Memorandum from United for Local Television


About United for Local Television


United for Local Television ("ULTV") is a coalition of local TV operators and campaigners, from both commercial and not-for-profit sectors, formed to promote the universal availability of public service local television ("local TV"). The group campaigns for reserved access to the digital terrestrial television ("Freeview") platform and other measures to support the development of local TV in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Proposals for local TV in Scotland have been developed separately by the Scottish Local TV Federation, with which ULTV works closely.


ULTV is often asked a number of questions relating to its proposals and how they could work. The following is not intended as a comprehensive response to all questions but, rather, a summary of some of the issues which have been raised. More detail is contained in ULTV's formal response to Digital Britain The Interim Report (March 2009).


ULTV is also willing to make two reports available to the Committee's Inquiry which were submitted confidentially to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ("DCMS") in April 2009: (i) a study for DCMS of four local TV stations in Belfast, Cardiff, Immingham and York; and, (ii) a summary for DCMS of discussions between ULTV and other organisations.


1. Local TV is well developed in many other countries. Why not the UK?


1.1. Discussions relating to the development of local TV in the UK are not new and date back to the creation of ITV, set up in 1954 as a federation of 15 individual companies, based in 15 regions.


1.2. Even at that time many argued that the ITV 'regions' were arbitrarily drawn and there was seldom a sense of community in the service. Nevertheless, the regional programmes and regional news produced by the 15 ITV companies were an important part of ITV's public service broadcasting remit. The standard of the programmes, covering the arts, history, culture, music, politics, religion, current affairs and other subjects rooted in the region, plus the news bulletins and magazine programmes, was often very high. Contrary to claims sometimes now made many of the well-known regional programmes were popular with viewers, achieving consistently high Audience Appreciation Indices; they were also an important part of the democratic process, providing both information about, and a context to life in that region.


1.3. Over time ITV reduced the emphasis given to its regional programming and many non-news programmes were sidelined. In early 2009, all non-news programmes were axed by ITV plc in England and they have also now reduced their news regions in England and Wales to just 9 (with some additional 'opt outs' for news headlines).


1.4. The demand for a more local form of provision has long been recognised by policy makers. At the time of the creation of Channel 5, there was a lobby to use these 'spare' frequencies for a local TV network, although the cost of re-tuning videos helped to ensure that option was not realised.


1.5. The 1996 Broadcasting Act introduced Restricted Service Licences (RSLs) intended to be used to roll out local TV across the towns and cities of the UK. However, there were a plethora of problems with the regulatory regime, many relating to the manner in which it was implemented by the then regulator, the ITC. One critical factor related to the ITC's inability to identify almost any adequate frequencies to implement the scheme (at least partially due to deliberate obstacles placed by the incumbent PSB broadcasters on the spectrum planning group).


1.6. ULTV believes that digital switchover provides the opportunity to develop a viable network of local TV services available to virtually all UK citizens. ULTV believes this requires public policy intervention as set out below.


2. Is it true there is no spare capacity on Freeview so viewers would have to lose a channel if a video stream was reserved for a universal service across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on an existing PSB multiplex?


2.1. ULTV believes it is not acceptable for any UK citizens to be denied access to a local TV service due to lack of spectrum. The government has already reserved around 70 per cent of the spectrum currently used by analogue television for Freeview multiplexes at switchover and has the ability to reserve capacity within this spectrum for local TV.


2.2. Under ULTV's proposal for 'Channel 6' in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, no channel which would have been available on Freeview post-switchover would lose access to Freeview. All that would happen is that ITV plc (or another commercial broadcaster) would be expected to move one of their non-PSB video streams from a so-called 'PSB multiplex' to a 'commercial multiplex'. This would free up a video stream on a universal multiplex capable of being used (by adopting 'add/drop' technology) to deliver a different "Channel 6" franchise area at every major Freeview transmitter site.


2.3. The Channel 6 proposal utilises spare red-button capacity available pre-switchover and additional capacity freed-up by mode change at digital switchover. Furthermore, a new encoder from Tandberg Television has been launched which is reported to cut the amount of bandwidth needed for an MPEG-2 standard definition TV channel by at least 15 per cent, generating additional capacity for even more new services on Freeview. ULTV argues at least some of this incremental capacity should be reserved by government for the advancement of under-supplied genres of PSB and not purely to generate supernormal profits for Freeview's near-monopoly spectrum gatekeepers.


2.4. ULTV has also put forward proposals for 'interleaved' spectrum, where available and demand exists, to be made available to supply incremental local TV services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the Scottish Local TV Federation has put forward alternative proposals to deliver local TV (and potentially other 'public service' channels) using spectrum available to launch a universal '7th multiplex' for Scotland.


2.5. Channel 6 would guarantee that all citizens have access to at least one channel dedicated to local news and information. The service would be granted the benefits associated with public service status including 'must carry' on Freeview, cable and, subject to the approval of the BBC Trust, the iPlayer. Priority status on the DTT electronic programme guide (e.g. "channel 6") is an important part of the proposal.


3. Do not proposals to integrate Broadband in Freeview receivers mean that local TV can develop on main TV's without access to spectrum?


3.1. As is often reported, approximately 39 per cent of UK homes who have access to broadband choose not to subscribe, often because they cannot afford to do so. In contrast, 69 per cent of UK homes currently have at least one Freeview receiver, even though Freeview is only currently available in approximately 73 per cent of households. Freeview has become the 'default' platform for TV in the UK.


3.2. ULTV welcomes the government's announcement, in the Budget, that it intends to explore how the licence fee's so-called 'switchover surplus' could be used to help fund the universal delivery of broadband and promote take-up. However, any heavy use of video on demand applications on broadband requires high data limits. ULTV understands there are advanced plans to integrate broadband connections into Freeview receivers but this would almost certainly need to be coupled with broadband subscriptions which include unlimited downloads - far beyond the monthly budgets of many of the most vulnerable in society.


3.3. ULTV strongly supports the principle of encouraging on-demand video on home TVs on all platforms - cable, satellite and terrestrial - and understands the market is moving towards this. However, the continued high demand for Freeview capacity suggests the market continues to expect Freeview to be critical to the business model of free-to-air broadcasting for the foreseeable future.

4. Has not Ofcom made provision for the development of local TV in its Digital Dividend Review?


4.1. No. ULTV strongly opposes the proposals made by Ofcom to auction spectrum "suitable but not reserved for local television" to the highest bidder with no obligations to fulfill PSB purposes (and with the remainder of the interleaved spectrum gifted to a monopoly Band Manager with no obligations to local TV). This will almost certainly lead to one single monopoly holder of the spectrum suitable for local TV in any given area. Any third party seeking to deliver a local service would be forced to negotiate with a monopoly controller of the local spectrum who would be under no obligation to release capacity in a manner that is fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.


4.2. Rather than charge its true market value (probably close to nothing at many small relay sites where there is expected to be a surplus of interleaved frequencies), a Band Manager would be incentivised to refuse to release capacity until a monopoly rent is paid, forcing a service provider to seek additional funding. It is difficult to see how this is in line with Ofcom's statutory duty to secure the optimal use of spectrum. Unregulated monopolies are rarely in the public interest but least of all when the monopolist is granted the power to hold society to ransom over such public policy objectives as the promotion of informed democracy and educated citizenship.


4.3. ULTV understands that Ofcom applied pressure on Arqiva, the main commercial Freeview multiplex operator, not to participate in the first two auctions of DDR spectrum on the basis it would be politically unacceptable for incumbent local TV operators to be out-bid, potentially leading to pressure for a re-writing of the rules for later auctions. Arqiva evidently responded to this pressure but there is no guarantee they will do so in later auctions - they have made known their intention to participate and to seek to become the Band Manager for all interleaved spectrum.


4.4. ULTV argues Ofcom's current proposals for the 'ad hoc' development of local TV where spectrum is in low demand fail to enhance the opportunities for synergies to be exploited by neighboring local TV operators and the development of scale. This appears to be finally recognised by Ofcom itself who said in their PSB Review Statement of 21 January 2009 (paragraph 10.28):


"We believe the potential for DTT capacity to support local television should be kept open for further consideration."


4.5. ULTV's position is that access to local news and current affairs on television should be universal. It would not be equitable if, in some areas, constituents are able to see their elected representatives, councillors, MPs, public service providers, business leaders and prominent members of the community engaged in debate on local TV but, in other areas, they are not. Access to local TV should be a matter of public policy, not postcode lottery.


4.6. ULTV understands that Ofcom is reviewing its proposals for the release of 'digital dividend' spectrum. However, this is not on its own enough to allow local TV to flourish. The interleaved spectrum is made up of 'spare' frequencies not used by the main Freeview multiplexes in certain locations. Ofcom has confirmed that interleaved frequencies will deliver inferior coverage to the six Freeview multiplexes even in the implausible scenario that local TV operators manage to consistently out-bid all other operators to secure them. The only method to ensure all citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have access to a local TV channel is to ensure at least one video stream (out of 30+ on Freeview) is reserved as a local channel.


5. Does ULTV support Ofcom's proposal for Independently Funded News Consortia to apply to provide regional news on ITV1 or Channel 4? If implemented, what impact could this have for the business model for local TV?


5.1. It is important to distinguish between local TV, as advocated by ULTV, and moves to merely prop-up the 'status quo' in regional ITV, as Ofcom and some others have recently suggested. ULTV does not believe that thirty minutes a night of regional magazine programming slotted into the Channel 3 schedule is adequate to meet the need for news, information, sport, culture, religion, debate, history and other programming focused on local communities. ULTV sees Digital Britain as an opportunity to improve upon Analogue Britain and believes that simply subsidising regional news on ITV1, post-switchover, could damage new entrants seeking to build sustainable business models built on a more local form of provision.


5.2. ULTV believes Ofcom has, in effect, prematurely allowed ITV plc 'off the hook' in terms of its nations and regions PSB commitments. UTV in Northern Ireland concedes its existing news obligations are commercially sustainable. ITV plc Chairman, Michael Grade, indicated the company was committed to continue regional news on ITV1 (in partnership with the BBC) until "at least 2016" (subject to other forms of regulatory relief) immediately prior to Ofcom publishing its PSB Review statement in January 2009. Indeed, a major factor why ITV plc is not able to take full advantage of the savings offered by the BBC partnership proposals, in the short-term, is because it is tied into long-term property leases across England. This is hardly a justification for providing state subsidy.


5.3. ULTV expects a dedicated local TV service to be a far more effective carrier of local news and local programming than ITV1, or indeed any other UK network. In the world of on-demand digital platforms, the concept of one thirty minute slot for regional news once a day appears increasingly anachronistic. It is inconceivable viewers would be incapable of discovering local news if a 24-hour local TV option were available on the front page of the Freeview programme guide. Critically, local TV could also provide current affairs, factual, social action, in-depth interviews and other programming of interest to localities.


5.4. It is regrettable that ITV1 is no longer a federation of independent stations in England. However, the crisis facing local media cannot be solved simply by subsidising regional news on ITV1. On the contrary, there is already significant intervention in the regional TV market in the form of the BBC who provide the most watched nations and regions news programmes in the UK.[1] It is questionable whether ITV1 provides adequate 'plurality' with the BBC by offering an essentially similar service, especially one that is increasingly regarded as inferior by discerning viewers.


5.5. As Ofcom suggested in its discussion paper New News, Future News[2]:


"...localised models thrive in some overseas markets, and may become more viable in UK conditions in a digital market. It may not be necessary for plurality to depend on identical 'regional' models on both BBC and ITV."


5.6. ULTV's business model for local TV stations is predicated on the assumption that windows will be provided for advertising to local businesses who, at present, have no cost-effective TV advertising opportunities. In contrast, ITV plc generally chooses not to place advertising in its regional news programmes in order to move these minutes to the 7-9pm hours which tend to rate more highly. ULTV fears that Ofcom's proposals would simply entrench the monopoly status of ITV plc in the effective sale of local advertising on terrestrial TV and do so at the public's expenses.


6. What level of public demand has Ofcom identified for local TV?


6.1. The research commissioned by Ofcom for its Digital Dividend Review confirmed the view that local TV could have a special role to play in promoting Digital Britain. Ofcom's research demonstrated that local TV on Freeview was the number one new application demanded by consumers, ahead of both "extra SD channels" and "HD on Freeview".[3]


Importance to you personally of services that could use digital dividend spectrum[4]


Order of popularity


Mean average score out of 10


Local TV on Freeview



Extra SD channels on Freeview



Better mobile phone coverage and mobile broadband



Wireless home networks



HD on Freeview



Mobile TV



6.2. The greatest demand for local TV came from low income sub-groups, the over-65's and those with minimal interest in digital technology. In the latter category, a remarkable 50 per cent of the entire group rate local TV on Freeview as their preferred application.[5] That is why one of the most appropriate mediums to promote local education, training, employment opportunities and other public services in any given area is a free-to-air terrestrial local TV station.


6.3. Some of the most important research to consider is the audience appreciation of the non-news regional programmes until recently broadcast in ITV1 regions. Ofcom erroneously seeks to argue non-news programmes suffered from low audience demand and seeks to site poor ratings as evidence. However, in recent years poor ratings were most often the direct result of being sidelined on the outer fringes of the ITV1 schedule. The most valuable yardstick is the Audience Appreciation Indices for these programmes which were invariably high and often in the high 80s and 90s.


7. Has ULTV put forward proposals for enhancing training and apprenticeships in community media projects?


7.1. At present, a great deal of training in media outside of post-graduate courses is 'ad hoc' with local grants and projects different from area-to-area. Whilst there are benefits to targeting funds on local projects designed to meet local demand, ULTV has also suggested that a 'citizens' media' fund may be worthy of exploration, potentially helping to fund structured training in local communities and to support innovative media projects.


7.2. Often working alongside existing local media providers, local TV would develop new opportunities for employment, training and community participation in media across the UK.


8. What types of programmes would Channel 6 show and who would produce them?


8.1. The local programme schedule for Channel 6 licensees would be developed following local research. ULTV recognises that a typical viewer may not watch Channel 6 all evening - to do so would imply the abandonment of all other consumption. However, there is a wealth of evidence demonstrating the demand for local news, supplemented by current affairs, sport and information. ULTV envisages that a local news magazine would be one of the flagship programmes produced by Channel 6 licensees. It is possible that a local news programme would be shown several times during the course of the evening (rebroadcast and/or repackaged).


8.2. The nature of local TV is that it is not difficult to supplement local news with other programmes at marginal incremental cost. If suitable facilities are available then filming additional programmes, for example interviewing local politicians, sports personalities or other members of the community, becomes a possibility. A local TV station is therefore able to become part of the fabric of a community, providing resources for citizens to produce programmes both for a linear service and for online.


8.3. Crucially, there are often many community organisations, universities, sports clubs, museums, churches/mosques/temples, youth associations, charities, small independents and individuals able and willing to contribute to local TV. Public service content of this nature is not easily discoverable if it is not part of a schedule. The primary benefit of a linear service is that local news acts as a 'magnet' for other programming covering topics such as the arts, sport, culture, history, wildlife and religion. A local newscast draws a high reach every day and then allows this to be inherited by other programming.


8.4. A Channel 6 network centre would be able to attract advertising to fund additional programmes, both sourced from its own local station members and acquired or commissioned. ULTV is in discussion with a number of parties, including the BBC and Community Channel, about potentially providing programming and support to the Channel 6 network centre. This would provide an attractive spine of programming to which each individual local TV station could opt in and opt out, thus complementing their own local service.


8.5. ULTV regards Channel 6 as an important opportunity for existing local media operators to expand their businesses profitably. ULTV is actively engaged in discussions to encourage existing media owners to play a role in developing Channel 6 either by applying for licences (on their own or as part of local consortia) or by working with stations to supply news under contract or to share resources.[6]


9. What do ULTV want the government to do?


9.1. The development of digital platforms brings with them the challenge of new competitors and fragmented audiences. However, they also bring the opportunity of more economic entry levels, greater opportunity for citizen participation and the ability to reach new audiences innovatively through continuously connected devices.


9.2. One of the purposes of digital switchover was to open up terrestrial broadcasting to new entrants. However, the main barrier to entry preventing the launch of many services from new 'public service' entrants is the undersupply and consequent cost of Freeview capacity.


9.3. It is within the power of government to reserve video streams on any of the six Freeview multiplexes, including the so-called 'commercial' multiplexes, for services meeting public service purposes. It is equally within the power of government to require Ofcom to ensure that interleaved spectrum, almost all of which is to be held by a monopoly Band Manager, is used to deliver public service purposes. These are valuable regulatory assets which have already been granted by the state but which risk not being optimised for the delivery of maximum public value.


9.4. ULTV calls upon the government to recognise the important contribution local TV can make to the development of public service broadcasting, to assign suitable capacity to ensure all citizens have access to at least one local TV service and to put in place the mechanisms to enable the public, private and voluntary sectors to work in partnership to develop effective channels of communication for local communities.


9.5. The most urgent and pressing deficiency in UK broadcasting is in the lack of local TV provision. ULTV urges the Government to take decisive action to introduce a local TV order (as provided in Section 244 of the Communications Act 2003) and encourage Ofcom to start licensing services for launch in 2010/2011.


May 2009

[1] The only areas where the early evening bulletins on ITV1 beat BBC1 are Northern Ireland (UTV) and Border. Source: Ofcom (May 2008), The Communications Market 2008: Nations and Regions English Regions

[2] Ofcom (June 2007), New News, Future News - The challenges for television news after Digital switch-over

[3] Ofcom (November 2007), Digital Dividend Review Market Research 2007 Executive Summary, London: Ofcom

[4] Q8.3a "For each of these services please score each on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 means extremely important and 0 means not at all important to you personally" (mean scores are shown). Source: Ipsos MORI survey 2007 Base: UK adults 1,049

[5] Ofcom (November 2007), Digital Dividend Review Market Research 2007 Executive Summary, London: Ofcom

[6] ULTV submitted a briefing paper on "How Channel 6 would work" to the second phase of Ofcom's PSB Review which is in the public domain: