“BBC is damaging regional newspaper's online investment”

The long-running row between local commercial media and the BBC was reignited last night as the chief executive of one of Britain’s largest regional newspaper groups told an industry forum that the corporation should not be allowed to carry out its plan to roll out local television services online.

Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler told the Westminster Media Forum that the BBC’s local ‘Where I live’ web sites are already damaging regional newspapers’ online development. Further encroachment into local markets by the Corporation would further undermine commercial media’s investment in online video services, Bowdler said.

The BBC, said Bowdler, ‘has the unique luxury of the licence fee which, unlike advertising revenues, is guaranteed to increase each year”.

‘In a crowded marketplace, audience reach is critical in attracting advertising revenues and the handsomely-funded BBC has the potential to distort local markets and to deter the very investment which would otherwise increase diversity and plurality of voice which we would all like to see.

‘The BBC should not be allowed to launch new services which compete in markets already well-served by established commercial players. There is no clear evidence to suggest that there is an unfulfilled public need requiring the BBC to launch ultra-local TV services.’

Bowdler was more conciliatory towards commercial local television, describing ITV Local’s ambitions merely as ‘a new challenge”.

‘You need to take a step back and take a deep breath,’BBC controller of English Regions Andy Griffee retorted following Bowdler’s speech.

‘We’re local – you’re ultralocal,’said Griffee, noting that the BBC would be operating at just 60 regional-level services, while the newspaper industry has 1,300 local titles and 400 web sites to cover communities at a more granular level.

Griffee said that he hopes to present the local television pilot to the BBC Trust this autumn if it survives this summer’s likely cuts due to the Corporation’s licence fee settlement. If it passes a market impact assessment from the BBC Trust and Ofcom, the local television service would be rolled out across the BBC’s existing local radio regions over no less than four years, Grifee said.

The BBC has been running an on-air pilot of the local TV service in the West Midlands. Several other regional newspaper and commercial radio executives in the audience seized up on the pilot’s price tag as evidence of the Corporation distorting the fledgling market for local broadband video.

‘It’s quite interesting to hear the BBC talking about itself as a minnow in this space,’ said Mark Dodson, chief executive of Guardian Media Group’s Manchester television station, Channel M.

‘The quality of the BBC experiment in the West Midlands is unsurprisingly good, given that they spent £3 million in nine months proving the case. We’re not spending much more than that providing 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week station for greater Manchester.”

Tindle Radio chief executive Kevin Stewart agreed: ‘That’s just a ridiculous amount for an internet-based broadband broadcasting business. We have to monetise our service, and have a sales force. To make that sort of money on an internet-based station– you’d never do it in a million years. It would distort the market before the market could really establish itself.”

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