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 162.

    No thanks, particularly if local TV means being subjected to more of those ridiculous outside weather broadcasts telling us that its snowing on top of a hill somewhere, or that there is a 50mph breeze, or its minus 5 degrees in the middle of nowhere. I know it is because I can see it through my window! It's like this every year,because its winter surprisingly enough! And i've seen USA TV-no thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Where I live we have local URTV, it's an online show that lasts 5-10 mins, just the news of the town, events happening etc. It's ok, it's not a big flashy show with Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone, but it does the job.

    What we really need is an end to Reality TV. These shows have become stale, and TV execs juct churn them out because they know the masses will watch it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Do we really need this type of tv in the UK today and more to the point ,do we have to follow the Americans for ideas once again?The constant `copy` what the Americans do is getting tedious.Are we that bereft of ideas ourselves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Has anyone here (from the UK) ever lived in the US? I lived in Casper, Wyoming in 1995 and 1998. The local news is atrocious. The network and cable news is no better. Watch a movie called "Anchorman". Seriously, it's no better. If you want proper news from the US, watch As for the UK, I really hope we don't go down the road from trying to emulate what the US does here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    We need US style local TV like a hole in the head. The last thing I want streaming out of my TV is dumbed down "local" productions that, in their desire to appeal across the board, sink to the lowest common denominator. Fox news?? if I wanted to watch right wing propaganda I`d rerun some of Goebbels old stuff

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    We have more than enough inane, vacuous, glitzy, dumbed-down, US-style garbage on our TV stations as it is. Who would be the target audience? The 'X Factor' drones? The 'I Want To Be A Celebrity, Get Me Into Here' slaves? I'm sure there would be an audience, but I most certainly would not be one of them - I know of some paint that is not quite dry yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    The average cost of basic TV in the US is c. 40 quid a month and its local news service is personality-driven, road-rage inducing drivel, except for the "free" PBS, (BBC equivalent) whose anchors have to spend a humiliating week each season begging for public donations. Anything more will cost100 quid a month.... for more buffing,hairdo's, religion and shopping, not better quality news!

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Mak 140

    - the best bit is the competition (how much money do they make from this I wonder?)

    Enter online, its free

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Regional TV is currently boring as it isn't local enough to be genuinely interesting. I know that when our local Heart radio station stopped being Suffolk based and started to cover the whole of East Anglia that it lost all local interest. Hopefully genuinely local TV will not fall into this trap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Surely it is more relevant in the USA due to the size of the country. Their local news will encompass an are and population the size of the UK and therefore they will have more interesting news stories than a UK regional show.

    Anyone who has lived in the Border region can testify that they struggle to fill a 30 minute news broadcast - let alone an entire channels content.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Of course, it will need two or more presenters, like every other news program. Why on Earth do the BBC and others feel the need to have more than one person reading the news? Can they not be trusted to do it by themselves? Do they get half the wages for doing half a job? No, didn't think so. That's OUR money you are wasting!

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    It could work, but please not run by the BBC who have completely departed from unbiased programming. Fox news, which is sneered at by BBC/Guardian followers is vastly superior in that it whilst it openly supports a right wing agenda it is not selective in reporting like the BBC. Just imagine, negative on Israel, pro-Islam, climate change propaganda, selective coverage of local communities etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    US television is utter, skull sucking misery. Dull as dishwater indeed. Not that Sky or News 24 is particularly good with their hollywood style, blazen red banner, sensational opinion driven news reporting, but US TV is NOT better with localised non stop pointless repetitive 'news' on top of over-opinionated national news. Bring back 'reading the news' and stop force feeding us ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    If you dont live in a major population cntre, regional news ignores your area, if you live outside of London, 'national' news can be irrelevant. Either regional should improve and tell us more about whats happening where we are or we should have a local service.
    The whole 'US Style' thing is a red herring to aggravate the xenophobes who, comically, know very little about the US or its people

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    US news channels are extremely bias toward important global issues.
    FOX news is the worse offender, i am shocked to see how they get away with their propaganda and far right opinions.
    The US wars have been encouraged by FOX news who spin stories to persuade the public to support these wars.
    I'm surprised they are legal, because they have had a big influence on what is happening in this world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    It's bad enough that our politicians pathetically follow Uncle Sam the whole time, the rest of us don't have to.

    There are other places with good ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Please God no!! TV is already dumbed down so much as it is without this!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    I'm actually quite split on this, as I can see where local TV could be a boon. But the reality is that it will become a vehicle for X-Factor and Big Brother rejects - the wannabes that can't make it big but are so narcissistic that they believe other people want to watch them doing anything they are allowed to. I don't think, on balance, that is worth the couple of gems that might appear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.


    Next stupid question?

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Why did the BBC find it necessary to get a Bleakly clone for the One Show?

    Bleakly is another irritating, camera hogging self important nonentity.


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