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."


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    How did ITV win the Terrestrial Broadcaster of the Year Award? Also bring Dave HD to Freeview.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    A typical local news broadcast on American TV: 5 minutes of shootings and car accidents plus 'eye in the sky' traffic reports showing the jams caused by the shootings and accidents; 10 minutes of weather then 5 minutes of sport results. Plus 10 minutes of used car ads. It's not news or investigative reporting, it's the police report with irritating ads and a weather forecast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    OMG... TV is really going downhill. Watching the BBC news try to be trendy is like watching a grandad at a disco and morning TV (ie Daybreak) on ITV is just painful to watch - the best bit is the competition (how much money do they make from this I wonder?). Can TV standards really get any lower or cheaper and pointless than they already are?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I think many HYS aer getting their blood up over the 'american' thing rather than understanding that a more locally focussed news and possibly 'magazine' show *could* actually improve local commuity knowledge and maybe increase that sense of community.
    Its less to do with American influence and more to do with local awareness i feel - American style wont go down well at all

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    To 131 George Stokes
    And am I the only one to notice that ITV have now brought back the presenters from the former company who were outbid? Why? The old presenter used a word longer than four letters which their target audience could not understand. Bring back TVam with their "Mission to Inform"! Local news tv will inevitably pander to the advertisers

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Yes, great idea - we could add a live studio audience populated by morons who 'whoop' at every other word. What? We already have that? Sorry, I don't watch X factor/come dancing/Britney's talentless so I didn't know.

    No thank you - having to pay my licence fee for the dull half of an F1 season is bad enough, I don't need money spending on more rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I find the regional news dull as dish water as it is, I think local news will be even worse

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Perhaps it would be better if our existing "local" news programmes actually tried to cover their areas in an impartial manner. For example Look North? More like "Look Leeds" - other cities in Yorkshire get woeful coverage from our current local broadcasters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Does the UK and the BBC no longer have the confidence to be themselvesf? I live between the US and the UK. 9 months ago, I disconnected my US TV service because of its brash, personality-focused trivial diatribe that passes for news. This country rarely knows what goes on in the outside world. If the BBC goes down this road, I'll be dumping the TV there too (and, YES, I do pay the license fee!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Living in Norfolk, my regional station is Anglia, where they struggle to fill a single half hour with interesting content, half of which seems to come from the Northampton and Luton areas anyway. What on earth would they find to fill a longer time slot?

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    The occasional local programme on a national network is easier now with digital channels, but not an entire network devoted to one area as it would not be cost effective. How much, for example, is the BBC paying (per viewer) for BBC Alba, and channel 4 can't be making anything out of S4C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Would copying America mean more breakfast shows like the dreadful ITV morning rubbish? We need more Kate Gallaways guffawing like we need hemorroids.

    BBC is little better, it's like a breakfast club for presenters who chat amonst themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    I'd hate this, I really would.

    But then again, I'd prefer it if the news was still read by someone in a dinner jacket, there were only three sides (or "channels") and telly went off at about midnight (and started at teatime.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    @ 125. StevenT
    Again it is as if Europe does not exist...

    You're right. I've lived and worked in mainland Europe and travelled a bit in the US. I don't like to be negative about our transatlantic cousins, but why wouldn't we want to follow the more intelligent and honest European model of real local people talking about issues that matter to them, rather than all the superficial stuff?

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    109.Alan Walker

    Read that wrong and thought you were saying that you were a celebrity...

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Great, just what we all need, more cultural and media influence from America. How about no?

    It is a sign of just how far the beeb has fallen that an article like this would even exist. A dumbed down article about a future dumbed down style of news reporting.

    What happened to the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    @66 Its not new and unknown its been tried before and failed every time, at great expense,lets not bother trying again...

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Again it is as if Europe does not exist. Anywhere in Europe there are excellent local stations, usually based on a city,town or county they give good balanced and informative information as to local events, politics, culture and business. Instead we follow the diseased, degenerate inanity of the "good" (ha) Old US of A. Why are our rulers so in thrall to crass American "culture"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    I'd love to see more local TV content. In particular, I think the 'provincial' cities and large towns in the UK would benefit from it, as the 'national' TV in the UK is very London-focussed. Local TV would help people in the under-represented cities and towns to take more interest in where they live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    We already have enough garbage on TV without adding more from regional amateurs. The national programming is poor enough without adding more dross.


Page 14 of 21



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.