White noise or a platform to unite communities

I was recently involved in organising a panel discussion about the local TV licences being pushed forward by Jeremy Hunt and what this could mean for Leeds. Putting together the panel was just the start of the trouble with this idea. With so many studios, organisations and broadcasters seeing this as an opportunity, everyone wanted to be on the panel and to use it as an opportunity to push their bid. Not exactly a recipe for balanced debate then.

With a little diplomacy and a helping hand from Cultivate, we had a national bidder, a local bid consortium, a member of the youth council, a producer already providing local TV albeit via an internet-only channel, and a media stalwart providing content across multiple platforms. The basic brief for the event was fairly open, to explore what appetite there was for local TV and what issues and opportunities there are with the idea.

The event was held at Howard Assembly Room, and after the panel dispelled a few mythical perceptions about how all the youth access media on-line and all the elderly are glued to their armchairs waiting for enlightenment from their screens, we got down to the detail of what a local TV channel is.

There was some debate even with this most basic of points.

The cynical in the room believed this was just an extension of David Cameron's Big Society, a way to cover up the demise of local and regional television studios such as Yorkshire Television. The community-spirited in the room saw it as a return to localised content and a better community. Others saw it simply as a government initiative that provides an opportunity for those who want to take it. For some it was just white noise and a waste of time.

Banksy's Elephant in the Room

The truth is that even Jeremy Hunt doesn't know what local TV is.

The guidelines to bidders are sketchy, and at best a moveable feast changing according to ongoing consultation. At the minute, there are some strict guidelines that dictate the amount of sport, news, and entertainment content that should feature on the channel. I personally find this detracts from the point of a 'local' channel. If it has to have the same genres of content as every other local channel why not just make one national channel with regional programming? You could call it something catchy like ITV and charge people to advertise on it, funding new content!

This led us neatly onto the content. The room exploded with a range of conflicting ideas for content. People across twitter and a certain age range wanted live gigs and comedy performances in the city to be streamed to their screens. An arguably older more lefty generation wanted community news, they want to know what happens at the end of the street, although arguably they could just go and look or as someone suggested listen to local radio for that. So, are we looking at duplicating content that already exists, or providing a window into an unknown Leeds?

One suggestion was that the channel could become a platform for talent. Gone are the days when you could rock up to Channel 4 with your home-produced documentary and realistically expect to not only have it shown but get paid for the privilege. Maybe the channel is a platform for talent in the city screening documentaries about Leeds and the wider city region (as let's not forget that this channel doesn't just cover Leeds). Maybe it's an opportunity to cast a light on the music scene and breathe new, but different, life into music television. But who controls the quality and what experience do they have to be the gatekeeper?

The debate here would suggest that we aren't short of ideas for content when we really think about it. A clear strategy for displaying this content across a single channel, no, but content we have. Following the #TVLeeds hashtag shed light on who some of these content providers could be from students and education establishments, to local bands, civic organisations and your average Joe out there already getting his hands dirty, to some of the region's production houses such as True North or those using platforms such as Sheffield Documentary Festival.

We'd surprised ourselves by how much content we had and got a little warmer to the idea of local TV. But who is going to pay for it? One panellist argued that you don't need money. There are plenty of social enterprises out their driven by community spirit that manage to be sustainable without turning a massive profit. But if not profitable at least sustainable then?

The commercial side of the panel came into its own here. The bottom line is that content is not cheap to produce, not at the quality and volume needed to sustain a channel of this nature. One way to support this is through advertising but this brings us back to content. Without genuinely engaging content there is no audience. No audience, no advertising. No matter how the debate skirted around the rights and wrongs of the advertising model and other forms of advertising from product placement, to the adverts across online platforms where viewers have to watch a la YouTube, the fact remained that money was needed to sustain the channel.

It seems that there is a budget of £5million per year for the first three years to deliver content. The Leeds local TV channel can only expect a £150,000 share of this each year, beyond this it must make its own way. The debate continued to loggerheads with those adamant that advertising would come, pitched against those who felt it wasn't needed if only we were to be realistic about the platform i.e., not TV.

The one point uniting the panel was that whatever form the channel takes it will be multi-platform.

There will need to be on-line and mobile content created to drive traffic to the channel and vice-versa with on demand, catch up, episode catalogues and many other attributes. Consideration for how people react and respond to TV as a medium, and the interface this has with social media. Next time you're watching prime time TV look out for the hashtags appearing at the bottom of the screen. Increasingly the conversation created away from the TV channel is a reason to ditch the sky+ and watch in real time.

I left the event with more questions than answers but for the first time being genuinely interested in what opportunities local TV licences could present. The debate didn't touch on brands beyond advertising, but with brands increasingly tuning into customer demand for personalised content, here's a ready-made platform for niche content. There is a possibility to localise brand content from businesses making a commitment to their home cities to savvy brands with larger advertising spend creating unique TV content for each local channel. For example, a brand such as Nike could potentially tap into local running routes and fitness programmes. They could commission content focusing on local sport teams, running routes, profiling clubs, local sports people and more, leading on to social networks with on-line fitness communities.

I also left feeling that we're all too quick to judge old media and confine it to the scrapheap. Off-line still has a place in a digital world, whether that is as a portal or as content provider stimulating debate and conversation across other platforms.

Whether or not local TV will be good for Leeds remains to be seen and for now I'm getting comfy on the fence until I see a proposal for content.