology gets cheaper and easier to use, people will be watching TV on their mobile phones and on broadband,"

he says.

"People will want things on demand more and more. For that reason, Local TV doesn’t have a presenter and viewers can pick the pieces of news they want, either on digital TV or on broadband.

Local TV is very much something for the future, but at the moment it is still a bit clunky as we try stuff out.

"The service looks different now to how it did a month ago, and it will look different again two months down the line. It is still finding its feet."

Egan adds: "It is more like working in radio or newspapers in that if you have an idea for a story you can walk out the door and do it. If you are a TV reporter, the process is much more complicated, you need a crew and an edit suite, and you are often filming a story that someone else will edit so you have to stick to a formula that they will be able to interpret.

The ability to do anything wildly different up against the wire is really hard."

Egan also explains how Local TV bulletins are able to break the mould of traditional bulletins. "Traditional halfhour bulletins have four or five cameras, so everything they go to has to hit and make it, otherwise you have a gap in the programme," he says.

"The down side of that is that you end up covering cautious stories that you know you’ll get a result from — for example, press conferences or a story that has already been in the press or checked out."

All the VJs I spoke to on the pilot said the level of creativity and freedom in the job was higher than anything they had experienced before. VJs currently working on the pilot underwent an intensive twoweek training programme before starting work.

Their professional backgrounds range from online journalism and video librarians to TV reporters and cameramen. Egan says: "As you’re able to film and edit stories yourself, you tend to have a vision for the story. Pieces on Local TV often look quiet different from one another, unlike packages in traditional bulletins.

"On Local TV we can often tell by looking at a piece who has done it."

Overseeing the pilot is BBC head of regional and local programmes David Holdsworth who says he has been surprised by the editorial strength that has been brought to the BBC’s proposition in the West Midlands by Local TV.

"It has added a massive creative buzz to the radio stations that it has been aligned with outside Birmingham," he says. "Together radio, BBC online and now Local TV has made the whole far greater than the sum of the parts.

"For example, this week in Staffordshire we are running an editorial debate on whether to expand the M6 or put a toll motorway next to it. The debate is on radio, the web and on Local TV, using the different media for what they are good at. Radio is great for long-form debate, TV gets across the scale of the problem and the web is good for interaction."

Selling point If, as planned, the pilot is rolled out in 60 regions across the UK at some point in the next few years, Holdsworth predicts a massive increase in the amount of news being available to the licence fee payer.

"Local TV has added range and depth to TV news coverage," he says. "There is a greater range of truly more local stories that would never have fitted on to regional programmes before. When I sum up what is special about Local TV I tend to say that there is a strong possibility you will see someone you know well on the TV screen or computer. That’s its selling point"

The pilot is being evaluated all the time and Holdsworth says questions are constantly being asked about both technical and editorial sides of the project.

"We are currently debating to what extent do you want to publish the service from a hub in a regional centre, as we are in Birmingham, or do we want to try and publish locally in each of the six Local TV areas," he adds. "We are also looking at whether the number of video journalists is correct? Is the length of the satellite bulletin right? What resources does the service need? These are all up for debate."

It is early days and Holdsworth says there is still work to be done in getting the word out that the service is there to be used and interacted with. But so far the signs are promising.

"We are receiving more calls and emails from viewers and the number of films being submitted by the community is increasing all the time with some very impressive material coming in,"

Holdsworth says.

"More people are talking about it and becoming aware of it, which can only strengthen the service."

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