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Whatever happened to UK Local TV?

Why does Birmingham, Alabama have eight local television stations while the larger Birmingham in the West Midlands has none? To resolve that puzzle, former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt embarked on a project to bring local TV to the UK.

Four years after the first local TV stations started to launch on Freeview, the winners and losers in local TV are becoming clear: licence fee support for the channels is drying up and many services are simulcasting more content or being bought out by other channels. Nearly six months after the roll-out of local TV services completed, we review the state of UK local TV:

In Scotland, STV has turned its five local TV licences into a single service, that is ironically less local than the channel 3 service the broadcaster operates north of the border. Spanning four channel 3 "sub-regions", the single STV2 channel launched earlier this year replacing the city services for Edinburgh and Glasgow and expanding terrestrial coverage to Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, while satellite coverage was boosted to cover the whole of STV's channel 3 licence area of Central and Northern Scotland (the former Grampian TV region). 

STV2, utilising licences originally awarded for services such as "Around Aberdeen" and "Ayrshire Today", incorporates a small amount of local content from each licence area on its main channel, shown across the whole of its broadcast area. 

The launch of STV2 didn't get much attention south of the border, in contrast to London Live, where every change to its licence commitments since launch has been scrutinised on a national level, its issues perhaps unhelpfully extrapolated to apply to all local stations. The channel, which clocked up major losses during its first year on air, was granted further concessions to its programme commitments in September, as part of a drive by the channel to focus its resources on prime-time local TV content when it can reach more viewers, with morning slots being used to introduce a new children's TV strand.

Local TV would "produce higher quality programmes and avoid the "amateurish" look and feel of earlier community channels" - the words of Debra Davis in 2011, the person behind the failed City TV service that originally won the licence to broadcast in the West Midlands.

For some local TV viewers, that's proved to be untrue - with a YouTube mockumentary lampooning some of the difficulties encountered.

Local TV company That's TV - the holder of the largest number of local TV licences - has received an Ofcom telling-off for poor technical standards across several of its channels and its Cumbrian channel narrowly dodged Ofcom's wrath for an incident on its main evening news programme just weeks after launching. During 2017, a516digital has received a number of comments from viewers spotting that its channels have either frozen, crashed off-air or are showing content from other areas.

That's TV is so far active in a number of English towns, but recent announcement of a merger deal involving Bay TV Swansea signals the company's arrival in Wales in 2018.

The Bay TV Swansea deal comes months after the channel's boss had told a Welsh Assembly Committee on news journalism of the channel's difficulties, including losing income and struggling with terrestrial TV reach.

It still remains unclear how many of these stations will survive once their three year deal with the BBC, which guarantees income from the licence fee in return for local news content, expires. Talking Pictures, the vintage film channel that is simulcast on some local channels providing them with additional income, has confirmed some of these arrangements are coming to an end. In 2017, That's TV also took over loss-making Mustard TV, with the rebranded That's Norfolk appearing to be focusing solely on its mandatory quota of local news programming since its launch in the autumn.

For some local TV stations, the three years of guaranteed income from the BBC has come to an end. Made TV, which launched a number of local stations in places including Bristol, Leeds and Cardiff in 2014, has had to make major changes to its programming in the past few months. Having saved local TV services in Liverpool, Mold and Birmingham and successfully integrating them in to the Made TV network, the company introduced a radical overhaul of its schedule during the autumn, with centalised production, including pre-recorded news bulletins distributed to the different stations in its network. A chunk of daytime and late evening programming is now provided by CBS Reality, and much of the remaining prime-time schedule is now shared across the network, providing something close to a "national spine" of programming - something that the former Culture Secretary scrapped as part of his original plans for local TV. Viewers might be watching a channel called "Made in Bristol", even if the majority of programmes shown on the channel are not. Fortunately, the Made TV Network seems to have avoided some of the major technical issues that have blighted other local channels and it has been able to offer its channels to Sky viewers in order to reach those areas outside of its terrestrial reach, but still within its editorial area.

Silver linings
Among the local TV network, there are still some independent operators, who still appear to be thriving and providing a service close to what viewers might expect from a local TV channel. Notts TV, the channel for Nottingham and surrounding area, had to ditch its expensive Sky carriage, but continues to produce a varied schedule of programmes of local interest and has close links with regional radio station Gem106. As a516digital revealed first this month, the channel has become the first local TV station to become available on national internet streaming service TVPlayer, allowing viewers across the UK to see how local TV can be done.

Estuary TV, which prior to launching on Freeview in November 2013, operated under the name "Channel 7" on Virgin Media, continues as a successful local service, as does Belfast's NVTV, which existed on analogue TV prior to Northern Ireland's digital switchover in October 2012. In addition to both having a prior existence, both stations enjoy close links with the local community. However, Estuary TV does appear to have given up its expansion plans - it was awarded the licence to Scarborough's local TV service. The channel went live in the summer as part of the That's TV network instead.

The future
On the distribution side of matters, on 1st January 2018, previous arrangements with Ofcom over Freeview coverage extensions expire, meaning some stations who were previously granted a boost to coverage may not be able to continue to rely on them for increased reach as frequency changes begin to take place. From February 2018, a major programme to clear Freeview channels from the 700MHz frequency band in preparation for new mobile services begins in earnest in England - the frequency band that is used in many areas for local channels. The reconfiguration of services may result in variations in reception of local channels, particularly in fringe areas - some households may lose access, while others may gain - Digital UK's coverage checker now indicates, for example, that some households in Derby will receive Notts TV's signals on Freeview from 2020, following the completion of the Freeview 700MHz frequency changes.

Through the coming year, all local channels will continue to battle with financial viability, even more so once more stations have to move away from BBC funding support. Will the sector see further consolidation, with perhaps one main local TV network operator for England and Wales? If STV can broadcast a single service across multiple channel 3 sub-regions, will this happen south of the border? Will local TV become a mainly national service, with just a local news programme around 6pm? If this happens, what was the point of complicated set-ups allowing existing Freeview transmitter sites to broadcast multiple local TV channels?  Whatever happens, it seems a far cry from what was envisaged...


34 licenced services:
Phase 1 - 19 licences
  • Belfast: NVTV
  • Birmingham: Made in Birmingham
  • Brighton & Hove: Latest TV
  • Bristol: Made in Bristol
  • Cardiff: Made in Cardiff
  • Edinburgh: STV2 (was STV Edinburgh)
  • Glasgow: STV2 (was STV Glasgow)
  • Grimsby: Estuary TV
  • Leeds: Made in Leeds
  • Liverpool: Made in Liverpool
  • London: London Live
  • Manchester: That’s Manchester
  • Newcastle: Made in Tyne and Wear
  • Norwich: That's Norfolk (was Mustard TV)
  • Nottingham: Notts TV
  • Oxford: That’s Oxford
  • Preston: That’s TV
  • Sheffield: Sheffield Live! TV
  • Southampton: That’s Solent

Phase 2 - 15 licences
  • Aberdeen: STV2 (was licensed as "Around Aberdeen")
  • Ayr: STV2 (was licensed as "Ayrshire Today")
  • Basingstoke: That’s Basingstoke
  • Cambridge: That’s Cambridge (was Cambridge TV)
  • Carlisle: That’s Cumbria (was That's Carlisle)
  • Dundee: STV2 (was licensed as "View from the Bridges")
  • Guildford: That’s Surrey
  • Maidstone: KMTV
  • Middlesbrough: Made In Teesside
  • Mold: Made in North Wales
  • Reading: That’s Thames Valley (Reading)
  • Salisbury: That’s Salisbury
  • Scarborough: That's North Yorkshire (was Yorkshire Coast TV)
  • Swansea: Bay TV Swansea
  • York: That's York

  • Article written by Mike Manning, editor a516digital
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