The first of a number of new local television stations has gone on air in the United Kingdom. Estuary TV in Grimsby will be available in the channel 8 slot on Freeview digital terrestrial television. It represents a modest start to a range of channels that could provide another tier of broadcasting in Britain, but may already be missing the opportunities of the next generation of digital networks.
Estuary TV was founded in 1997 and taken over by the Grimsby Institute in 2001. Available on Virgin Media cable television to an audience of about 80,000 homes in north Lincolnshire, it is now being broadcast to a potential audience of a further 270,000 homes, on air from 6am to midnight every day.
The big question is whether anyone will watch such a local channel. The same was said of local radio when it started. The BBC created a network of local stations, which gained loyal audiences, while commercial stations have generally merged into larger networks. Community radio finally arrived decades after it was first conceived.
Now, anyone can set up an online radio station, without necessarily needing a licence. Anyone can set up a channel on YouTube and reach a potential audience of millions, although only a few achieve such numbers.
This is the first of a number of local television stations that are planned, with licences awarded to 23 local broadcasters and further wave expected to follow.
Local television has been championed by the government but comes when local papers are struggling, partly as a result of competition from the internet for advertising revenue.
The idea of a local broadcast television channel may be so long overdue that it already seems out of date in an era that has been defined by the internet, where broadband allows anyone to become a ‘broadcaster’. Some communities may benefit, but some stations may struggle to survive. It is not the first time that local city stations have been tried in Britain and the results have not proved particularly promising.
Commercial broadcasting was founded in Britain on a more regional level. Yorkshire Television served an area of six million people across a broad region that was defined mainly by how far its signal reached, including the port town of Grimsby. Covering such a region was a challenge, even with only a few minutes a day for local news.
While applications for once lucrative regional franchises were full of expensive programming commitments, the plans for this new range of local stations are generally much more modest.
With a handful of paid staff and an annual budget of just £250,000, Estuary TV plans for provide news bulletins are planned for five times a day on weekdays, mainly interspersed with archive programming.
Proponents of local television point to the strength of local news on city channels in other countries, where many local stations may compete. However, the challenge for these new stations will be whether people will be persuaded to turn over especially for local news, even with a prime channel 8 spot on the first page of the electronic programme guide.
The local network architecture has been established by an organisation called Comux, which aims to provide a central network operations centre in Birmingham to deliver the signals and shared services.
What is largely missing at the moment is a strategy for hybrid broadcast and broadband propositions, which could use the channel position as an entry point for on-demand and interactive services.
While many may be watching Estuary TV with interest to see if there is a role for such local stations, all eyes will be on London Live when it launched in the capital in the spring of 2014, backed by the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers. It promises to be a new type of channel, available on cable, satellite and terrestrial television, online and on mobile devices.
London once had its own commercial television franchise operations, but these covered a large area and were largely associated with network programming.
The problem with covering news in the capital is that the agenda is often dominated by national stories and politics and there is no room to cover more local issues.
There is the opportunity to create a new type of multimedia coverage that reflects the identity and diversity of the city, backed by the brand and resources of a local newspaper.
It is a model that could succeed in major cities. It is less certain how well it could work in a city the size of Norwich, where Mustard TV is promising a multimedia service with a strong local flavour. It is a line that sounds like something straight out of the mouth of Alan Partridge on North Norfolk Digital, Norwich being famous for mustard, as you will know if you are local.
Ofcom has awarded local digital television programme services licences to applicants for Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Grimsby, London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Preston, Scarborough, Sheffield, Southampton and York.
Ironically, many of these cities had and still have a local television presence but it has been largely subsumed into national networks. With falling production costs as a result of newer digital technologies, it may be more economic to reinvent local television.
The danger is that would-be broadcasters will want to imitate the bulletins and topical magazine programmes of their youth, rather than modern, mobile, multimedia publications that can work both on air and online.