Could US-style local TV work in the UK?


Local television news is a big hit in most parts of the United States

Local television stations are on their way to the UK, with the culture secretary announcing details of pilot schemes. But can they emulate the success of American local TV?

Local TV in America has a style all of its own.

Brash, energetic and, to British eyes raised on regional ITV and BBC news bulletins, over-the-top, it is all about grabbing viewers' attention and not letting go.

It seems no story, however minor, cannot be improved by the presence of an on-the-spot reporter or a helicopter hovering above the scene, beaming live pictures back to the studio.

Even the anchor men and women, promoted relentlessly as the faces of their channels, seem to be buffed to a higher sheen than their UK counterparts.

UK cities getting local TV in 2012

  • Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton and Hove, Bristol
  • Cardiff
  • Edinburgh
  • Glasgow, Grimsby
  • Leeds, Liverpool, London
  • Manchester
  • Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham
  • Oxford
  • Plymouth, Preston
  • Southampton
  • Swansea

It is all about ratings, which determine how much stations can charge for advertising slots.

In the UK, news is often viewed as a loss-leader by commercial channels - something to add to the prestige of the station, or fulfil the public service remit in its licence, rather than a major source of profits.

In America, it is the commercial lifeblood of thousands of local network affiliates.

UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has questioned why local television could work in Birmingham, Alabama, but not Birmingham in the West Midlands.

"If we are not doing what we need to be doing in the news department, covering the stories that we need to and being involved in the community, like we are supposed to, the ratings are going to drop, the dollars are going to go away, and people will lose their jobs," says Garry Kelly, news director at WBMA ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama.

WBMA ABC 33/40 broadcasts seven hours of live news, sport and weather every day, to about a million people in Birmingham, Alabama, and the surrounding counties.

What will be on local TV in the UK?

  • Early morning bulletins featuring "hyper local" news
  • Sponsored arts and lifestyle programmes
  • Mid-morning chat shows
  • Student films
  • Early evening local news programmes
  • Local music, comedy and theatre
  • Sports phone-ins and discussion shows
  • School and college sports reports
  • Gaming and shopping channel overnight

Source: Debra Davis, City TV Broadcasting

It is one of four network affiliates in the area, in addition to a not-for-profit PBS station and a youth-oriented entertainment channel. It is a crowded market - and competition for news stories and scoops is intense.

Reporters scan the police radio frequencies and cruise the highways in satellite trucks, aiming to be first at the scene of the latest fire or traffic accident.

But, they insist, the industry has cleaned up its act since the 1970s, when it had a reputation for ambulance-chasing.

"At that time, there were many stations in the country that said 'if it bleeds, it leads,'" says veteran anchor and reporter Pam Huff.

"Most stations have gone far beyond that in understanding that if you really want to be accepted within the community you had better bring them something that they didn't have.

"Who cares if you are shooting another murder out there, or another fire? Take it deeper than that. Let's say there have been five homicides in a particular area of the city, the story to go do is 'why?'."

The WBMA ABC 33/40 story

  • Launched 15 years ago
  • Owners Allbritton Communications, of Arlington, Virginia, took over two struggling local stations to create new ABC affiliate for Birmingham market
  • Employs 110 people, including 50 journalists at two studio complex in Hoover, Alabama
  • Broadcasts seven hours of local news, weather and sport a day to Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Anniston, Alabama
  • Major advertisers include car dealerships, restaurants and furniture stores
  • Annual turnover about $20m, with a 30% profit margin
  • 30 second advertising slots range from $200 to $25,000 depending on time of day and ratings
  • Fox affiliate WBRC is the biggest ratings and revenue earner in the market
  • But WBMA claims to have the most watched local news
  • CBS affiliate WIAT and NBC's WVTM also batting to grab the top spot
  • Birmingham has one daily newspaper and more than 50 radio stations

On the day we visit, headlines on ABC 33/40's early news show Good Morning Alabama, which begins at 04:30, include a school bus colliding with a deer and a tanker leaking petrol into a stream. There is also much excitement about upcoming High School football championships.

Co-hosts Maggie Poteau and Yenu Wodajo chat with viewers on Twitter and Facebook during ad breaks and keep the energy levels up with banter about local sports teams and the weather.

Viewers in Birmingham in the West Midlands, do not have anything like the same choice in local news as their US counterparts. Like the rest of the UK they rely on ITV and BBC bulletins covering a number of major cities, which although geographically close to each other may have little in common culturally.

But previous attempts to launch local commercial television in the UK have largely failed due to lack of interest from advertisers.

Debra Davis, a director of City TV Broadcasting, which is planning launch next year in the Birmingham area, says it will be different this time because changes in technology will allow channels like hers to produce higher quality programmes and avoid the "amateurish" look and feel of earlier community channels.

"We are not going to be able to make Downton Abbey or the X Factor, but we will produce good quality local programming," she says.

Davis, Birmingham City Council's former PR chief, and a former aide to three prime ministers in her native Canada, wants Birmingham to become the hub of a local network of channels, which can share production facilities and content.

She is not worried about the lack of a local ratings system in the UK, which some experts have said will make it difficult to sell advertising, insisting that "there are other ways of measuring the size of audiences".

The Storm Chaser The Storm Chaser is a key weapon in keeping the station ahead of the competition

And although "hyper-local news," of the kind seen on ABC 33/40, will be an important part of the City TV mix - the station will not attempt to copy the style of US affiliates, basing its approach instead on Toronto's City TV, which has a greater emphasis on music, arts and lifestyle programming.

Other local channels may decide to focus more aggressively on news, however.

During the summer riots in the UK, a tiny Birmingham-based Sikh satellite channel, Sangat TV, made a name for itself with its guerrilla-style reporting, chasing looters with police officers and breaking important new developments faster than the BBC, Sky and the other big networks.

Being a smaller country than America, and with a more centralised media culture, the UK has failed to establish the same pattern of local TV.

News from other states is of little interest to many Americans, says Nicole Allshouse, co-host of ABC 33/40's mid-morning chat show Talk of Alabama.

Maggie Poteau Anchor Maggie Poteau chats with viewers on social media sites during ad breaks

"People here, they don't want to hear about what's going on in Miami, or Fort Lauderdale, or wherever, they want to know what's going on here. They want to know what their neighbours are doing."

ABC 33/40 also prides itself on being a lifeline for viewers during emergencies, such as April's tornado which left 32 people dead and thousands homeless.

It has a souped-up van, the Storm Chaser, equipped with live video-streaming equipment - not a piece of kit that is likely to be needed in many parts of the UK.

But perhaps the biggest difference between local TV in Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham in the West Midlands, will be the lack of prime time entertainment programmes.

Like all of its local rivals, ABC 33/40 broadcasts big budget shows such as Dancing With the Stars and Wheel of Fortune, made by its network partner.

The UK government decided against setting up a national "spine" of programmes for local stations to build their schedules around, as ministers feared it would effectively turn into another national TV channel.

News list on white board Economic woes are a common theme at stories up for discussion at the morning news conference

Despite all of the potential obstacles, industry experts in the US believe there is no reason why the UK should not be able to emulate the success of American local TV, which after a rocky few years is starting to return to profit.

"People have been writing the obituary for local television for the last 60 years and they have always been wrong," says Dennis Wharton, of the National Association of Broadcasters, in Washington DC.

"It can evolve over time but you have to have compelling content with a local connection and quality people running your operation. You cannot do it on the fly with smartphone cameras recording birthday parties."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    "This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers... This tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls in to the hands of the wrong people"

    Turn the TV off, its no wonder society acts the way it does, watching programmes. Why do they call it a program? What does it do to you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Don't forget that although if you have a TV you have to pay the licence fee; even if you don't have a TV you have to pay for the channels that show adverts. Everytime you buy a product or shop at a store advertised on TV some of the price you pay goes to the commercial channels. Even if you don't have SKY you may be paying for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Yay! More TV to avoid!

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I think it's a daft idea, personally. Geographically, the UK is 35% of the size of Texas, with a population two and a half times the size of Texas.

    We already have local TV, the stations are called the BBC, ITV, etc!

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    They can't seriously think we need more TV in this country? For heaven's sake NO!

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    We DID have good(ish) quality local TV of all types prior to the 1990s when ITV were allowed to amalgamate to "compete". Remember Anglia, Tyne Tees, Yorkshire and the like? ITV now have FOUR channels on freeview (plus timeshifts). Why not force ITV to use one channel for purely local news, back-catalog programmes and local shows. This is after all what they were awarded the franchises for!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    111. stroll

    You completely missed my point - why are people in the UK more interested in whats happening on the other side of the world than whats happening in their own neighbourhood?

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I just can't see how it would work. After all, the initiative a few years back for community radio flopped completely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    I can just see Chris Kamara hosting a programme like this in an Anchorman stylie. You stay classy, Milton Keynes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    I'm very much in favour of more local TV content, but please don't inflict the buffed presenter clones on us. I'd prefer to have my local news and articles delivered to me by normal people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Anyone who is familiar with the execrable quality of local radio in the UK can only shudder at the propsect of this. We do not need it, do not want it and nothing will be improved by having it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    108. DoestheBBCactuallytakeanynotice

    I don't think they are planning to feed you news from the other side of the world, just mimic the presentation (if that's what it can be called).

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    How are they going to sustain local news all day?
    there isn't enough local or national or world news (according to the BBC)
    as they re-vamp the same old stuff every 15 minutes. Or 'fill' with celebs on their morning programmes.

    Improve what we have first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.


    I'm a celeb and big brother are just wastes of viewing time. Who wants to see some washed has been try one last time to get famous. Or some talentless nobody attampt to acheive fame by living in house with strangers, these do not make stars, the make bleeps

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Perhaps it would be a good thing for people to be a bit more "inward looking". As it stands now people don't give a damn about the person living next door - have some respect for those around you before worrying about newsfeeds from the other side of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    First off, as a Brummie I'd like to say: oh please no we don't want it, it'l cost money and it'l shut down in a couple of years, just don't do it in the first place.

    Also to the tv license whiners, at £11.30 a month I don't think anyone, even someone on the dole, can say it effects their cost of living, also its a hell of a lot cheaper than sky and lets not even talk about how bad itv is...

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Having returned last year after ten years in the US, I can categorically say that one aspect of TV news that does not bear copying is the local new channel.

    There seem to be two types of people involved, those on the way up (young, overgroomed, nosy, pushy and insensitive) and those on the way down (not necessarily old, jaded, weary and insensitive).

    Neither are a good paradigm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    94. Alan B

    Couldn't disagree more. I'd rather pay less but take away the BBC and I would probably donate my TV to someone who wants to watch the drivel served up by ITV and CH5.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    American television, so hated by readers of this site, largely turned to rubbish after American Idol was introduced....that show was created and pre-dated by your very own Simon Cowell, Mr X Factor himself. We had no reality t.v. until Britain showed up in America with these ridiculous shows. And I'd rather listen to any American accent than someone from Newcastle any day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Just more propaganda to take our tiny minds off the real issues of the Day


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