Swindon Viewpoint: Forty years of community television

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Media captionSeen in Swindon was one of the many magazine style shows broadcast on the station

As a nationwide rollout of new local TV stations begins, the only survivor of the UK's first attempt at community television has reached its 40th anniversary.

Swindon Viewpoint started in late 1973 after the town was one of five chosen by the government to take part in a public television experiment.

The service was then broadcast by fledgling cable company, Radio Rentals.

It eventually went off air in the mid-1990s, but continued online.

Chairman Martin Parry, who has been involved with Swindon Viewpoint since 1980, said it has been called the "original YouTube", and described it as a "community media success story".

Image caption Swindon Viewpoint was first broadcast from a shop basement in Victoria Road by the fledgling cable channel Radio Rentals in late 1973

He said the reason it has lasted so long is because people value the service and recognise its worth.

"Along the way huge numbers of people have benefited from Swindon Viewpoint," he said.

"These include young mothers, trying to highlight the plight of children with dyslexia before the condition was recognised, community groups needing to get their causes known, as well as countless participants who improved their communication skills and self-confidence by making programmes.

"Also many people have been able to use it as a springboard to a professional career."

Harry Potter director David Yates is one such industry professional who benefited from the resources of the station, when he was developing his filmmaking skills in Swindon in the 1980s.

The Helium Kids

Of the station's many achievements over the years, Mr Parry cited the debut television appearance of Swindon rock band XTC in their original incarnation, The Helium Kids.

Other highlights include the only known coverage of the Watchfield Festival in the 1970s, and archive footage of the Great Western Railway factory, which closed in 1986.

'Magazine'-style programmes such as Seen in Swindon, Forum and Access Swindon and documentaries proved popular among viewers of the day interested in local news, sport events and current affairs.

The station was largely staffed by a team of volunteers enthused by the opportunities community television could offer to local people.

Initially it was funded by EMI which ran the Radio Rentals cable service.

The studios were situated in the basement of Radio Rentals' premises on Victoria Road in the town.

The service was later sold to the community and received funding from Ladbrokes, which operated a forerunner of the National Lottery for the rest of the 1970s.

Image caption Swindon Viewpoint boasted magazine-style programmes focussing on local news, sport, events and current affairs

In 1980, Swindon Viewpoint entered a partnership with the local council community media facility Media Arts (Now called Create), which shared its equipment.

This arrangement continued throughout the 1980s when the station became entirely operated by volunteers.

In the early nineties Media Arts was restructured and the local cable service, now renamed Swindon Cable, withdrew its support for Viewpoint and the station was left in limbo.

Mr Parry said: "With no distribution outlet and no access to equipment, what followed was the most challenging decade for the station.

"Obviously the already-developing internet gave some hope, but it took until about 2005 or so before that would become fast enough for video streaming and broadband uptake gradually began to take hold.

Once established, the Swindon Viewpoint website soon became the home of new programmes that were made in Swindon, as well as a vast repository of archive material stretching back three decades to its inception.

Mr Parry said there had been "some uncertainty" about the potential of the internet for community television, and "we feared we might sit in some dark unvisited corner. But he said results were "soon promising".

'Teach children'

With little in the way of publicity, interest in the site grew quickly via word of mouth, and visitor numbers have increased year-on-year.

Mr Parry said statistics show that the site, which is updated with new and archive content on a weekly basis, receives in excess of 60,000 regular visitors.

Image caption A mix of contemporary and archive programmes can be viewed on the Swindon Viewpoint website

He said as well as the value Swindon residents gain from participating in programmes and seeing local events covered and issues addressed, the archive of historical films and programmes offers an educational service.

"Our catalogue is used to teach children about the history of their town - how things used to look, and how life used to be," he said.

"I feel it greatly contributes to a town's sense of identity to have this 'living diary' of its social and cultural life available."

As an early pioneer of community television, Mr Parry said he will be "watching with interest" as the new era of community television dawns nationwide, and said he would welcome the opportunity to "offer our experience" to a new generation of public broadcasters.

But despite the fact the station has reached such a significant birthday milestone, Mr Parry said he is looking forward instead of back.

He added: "We are really happy that Swindon Viewpoint reached its anniversary this year, and truly hope that life begins at 40."

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