Could US-style local TV work in the UK?

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Birmingham, Alabama

Media caption,
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.

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.

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?'."

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".

Image caption,
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.

Image caption,
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.

Image caption,
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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