Walking the local TV tightrope
is professor of journalism, Univ of Oregon @damianradcliffe
Damian Radcliffe looks at some local IPTV providers, their plans for the future and whether the Government's plans for local TV will work for them:
Bay TV screenshot
To date, no-one in the UK has established a proven financial model for the sector, and even a Government sponsored assessment suggested the economics will be challenging.
As a result, some groups are already working online to pilot new business models - and develop an audience - which they hope will translate to a traditional TV platform. For others, a combination of audience dynamics, technical and funding challenges mean they will remain online only for now.
"York missed out on the first round of licences," says Stuart Goulden, managing director of One&OtherTV. "However, whilst other cities are busy debating how local TV can work on paper, we're testing our concept in the market and exposing the community to some incredibly original content about their local area."
They hope that "opting for high production values and a less-is-more approach" means the service will stand out as well as offer "a great opportunity for the right brands (or brand, exclusively) to fund new talent via sponsorship".
Chris Kerr, creative editor at web-based Bay TV Liverpool (above), also sees the long-term potential for sponsorship. His city is included in the first round of licensing, and he freely admits the future of local TV may well be IPTV. But, that said, Bay TV will apply for a licence later in the year, not least because "the BBC funding makes it an attractive option".
Kerr's team - like Goulden's in York - also works to support their community beyond the broadcast, with Bay TV engaging communities in Runcorn "to create and generate hyperlocal content in an area of low broadband take-up".
However, he is clear on the station's primary aim, namely, "so far as we can, to compensate for the reduction in local programming by Granada and the BBC".
In this he is not alone. Other online TV services are also seeking to fill information gaps, some of which may never have been met by traditional media. For example, Hertsweb.tv live-streamed local hustings at the last general election, a decision which offered discernible civic value.
This is a theme echoed by Michael Casey, editor of Your Thurrock. "In a hundred years' time," he says, "if people wanted to know what Thurrock was like between 2007 and 2012, they would go to our archive of 4,000 films.
"My degree is in history and so, naturally, I am rather proud of that aspect of the site."
Your Thurrock delivers news primarily - but not exclusively - through filmed news items that are uploaded to YouTube and its main website. In the past 18 months it has published more than 3,000 news stories, while its YouTube channel has enjoyed 1.4 million views since 2008.
These are big numbers, but won't necessarily translate to small-screen success.
Ofcom has already indicated it is "unlikely to consider less than seven hours in total of broadcast news per week to be too burdensome for even the smallest... licensee." Scaling up from a successful online operation to a service which prioritises "journalism-led news" to this extent may be a challenge, especially when DCMS is clear that channels need to be run "on a commercially sustainable basis".
As a result, some successful online operations are proposing to remain web-only.
Richard Waterstone, a founder of the Welsh based MONTV, sits firmly in this camp. Like Your Thurrock, MONTV has attracted big audiences. By December 2009, it had already recorded its millionth visitor. But this success hasn't swayed Richard to move to Freeview.
Although he welcomes "the extra publicity for Local TV and awareness of its potential in the modern media landscape", he maintains "that IPTV will be the most effective way to broadcast to local communities over the next few years".
His rationale is twofold: combining advertising projections and audience behaviours. "Costs are obviously far lower - enabling local broadcasters to achieve sustainability and grow their businesses with the amount of advertising revenue available," he says, adding that "the younger generation have a different perception of the DTT/IPTV divide and are more than willing to consume visual media over the internet, whether on traditional PCs or hand-held devices such as iPhones."
Perranport TV screenshot
To help offset this, Richard launched the Your Local TV network last year, allowing local IPTV channels to benefit from shared content and advertising, as well as build on MONTV's technical backbone and expertise.
Of course for some groups being online only is not a matter of choice - it is also a technical reality. Cornwall is one area where it might not be technically possible to deliver services via DCMS' preferred route of DTT, despite the county being home to some sizeable towns, a distinctive identity and a number of existing local IPTV services like St Ives TV and Perranporth TV (above).
Given the political and financial capital involved in making local TV, this new tier of broadcasting will need to be proclaimed a success. As a result, new entrants with big budgets may well be very appealing to Ofcom during the awards process.
Yet smaller players have also shown they can deliver the culture secretary's ambition to "provide communities with news and content that is relevant to their daily lives", often creating wider civic and social value alongside it.
Some of these smaller players are hoping to scale up and preserve these traits, either through securing licences or by working in partnership with bigger players.
If they don't, then our screens - and our communities - will be the poorer for it.
Damian Radcliffe (@mrdamian76) has worked in local media in a mix of content and policy roles. He is the recent author of Here and Now - UK hyperlocal media today, the UK's first review of this emerging sector. A former BBC staffer, he has also spent four years at Ofcom, and for three years led a partnership between the charity CSV (Community Service Volunteers) and BBC English Regions. His writing and research on local media can be found on his own website and SlideShare.
The BBC College of Journalism is holding a major conference at the BBC's new offices at MediaCityUK, Salford, on 24 May. It will look at the relationship between mainstream media and communities on a local, global and cultural level. You can register for the Connecting Communities conference - #BBCScc - here, or follow the event on this website.