Could Local TV Bridge The Gaps Left From A Single ITV?

Sharp Aquos LC-46LE620UT 46-inch LED LCD Television
The Start of a New Broadcasting Revolution or a White Elephant? Could Local TV be a worthwhile alternative to BBC, ITV or Sky? Photograph by DavidD (Creative Commons Attribution License)

Prior to 2002, we had an independent yet regional alternative to the BBC. In our area, it was known as Granada Television, or in Carlisle and Gretna, Border Television. On the other side of the Pennines, Yorkshire Television or Tyne Tees Television. All of which were among other regional broadcasters which made up ITV. Each regional franchise had a distinct identity, and one of the great joys of holidaying in the UK was changing channels to find different news bulletins, regional adverts and differing idents.

In Greater Manchester, the dulcet tones of Anthony H. Wilson, Bob Greaves and Lucy Meacock meant ‘Granadaland’. In 2003, all previous heritage and regional identities went whilst the single ITV was created, therefore meaning Granada Reports, Calendar and other regional news bulletins would remain ITVs sole concessions to regional output.

When proposals for local television licences were made by the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, he claimed that the old regional system was the wrong route. He stated that Local Television Stations – modelled on the US Access TV model, serving urban centres – was a better model. Had the Independent Television Authority suggested the US model, rural areas would have been short of a regional voice besides weekly newspapers and BBC Local Radio stations. There would have been no Lookaround or Gus Honeybun. And there would have been no Bob Smithies on Granada Reports focusing on Cumbrian issues as well as compiling crosswords.

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Previous Attempts at Local Television

The Conservative Party’s emphasis on small government and small business in the 1980s has seen them favour local television and multi channel broadcasting. Besides their favoured word ‘choice’, it was probably an instrument to tame broadcasting unions such as ACTT. A Cable Authority was set up in 1981 to oversee the roll-out of cable television services throughout the UK. From the start, most cable stations were set up in the South of England, a lot of which inherited from Rediffusion’s cable technology.

In Northern England, cable television took off in Grimsby and Sheffield, and it was through technical issues regarding the reception of incumbent terrestrial channels. In the latter place, Sheffield Cablevision offered two hours of community programming each night (2000 – 2200 hours) from 1973 to 1977.

Benefiting from the rise of cable television would be a then little known broadcaster called Sky. Hitherto launched as Satellite Television in 1982 with two hours of programming each day, they cast their net towards a cable network in Swindon. By 1986, it became a Europe-wide broadcaster, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s backing. In February 1989, it would begin its relentless march into multi channel television on the Astra 1A satellite, and wipe the floor with its rival British Satellite Broadcasting in November 1990. Today, their channels have made a significant dent into the terrestrial broadcasters’ viewing figures.

In 1994, the arrival of fibre optic technology ushered in another era of cable broadcasting. Parts of Greater Manchester would see pavements dug up, as NYNEX won the contract to offer multi channel broadcasting without the need for an ugly dish. The promises of community television were made, though again seemingly devoid of substance. Instead, broadcasters who couldn’t afford Astra’s or Eutelsat’s fees could prosper with local channels. Associated Newspapers for instance, would relay its Channel One service to Londoners and Liverpudlians with cable boxes. National broadcasters, unable to afford Astra’s rates, such as WireTV and SelecTV would carve a niche on cable. The former would televise live GM Vauxhall Conference and Bob Lord Trophy matches, whereas the latter would rerun their back catalogue of comedies and dramas (such as Birds of a Feather).

The local dream was being evaporated, with the channels being regional flavours of a national concern. If anything, it was close to the Single ITV model of today.

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The Development of Local Television in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester was already well served by Granada Television. It had (and remains so today) a strong BBC presence, and a good regional base for local and national newspapers. Prior to the adoption of new technology, Northern editions of the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and the Daily Express had their bases in Northcliffe House, Withy Grove and Great Ancoats Street. Therefore, competing in the shadow of Granada was probably too much to ask for with wannabe local broadcasters.

In 1994, Janet Street-Porter’s L!ve TV would darken the cable boxes of Mancunian households, amid great fanfare. Backed by the Mirror Group at the time, it started life as a gossip/light entertainment channel with few viewers. By 1996, Kelvin MacKenzie took the helm and did away with Janet Street-Porter’s approach. His legacy would be News Bunny and Topless Darts. The channel opted for some regionalisation, with local channels denoted as ‘Manchester Live’, for example. The irreverent and more downmarket approach lasted till November 1999 when all Live TV channels ceased broadcasting.

Filling in for Live TV would be the Manchester Evening News‘ venture, available initially as a low powered analogue station on UHF channel 38. Entitled Channel M, it would offer more local programming and sell its own advertising space. The success of which led to Channel M being rolled out onto cable households, and satellite television. In 2007, it would have dedicated programmes for Manchester City, Manchester United and FC United of Manchester supporters. There would also be a highlights programme for local non-league sides and proper local news coverage.

By 2009, Channel M proved to be a natural successor to Granada Television’s regional coverage. Alas, this wasn’t to be the following year as the Manchester Evening News and all its local freesheet titles were sold to TrinityMirror. First to go was Channel M, ending what was probably Greater Manchester’s most successful incursion into local television.

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Into 2013

Hot off the heels of Channel M’s demise, the OFCOM licence for Manchester’s Local TV services has attracted five potential candidates:

  • Made in Manchester;
  • Manchester News Channel;
  • MCR TV (Manchester City Region Television);
  • Metro8 Manchester;
  • YourTV Manchester.

All but one of the potential candidates are bidding for other local television licences are existing production companies. The exception, MCR TV (Manchester City Region Television), if successful, will be formed as a Community Interest Company with links to existing groups in Greater Manchester. They aim to offer more distinctive community orientated programming, closer to the original remit of Channel M.

Made in Manchester, if successful, could be part of a national group, who have already won the Bristol and Cardiff franchises. Its station manager, Dan Parrott, has previously worked for Channel M and brought Frank Sidebottom to a new audience on the Astra 2A satellite and cable. It aims to have a mix of original local content, shared local content (with other ‘Made In…’ stations), a few cheap and cheerful bought-in programmes and teleshopping features.

The Manchester News Channel aims to build on the city’s reputation as being Good News Territory, with emphasis on local news. Its parent, City Broadcasting, has had experience in producing programmes for the BBC. Headed by Phillip Reevell, it has also provided consultancy and production services since 1997. He was also behind the launch of Channel M. Their proposal also advocates increased work with hyperlocal blogs such as this one and Saddleworth News. Equally passionate about local emphasis and high quality news content is Manchester City Region Television, mentioned earlier.

At the other end, Metro8 Manchester aims to be complementary to its main rivals [ITV, BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky] offering a different service. Part of an Ontarian company, they have experience in Access TV networks throughout Canada and the USA. They aim to pitch their news programmes towards a youthful audience, show films at evenings and work with citizen journalists. It also aims to relay their programmes online, thus allowing for a greater audience beyond Greater Manchester.

The fifth candidate, YourTV Manchester, could be part of a nationwide concern headed by Sir Michael Lyons. From 2007 – 2011, he was chairman of The BBC Trust before setting up YourTV. Its Manchester team is headed by David McKeith. Also involved is Dame Felicity Goodey, late of BBC Northwest Tonight and a prime mover of the MediaCityUK project. Of the five candidates, there seems to be greater emphasis on original programming.

There seems to be some strong contenders, but I think it would be made more difficult owing to the city’s journalistic traditions.

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A White Elephant?

Some people may argue that Local TV on the American city based model would be a waste of time, given the number of channels available on satellite, cable and digital terrestrial. Till recently, there was a regional attachment to ITV which people identified themselves with. I still regard myself as being from Granadaland as well as Greater Manchester. Many a child of the 1970s and 1980s from the West Country would never forget Gus Honeybun, for example.

Given the diminished impact local television channels, as per Jeremy Hunt’s model, may have, I cannot see them having the same impact as Gus Honeybun or Anthony H. Wilson did. For a start, the new channels will only be aired, at least for the time being, on digital terrestrial. A potential audience with Sky Digital or Freesat boxes have been missed. On the other hand, it could become the nursery slopes for future celebrities and production staff towards major terrestrial channels and multi channel broadcasters.

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A Real Substitute for Granada Television?

The limited city focus of the plans may have greater impact at city region level rather than regional or national levels. Then again, Manchester is no ordinary city, and the drive of its citizens could result in a city region channel which could be a worthy equivalent of the Manchester Guardian under C.P. Scott’s tutelage. For that to happen, it takes a special sort of franchisee, one which see the city centre and Greater Manchester as an equal to, or close second to London rather than ‘another provincial offshoot’.

I doubt as if it could substitute Granada Television, but some of its traditions and identity should continue. It will add greater variety to the viewing mix of the average Mancunian, and offer a unique hyperlocal service. Channel M at its peak could be a suitable template to follow, as could some aspects of early 1980s Granada Television.

The romantic in me would like to see a return to the more regional ITV of the early 1980s. Sadly, I doubt it, so I hope the local service succeeds, whoever wins the franchise.

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S.V., 03 October 2012.

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