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Memorandum from John Rossetti

 

Specialist Area - The future of local radio and television.

 

1) I was the Head of Broadcasting of Taunton Television in Somerset between 2000 and 2002. We transmitted "free to air" on a spare terrestrial UHF channel enabling anyone with a normal television to tune in our service the same way as BBC & ITV. The service was on the air for 12 hrs a day.

 

2) Taunton Television was one of 30+ analogue Restricted Service Licenses (RSL) issued by the ITC (now Ofcom) to the then Local Broadcasting Group, a subsidiary of VFG Plc. Both companies ceased to trade in 2002.

 

3) I believed then, and still do so now, that Local Television has an essential part to play in the community, covering areas of programming that other larger networks, including the BBC currently do not have the airtime for or the interest in.

 

4) To my knowledge, Taunton Television was the only local broadcaster to undertake a detailed independent professional survey of its viewers and programmes (available upon request). The survey showed that out of a potential audience of 108,000 people 79% watched the channel on a regular basis and that 57% tuned in daily for Local News, and a mixture of current affairs, consumer information, music, health and sport programmes and a locally produced drama series.

 

5) When Taunton Television first went on the air in 2000 both viewers and the establishment treated it with some suspicion, and especially so the local printed media. However over the period of our first six months, our programme policy won over the viewers: Somerset Council, the emergency services, even the local newspaper (the Taunton Times) all came to co-operate, enabling a full community service to be transmitted. The Taunton Times eventually carried the station's programme schedules next to BBC and ITV for free, in return for some cross platform co-operation in the area of newsgathering. ( see appendix references Hansard)

 

6) Who watched Local TV?

 

The demographic survey referred to above show that the viewing figures were made up from the following age groups;

 

0-15 = 2%;

16-24 = 18%;

25-34 = 17%;

35-44 = 19%;

45-54 = 21%;

55-64 = 12%;

65+ = 11%

 

Gender Breakdown 58% Male - 42% Female

 

7) These figures were interesting and especially rewarding because when we began, we thought local TV would only appeal to the more mature population and, as a result, made a conscious effort to produce programmes that would appeal to all age groups.

 

8) So what went wrong?

 

Money: the lack of it. The start up costs were about 700.000 and the monthly running costs 30.000. The station was run with a full time workforce of nine on the production side and four on the sales side selling advertising; three on administration and most important of all, volunteers.

 

9) By 2002 the station was beginning to generate some advertising revenue but the owners of the station, LBG, lost one of its main backers, who invested instead in an ITV regional station.

 

10) Why? Because of the uncertainty of the situation with Restricted Service Licences past the current licence period of only four years and no prospect of being able to have a digital frequency, Local Television did not look as appealing an investment as first thought.

 

11) The situation now.

 

The most important question still to be answered is the method of transmission for Local Television. The advent of the digital switchover has created difficulties for Local TV, firstly in the ability to get the signal to a transmitter and then in finding a spare frequency (multiplex) to distribute the programmes on.

 

12) Some local stations have tried to use Broadband, but until broadband is available at good speeds for Live TV to rural areas and can be viewed on the main household TV, this method will not be acceptable, and thus puts local TV at a further disadvantage. (I acknowledge that Broadband does work for 'catch-up' viewing and occasional visits to You Tube etc, but not for mainstream TV viewing)

 

13) Secondly the length of the licence period is important if a sensible investment and return is to be made, four years was not enough; eight years would be a minimum; ten years would be even better.

 

14) Thirdly, sources of funding: running a good TV station is expensive. Local TV is subconsciously compared by the viewer with the very high technical standards and content of National and Regional Television. Local TV needs to be close in both of these areas; just producing "local content" will not suffice if the viewer is distracted by poor technical or production values.

 

15) With a decent licence period the initial investment and write down costs can be covered, but then we need to consider funding the running costs.

 

16) I believe there are only three realistic sources of funding: National or Regional/Local Government funds, advertising/sponsorship, and/or a portion of the income from the existing TV Licence. Personally, I do not like the first option as I can see stations' programme outputs being treated with suspicion as to the motives of the funding. Subscription has been considered but was ruled out as being impractical.

 

17) What does interest me is a form of hybrid funding, where the non-news content is funded from advertising or sponsorship and the 'news only' output is funded by a proportion of the existing licence fee based on the reach (head count) of the station taking a percentage of the income of the licence fee paid by that number of viewers.

 

18) Who gets Local TV should not be confined to major cities. As we proved, Taunton valued a local station, but in smaller towns funding will be on a knife-edge however sourced. This can be overcome with a form of shared or mixed funding between stations within the same group/ownership. For example, if a station was based in a major city such as Exeter and was grouped with stations in Wellington, Taunton, and Bridgewater the majority of daily programmes could be produced centrally and the local stations "opt out" with their locally produced news. This form of local news 'opt out' was used very successfully until recently by ITV's franchise WestCountry TV, who were based in Plymouth but had small local studio facilities in Barnstaple, Penzance, Truro, Taunton, Weymouth and Exeter,

 

19) Local Television programming does have value for the viewer. It also creates employment that is a stepping stone for the output of the many University Media Students prior to working in the main stream media platforms, It promotes and sustains co-operation between the different media sources within the broadcasting area and is a perfect platform for the public to engage with local political affairs.

 

20) When Local Television uses its imagination, any successful National programme genre can be adapted to a local level and thus engage its audience more than any National Television can. In return, local TV can be a valuable source of material for inclusion in part or as a whole within National Broadcasting.

 

21) The internet is having an effect at all levels in local media but it is a medium where the user still has to search for the information, Radio, Television and Print is still the major source of information that finds its way to the user, having stimulated the user, the internet is then an excellent resource for additional specific information.

 

22) There are no reasons why the BBC could not take the responsibility of a local television project except the possible drain it would cause on its already stretched resources, I think, because Independent local TV can additionally draw upon sources of funding not possible to the BBC, such as advertising or sponsorship, local TV could give 'more for less'

 

23) I do think that the regulations that apply to National Television should be reviewed for Local TV in the amount and frequency of advertising and sponsorship. Other regulations to many to list here are well placed for all types of Broadcasting. What is needed from Government (Ofcom) is a concerted effort to find suitable frequencies for transmission, and not just the Minor 'white space' recently announced.

 

24) In the original LBC plan for Local Broadcasting some 35 locations were considered viable, I think now that figure could be doubled in the UK alone, resulting in employment for over 1000 people, not including separately announced plans for Scotland.

 

May 2009