Examination of Witnesses (Questions 359-377)|
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
359. Are you happy with the paving Bill for
OFCOM? Do you feel you have been represented there correctly or
do you feel we have missed the boat completely with representing
(Mr Buckley) The biggest problem with
the paving Bill for OFCOM is the detail that we require to see
in the Communications Bill proper. We are inventing a structure
without knowing the detail of what it is exactly going to regulate.
There is a number of things that we would like to be assured of
in OFCOM, assuming we are going to have a single communications
regulator, but we are being told that we will not be assured of
those things until we see the Communications Bill proper. In some
ways, we are putting the structure before the content. It would
be good to know a little more about the content before we take
decisions on the structure.
(Mr Lowen) For those stations which are operating
at the moment, our sights and problems are set at a slightly different
level. It is the economic viability and the basic structure of
the licences that we operate.
360. Given a fair wind, what would you like
to see so that we can be encouraged to take up your cause?
(Mr Buckley) We have set out some proposals at the
heart of which is a strategic approach to community media development.
In order to deliver that, we need a part of OFCOM to be a champion
of community media work that understands the linkages between
community media as a third sector of the communications industry
and the social aspects of community broadcasting, its contribution
to social inclusion, to educational agendas, to neighbourhood
renewal and so on. There is little evidence that a communications
regulator will automatically look at those things unless it has
a clear mandate to do so. Communications regulators in the past
have tended to look primarily at the communications industry as
the thing that they are concerned with rather than neighbourhood
development and so on which are our concerns.
361. It seems to me that you may call yourself
a third arm but if anybody was public service you are. The BBC
have one foot in OFCOM and one foot out. That is how they like
it. Do you think it could be like the Open University which took
£3 million out of the licence fee in the late sixties and
there would be gradual demand from us, from everybody, to help
fund you for the licence fee? Do you think that is one of the
issues where they are resistant because they can see that ultimately
the licence fee should be made available to you?
(Mr Buckley) That is correct. It is clear from our
experience that there are many models of public service beyond
the BBC and an understanding of public service needs to address
those other models and support them appropriately through mechanisms
such as part of the licence fee or some other mechanisms. The
BBC, whilst it pursues important public service objectives, is
not necessarily the only vehicle which can and should pursue them.
At the local level, public service is best pursued by community
based organisations, locally accountable, locally controlled,
whose objectives and ways of going about things are structured
in a way whereby their public service accounts back to the audience
and community they are serving.
362. The last time some of you came in front
of us we enabled the radio to change with regard to schools. Is
it 30 pilots that have subsequently occurred on the radio side?
(Mr Buckley) The Community Media Association came
before this Committee last year with a number of people involved
in community media work. We were delighted with some of the follow-up
to that. We now have a number of experimental community radio
services coming on to air in the next few weeks, in advance of
legislation, as a pre-legislative pilot. There is no doubt that
the Committee's interest and support for the ideas of community
radio contributed to the fact that that pilot is going ahead.
What we are here today to talk about, in part at least, is the
extent to which the Government can take a genuinely cross-media,
strategic approach anticipating convergence and particularly looking
at the growing and considerable potential that there is in the
local community television sector. Colleagues that I have with
me today are involved in community television work and can share
some of their experience about the different practical approaches
to community television and also to the emergence of interactive,
community based uses of broadband technology.
363. When we were looking at these things years
ago, when we were first looking at the expected impact of digitalisation,
one of the things that we were told that certainly I was very
enthusiastic about was the potentialities for bringing it right
down to small localities and neighbourhoods. We played a certain
part with regard to community radio but it is not happening, is
it, in the way that we hoped for and it should.
(Mr Trevitt) It is a very important point you make.
Like yourself, I shared the excitement of the potential in this
broadband interactivity, particularly when it is applied in the
local context. We sit in quite an unusual space in Grimsby, North
East Lincolnshire. We are geographically isolated. Because of
the peculiarities of the NTL network system, we have our own head
end there as a legacy from cable. We have an excellent relationship
with NTL and we have been exploring the potential and possibilities
of producing local content for the local community that has a
public service and public sector remit and working with those
local communities to train and give them the capacity to take
full advantage themselves of this very powerful means of communication.
At the moment, we are just broadcasting on the analogue line,
broadcasting conventionally on channel seven in North East Lincolnshire
to about 70,000 viewers, about a third of the population. We have
researching and developing a new programming policy for local
broadcasting. We define it as purposive programming. That is designed
to systematically support and enhance the strategies and initiatives
of local communities and public sector organisations. A particular
example of that is our work in education. We are involved in producing
programmes, working with local teachers that support and enhance
local educational strategies. For example, to raise educational
standards and improve the culture of learning. We are working
partially with the Education Action Zone and a very forward thinking
local authority in North East Lincolnshire to systematically show
how public sector content produced for and by the community can
deliver and support those broader strategies and initiatives.
We are very excited about the possibility of becoming a digital,
interactive broadcaster in a local context to show that in practice.
Finally, we hope to create a national centre for the research
and development of a local, interactive, public service broadcaster
and digital content production for the public sector. We need
content for these broadband systems and this interactivity. It
is only when it is done in a local context that the full potential
of what we can all see can happen in this very powerful media
sector can be realised.
(Mr Lowen) On the availability of licence fee funding
for local services and the nature of those local services, local
services are in their early stages and it is not clear yet whether
a pure advertising funded model will work. It seems entirely appropriate
that some public funding should be made available to kick start
but that should be on the basis of the services which are provided,
rather than the operator who provides them. We believe that if
there is scheduled regulation there will be public service programming,
as indeed there is within ITV and other privately funded organisations.
It need not be a not for profit organisation solely that would
carry the right to such funding.
364. As I understand it, most schools have ISDN
wired to their classrooms. Now they are beginning to wonder whether
the schools themselves should be wired. I have a brilliant teacher
who teaches deaf children. There are deaf children in every school.
I would like what she does to be sent to the other teachers to
see how brilliant she is and vice versa. Is that happening?
(Mr Trevitt) Yes. We not only produce lessons with
local teachers. We find the best deliverers of certain lessons
and make them available to all. I think it is an interesting human
right to be able to have access to the best teachers and this
is one way it can be done. You mentioned schools being connected
but NTL have a new product out called community intranet and this
will enable us to get the class room to home and this is very
important, with the teachers being able to communicate directly
with the pupils after school hours as well. This is very powerful
technology and we are in very early days but we are researching
and developing that in North East Lincolnshire.
365. I would like to speak about community TV.
I note in your submission you rightly pointed out that LBG collapsed
and had a licence for 33 TV channels, of which only three were
up and running. One of those three is Taunton TV or TV Local.
They have a particular problem in that they are on the analogue
platform and they are terrestrial. They are very worried in five
years' time or whenever that the Government will switch them off
because there will not be any analogue left. What discussions
have you had with the Government about that on their behalf, if
(Mr Lowen) We have a common cause in that at the moment
local television licences are in the analogue domain only. There
is no legislation to provide access to digital. There is no opportunity
for simulcast. The licences are very short as well. Up until a
few months ago, we had very limited access to Government. That
has changed. Now, there is a comment already in the Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology papers and submissions pointing
out that we will not be able to have a digital future without
the grant of digital spectrum alongside other broadcasters.
(Mr Price) Mr Flook, you have the advantage of having
a live station in Taunton operating in a way that we would want
it to. We have another five or six stations on the air but they
are not up to the levels that you are seeing. We have not collapsed;
we are in administration at present. We are quite proud of what
is coming out of Taunton.
366. If I can say something therefore and ask
a question to CMA on that. It works very, very well where there
has been funding and LBG brought that funding to Taunton TV. Beforehand
it was a much more hand to mouth basis, it seemed to me, but with
better equipment and I think greater morale within the station
it worked very well. The administration is not their fault, they
are still providing a very good service.
(Mr Lowen) Thank you.
367. My understanding was you could go up and
down the country, see Channel 6, punch in Channel 6 and there
would be your local community TV programme and that was very good.
My concern though is that, as the CMA have put in their submission
to us, you would like to split it between Licence A and Licence
B, Licence B being an LBG type restricted service licence. My
concern is that requires greater money for more people to want
to start watching as they have done with Taunton TV and whether
Licence A would have that capital investment to attract people
to get the quality, Mr Buckley?
(Mr Buckley) I do not think it is the case that it
would not have that capital investment. The reason we propose
the distinction between the category A, not-for-profit licences,
and category B licences operating on a commercial basis is in
order to diversify the structure and therefore the content of
the sector and to diversify the financial sources that are used
to establish local and community television. There is a lot of
experience of not-for-profit community broadcasting around the
world both in the radio and in the television environment which
has shown that different services contributing to the overall
plurality and diversity of what is on offer to the listener can
be achieved by the use of public funds where appropriate as well
as commercial investment for commercial services. Our experience
is that it is much easier to raise public funds for investment
where the public funders have a clear guarantee that that money
is going to remain in the public sector for the lifetime of the
licence. On the other hand, it is equally clear that commercial
investors require to invest in companies which can be bought and
sold and where shareholder value can be realised by selling shares
as well as by generating trading profits. So the economic underpinnings
of these different models do diverge and if we are going to get
more finance into the sector then a structural approach to regulation
is going to assist us, we are quite clear on that point.
(Mr Lowen) We feel that there should be a fairly open
approach to where the money comes from which will be available
to all. What we did find in seeking refinancing in the autumn
was that the lack of digital clarity going forward and the certainty
of these licences continuing beyond the analogue phase was a great
inhibitor to an investor.
(Mr Price) So too was the four year licence. Where
we could look at the fifth and the sixth year and a lot of the
cases coming through to breakeven and to profit, in a four year
period you could not. The present Act only allows the ITC to give
you a four year licence. That is one of the big problems at the
(Mr Rushton) The experience from Dundee, where I run
a local station there, in many ways backs up both of these issues.
The funding model is currently in some disarray largely because
of the difficulties of the licence being extended and the lack
of knowledge about the digital future. We have to stress, I think,
that we have to find a way forward for transition so that we do
not lose audience in the interim as analogue starts to shrink
and digital starts to take off. If we leave it until the period
when digital is there and then get given a frequency, our business
or our community enterprise, whichever way we are doing it, will
have effectively died for two or three years in that interim period.
It is important that we find a way of making that bridge conceptually
now so that investors will move through to that period of the
368. If I could ask one small supplementary.
Would a solution for LBG be to have a tie up or come out of administration
with a digital platform?
(Mr Price) So we knew where we were going, yes, and
know that we do not have to stick to a four year licence. I do
not mind a review of the licence at four years but if you have
done a good job you ought to get an automatic roll on for another
four or whatever. Four years is too short to make a commercially
viable operation work particularly in the present area. The advertising
side of this is quite encouraging. These are going to be, in my
belief, the local newspapers of the 21st century. If you look
at advertising that has been going on, the size of the advertising
revenue in the local press market, one of our associates has seen
a six per cent increase and that has been an average across the
market. We believe that this is a powerful operation. Once we
can sort out those two major things, the question of where we
get the digital and the licence period, then you will find we
can find more money to come in for sensible investors.
369. Reading your various evidence papers, a
clear feeling runs through that you are rather fragile minnows
in a pond dominated by some pretty aggressive sharks and that
your fear is that you may be just forgotten about or left out
of the equation altogether. One aspect that I was interested in
pursuing of that were your recommendations regarding OFCOM itself,
both the fact that you should be represented properly and be in
there. The point you made that it should be established as a more
broadly based body of six to 12 non-executive members and then
you went on to talk about OFCOM should have a strategic approach
and particularly look at a citizens panel and other things. Could
I ask you to amplify your thoughts there because I am very interested
in those notions?
(Mr Buckley) I think what we need to see much more
clearly in OFCOM is its commitment to citizenship interests and
to public service. At the moment there is some confusion over
this. That confusion is partly demonstrated over the ambiguous
approach to the BBC within the overall regulatory framework. Also
it is simply not written down in the Bill that we have on the
table how these interests are going to be properly met. Now in
practice we would like to see, as I said earlier, a community
media division in OFCOM that is clearly addressing these issues
from the local perspective and from the local public sector broadcasting
perspective. That needs to be something which runs right through
OFCOM'S entire approach, it needs to be a regulator which puts
citizens' rights first rather than purely economic regulation.
At the moment that does not remain in our view sufficiently explicit
in what is done on the face of the Bill.
370. Am I right in thinking that you have a
fairly clear view that if OFCOM'S board is put together as it
might be expected to be, it will give tremendous weight to all
the big players and nobody will really be looking after your interests?
One of the key things you might be looking for is somebody on
that board to very clearly look out for your particular interest.
(Mr Buckley) Absolutely.
(Mr Price) I think we are in agreement with this one.
It is very much a useful plus.
(Mr Lowen) It does indeed extend beyond OFCOM. It
goes into the industry discussions. You have heard about the digital
stakeholders group earlier. I think there has been in the past
no real interest among those large players to allow people like
us to sit at the table because we are competitors to spectrum.
(Mr Buckley) This is clearly an issue. I think spectrum
in particular is at the heart of the matter. Representing our
present situation in the pecking order of spectrum is a DCMS paper
which puts local and community television somewhere beneath theatre
microphones in the order of priority. We find ourselves sitting
around the room in the digital television stakeholders group not
just competing with the interest of the broadcasters who in many
ways will be happy to see some expansion of local and community
television but with the mobile phone companies who want to get
their hands on broadcast spectrum and take it into the private
domain for use for telecommunications. Clearly that is quite attractive
to Government and clearly the commercial players in that case
are a good deal bigger than the broadcasters. In that sense we
really are minnows, it is not just a perceived reality for us,
we face some very big competitors for the spectrum that we would
like to get hands on in the digital future.
(Mr Lowen) I worked in ITV, in different places, for
nearly 30 years. When I said I was leaving and said where I was
going to the parting words were "Ah, you are joining the
371. Just one very quick point. In my local
area we did appear to have at one time local television. It is
in Lanarkshire, my constituency is on the outskirts of Lanarkshire
and it did not receive television at all. At the moment thoughit
is following up your point about becoming the local newspaperI
am very concerned because all I see on it, all we seem to have
on it at the moment is how to buy a car, a second hand car and
that to me is not local television.
(Mr Price) We began to get ourselves involved in that
area. We did not get directly involved in the programming, I never
had anything to do with that programming. The programme I alluded
to in Taunton is where we want to go.
372. They brand themselves as local television
which is one of the problems, is it not?
(Mr Lowen) Yes. They are an independent company. I
think it is fair to say they were finding it very hard to survive
and that may well have reflected in the programming that was put
out. We believed it was entirely appropriate that there should
be targets set for quality of programming and range and diversity
and local content as well.
373. Which there is not at the moment, is there
no regulation at all?
(Mr Lowen) There is no regulation at all at the moment
but then there is no certainty in the licences. Now we have said
to the ITC that we feel it appropriate that there can be a quid
pro quo. Give us some licences which ensure a commercial
future and on the back of that by all means put in the legislation
which requires us to sustain the standards.
(Mr Rushton) A number of the earlier licences which
got started were quite ambitious in terms of the staffing and
the studio infrastructure they put in place. In many ways they
mimicked a regional television service. In some ways now some
of the other services which are running are much more server based
and more like the conception of a small scale radio station in
terms of the technology that they use, using computers for the
delivery of signal. In the case of the Dundee service we are able
to run a 24 hour high quality service with a small amount of local
programming but it is the amount that the local people want, plus
Teletext, and it is there and it is reliable but with only five
staff. Some of the stations are looking at 40 or 50 staff and
you can imagine the difference in advertising base that is required
to sustain a start up with that number of people involved. Lanarkshire
did have a large number of staff when it started, through no fault
of its own there were no other models to look to. This is now
an industry that is developing very diverse ways of moving forward.
The models which are available are now quite interesting in so
far as they allow for quite small areas to have services which
potentially are viable from an advertising base and from the community
resource or one or other of them, it does not have to be either
Rosemary McKenna: As you have probably
just seen the radio station does an extremely good job. It is
very well received. I believe that community radio and television
could achieve a lot given a fair wind.
374. On Sunday afternoon in my constituency
I attended a meeting in a local bowling club of the Friends of
Crowcroft Park and they showed a video of their achievements over
the last year. Thousands of people milling around who did not
come out on a wet Sunday afternoon would have been really interested
to see that and more of it. How and when can we make that possible?
(Mr Buckley) I think that is exactly what community
television has been seeking to achieve. For many years the local
and community based video production sector has had little option
except to show videos in rooms to small numbers of people. The
emergence of platforms on which that kind of content can be distributed
will generate a whole sea change in the way in which video is
used in communities. At the heart of that opportunity is getting
guaranteed access, ie "must carry" rules in the cable
environment and getting sufficient frequencies allocated in the
future digital terrestrial environment.
(Mr Lowen) And those of frequencies of sufficient
power to cover whole communities, not parts of communities. On
that sort of programming we would take absolutely the same line
as the CMA. We believe that sort of programming is going to be
the heart of any local service. It is about local people doing
what they do every day. It is about my cricket club getting on
television rather than the county cricket club or the international
(Mr Price) Even if the technical quality, Chairman,
is not quite up to standard, I would still want to see it on the
air because of the local interest.
375. One of the things I noted in what in many
ways is this ludicrous and bizarre proliferation of the use of
mobile phones, is that it is a fascinating manifestation that
people do not just want to be talked at, they want to talk and
they want to communicate with other people. My own view is there
is a very wide thirst in this country, which public service broadcasters
just do not accept, that people do not want to be objects of what
is said and shown, they want themselves to say and to show things.
Last time in our last inquiry we were able to facilitate a certain
amount of that. I value particularly your presence here today
because I believe in the end that is what democracy in this country
is about, not being on the receiving end but originating.
(Mr Price) A great friend of mine, Chairman, invented
the video box in Canada 20 years ago so you went in and you put
two dollars in the thing. They decided to charge for it so people
did not totally waste their time. They gave the money to charity
and they ended up by having hundreds of people coming along and
putting little points for two minutes which they would then put
on air and it was a huge, huge success. I would like to see that
(Mr Trevitt) Yes. It is a very critical point. I think
it is not just about giving access to the media, though, I think
it is about getting structured and supported access. I think this
is very, very important. We are part of the ICT learning centre
bids project and we have mobile studios going down into the streets
working with communities but giving them the capacity to communicate
effectively long before they get the technology.
376. I think that is an important point you
make because there is no possible reason why our interactivity
should not spread to this. If a local group is opposed to a planning
application they could use the interactive media to get people
together, could they not, to oppose it.
(Mr Trevitt) Absolutely.
377. In that way democracy spreads. Perhaps
one of the reasons why people do not vote as much as they did
in elections is because they are sick of being talked at, they
want their say.
(Mr Price) One final point about employment.
If we manage to put these stations together and have them as a
groupwe graduate something like 40,000 media people in
this country and then we have a huge gap of where they gowe
reckon that if we put the 30 stations on the air over the next
two or three years we will find that something approaching 1,000
of these go into this and it will be a base for training for the
whole of the television world. I hope we will be able to do it.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you for coming this morning.