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General, Media, Technology, TV

Clone bores: Why Local TV should be web based

Last week, Jeremy Hunt, the Minister of Culture, Media and Sport, revealed his latest vision for local TV provision in the UK.

The plan includes 65 possible locations for an initial 20 pioneer local stations, covering urban areas across the UK. The plan supposes that the winning stations will primarily provide a Digital Terrestrial Television service, with the web being given seemingly secondary consideration.

Most commentators have already pointed out the weaknesses of the plan, launching a DTT service is both expensive to launch and maintain. There’s also the question of its location on the EPG – the lower down the running order the more likely you are to end up broadcasting to yourself.

Despite the Local TV proposals carrying assurances that “all local TV services will gain appropriate prominence in electronic programme guide (EPG) listings enforceable through Ofcom‘s statutory code. This will manifest as a high channel number on the DTT platform.” I’m not convinced that will be enough.

It also states that Virgin Media and Sky will put a direct fastext link to content on their EPG homepages. If these services launch, it’s not EPG positioning, but marketing and content that will play a bigger role in whether these services fly.

Presumably something can be done to make the cost of the license commercially attractive (or even viable) to small start-ups entering this space for the first time, but it’ll be content not the small print which dictates the success or failure of local TV.

However, the web plans – where Local TV has potential – is added almost as an afterthought. I think this is the area of the plan where Hunt should have paid more attention. Video consumption online is on the rise, has been for the last five years and shows no sign of decreasing.

The trend is pretty much in one direction. We like the convenience, we like the control of choosing what to watch, when, where and on what device. We’ve been freed from the schedules and we’re in no hurry to go back.

Consumption of TV on devices other than your 42″ Plasma is the future. Just not everyone has accepted it yet.

I might have a little more faith in this particular facet of the plan than others due to my personal experience of taking part in the short-lived, but I still think pretty innovative, ITV Local service. It was probably the closest thing there has been to Hunt’s vision. Eleven semi-autonomous regions, creating content for their communities.

Not just news, but web programming on every topic from local history to music. It had interactivity and we embraced the opportunities that social media afforded. We also experimented with live streamed TV shows, which at the time was still something of a novelty. ITV Local started a year before the formation of Justin.TV – now look at Livestream Ustream etc…I think it was probably five years ahead of its time.

NB: Yes I probably would say that, wouldn’t I…

The contrast between what we were doing and what the local papers were doing was huge. Yes, we could draw on a core of professional broadcast content, but in order to survive and grow we had to attract people who wouldn’t normally dream of watching the ITV local news at 6pm every evening.

We did this by trying to produce content for the community – that’s the entire community, not just those who already consumed our product. We did this through content. It’s what the likes of Leeds Television, Lichfield Live and STV Local are still doing.

Local TV framework document

In the case of ITV Local, content really was king. Content which had little or no appeal delivered the audience you’d expect. Content that was engaging, creative and interesting – the audience found and enjoyed.

In Anglia, the region that I was responsible for, we built up a service that was serving more  than 1 million minutes of video each week. That’s not a lot when you compare it to behemoths like YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo etc, but for what was effectively a start-up, in the space of just over a year, we were pretty pleased with the achievement. It had a news core, but we built bespoke web content around it. We tried to build a distinct service not merely a dull clone of a regional TV programme – a point I’ll return to later.

The reason I mention ITV Local was that I think it could be a model of the local TV services Hunt is trying to create, both in terms of what we got wrong and what we got right too.

At Local we all tended to follow the mantra of dare to fail, but fail quickly, learn and move on. In every region that had a service, the Channel Managers had freedom to experiment with content. The stuff that worked, we tried to support, the content that failed to take off, we didn’t.

Secondly we had a budget that made shoe-string look luxurious. Our plan was to create a series of collaborative partnerships – the aim was to create content the viewer wanted to see at the same time adding value to the partnerships we were involved in. It also helped establish us within the community. If Local Web-based TV is to prosper I think collaboration will be key. The collaborations that were the most successful, worked because both partners worked hard to make them so.

We also learned the meaning of local. Local doesn’t mean diktats from a central remote location, it means allowing the people on the ground to create content which best serves their region  – in our case some ‘national’ ideas from London didn’t work as well as local initiatives.

The problem came because London sold Local as a national network with a regional outlook, created content that would enable it to sell sponsorship and advertising accordingly. This didn’t always work out for our viewers, not in every case, but enough to matter.

Where content could be shared nationally – building a fully functioning travel service for roads, rail, air & sea worked. Trying to foist the exploits of Norwich City on the denizens of Carlisle did not.

I also think Local web TV has the opportunity to grow thanks to the changing social media landscape. I mentioned earlier we had embraced social media. True, but we didn’t have access to other tools like storify, tumblr, Google + that have grown up in the last five years. Yes we had Twitter and Facebook but Twitter was still relatively embryonic when we started using it.

I remember Ben Ayers – the networks social media advocate – putting an item on the Watercooler highlighting that ITVLocalAnglia were one of only around a dozen Twitter accounts across the whole of ITV. I know this sounds a lot like “you weren’t there man,you don’t understand…” but I think we would have been able to grow faster had we been able to take advantage of the social media universe we have now, cross promoting between YouTube, Twitter, tumblr, WordPress etc.

That’s not to dilute the central point that it always comes back to content. The ability to make compelling content and engaging content is important, but it also has to offer something different to conventional services too. Local TV – any kind of Web TV really – shouldn’t just be an attempt to copy professional network TV but on a lower budget.

If Local TV is to work, it will have to have a strong news core. Local news and information will still be what people want, but it can’t just be a clone of traditional telly. It needs to feature interactivity, to make a play of being on the web. This means that news and current affairs needn’t be the only programming on offer. Local TV will needs to generate stuff people will want to watch, it could be built around communities of interest as well as geographical communities.

This quote from Bernie Su, a US writer for webseries, illustrates the point nicely: “If it looks, feels, and acts like a TV show, people will consciously/subconsciously compare it to a TV show.”

Meaning if you try and compete with a network, people will see the difference in quality, make comparisons and you lose audience, you need to ensure there is something distinctly web about the content you are producing. David Mitchell, said as much in his column in the Observer. If you try to copy a conventional network, that’s the kind of response you’re bound to generate.

You only need to look at Robert Llewellyn and Carpool or Leo Laporte and TWiT to see the possibilities of bespoke web broadcasting. And there is an audience out there for good quality video content – A third of all data usage on smart phones is on video. Yes, Lolcats probably takes a fair share, but I regularly watch the likes of Make: Live, Channel Flip content on my iPhone.

I think Hunt’s plan is well-intentioned, but it’s rather like an ex-footballer offering insight on a game that he’s no longer in touch with, lots of passion, but still thinks the game is played by the same rules as it was ten years ago. Local TV’s future is not about MUX’s and transponders – if it has a future it’s on the web and mobile.

I believe it has the potential to work, but truth is no-one knows for sure.

If these nascent services do emerge, they will need to be fiercely independent and truly representative of the communities in which they reside. I believe that if Local TV embraces the web, embraces mobile technologies, embraces collaboration and is prepared to experiment than it has the potential to take off.

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