ITV goes DIY

Paul Erlam speaks to ITV Meridian’s Lindsay Charlton about a pilot internet broadcasting project in the south of England that allows viewers to provide programming — and home-made video classified adverts

FIRST THERE was the citizen journalist. Now, step forward the citizen TV producer and advertising director.

A broadband internet experiment by ITV on the south coast could become a blueprint for the rest of the network.

Video pictures on broadband are nothing new, but the arrival of ITV Local could transform the scene.

One feature has industry observers watching with special interest — classified ads made by viewers with home camcorders.

Lindsay Charlton, ITV Meridian managing director, is described by colleagues as "an evangelist for ITV Local". He says: "The strategy in ITV now is to innovate and to understand this new-media world and the opportunities it represents.

"We think there is an audience for local television delivered in new ways, and broadband is the first step in getting to that new audience."

The regional news programme Meridian Tonight is available online on a loop or as video-ondemand.

Brighton and Hastings have their own dedicated channels with professional programmes alongside features and ads made by viewers. The latest additions are a property channel and a live pay-per-view programme: £7.50 to watch US basketball star Dennis Rodman play for the Brighton Bears.

ITV says it waited for improved broadband picture quality before launching. Charlton says: "I think people can see we weren’t joking when we said it would be television-quality pictures."

He explains: "For the first time in one English region you have news, weather and local information delivered on demand to a global audience 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

"One of the great things about this technology is that the statistical data is so powerful. We can tell who’s watching where, what, when and for how long, almost instantaneously."

ITV Local has been seen in 65 countries. "They’re watching it in Peru and Malawi, a lot in the US, Canada, Australia, and Spain. It reaches a big ex-pat community," Charlton says.

"One viewer in Denver said ‘I enjoy ITV Local.

When can I see Coronation Street online?’. We’re learning lessons about how the reach on broadband might allow us to tap into different audiences with the programming we have."

Does the encouragement of DIY TV open the doors to badly made home videos? According to Charlton there is good material out there: "You have generations who use PCs, use cameras and do media courses at school — we think there is potentially an enormous amount of good, viewer-generated material."

Among the ads on recently were one for a second-hand BMW and another for home-made cakes. So is this a direct challenge to local newspapers and radio?

"We are just testing the market with classified ads," says Charlton. "I know that newspapers have been very concerned about this, but it seems to us that classified has been moving towards the internet for more than five years. Look at eBay and cars sold on the Auto Trader website. We think classified is potentially hugely powerful."

ITV’s venture has been launched as the BBC tests its own local TV news services in the Midlands.

"What’s pushing the BBC is they see this as an expansion of their public service remit," says Charlton. "We see ITV Local, and broadband, as an opportunity to access new markets. My view of the BBC and its broadband plans are the same as newspapers’; that it is all very well, but there should be a proper market-interest test because they are a publicly funded broadcaster."

Is there room for everyone?

"I think there is room in the marketplace, but it is going to be a much more competitive marketplace,"

says Charlton. "For the last half-century ITV and the local papers in our region have stood alongside each other. Now we’re in the same market — very much in the same market."

Broadband television

Commercial radio group GCap has stations, including Southern FM, broadcasting to the towns ITV are targeting.

Communications director Jane Wilson says: "GCap’s radio advertising revenues tend to be more heavily weighted towards national campaigns. As such, we believe that any revenue threat ITV Local might present is more likely to affect local newspapers."

She says GCap’s stations’ strengths lie in their local focus: "This includes on-air news, what’s-on, traffic and travel, but extends to having a physical presence in the areas where they broadcast. To succeed, local television will have to offer the same.

"We are interested in the results of the local ITV trials, but we believe that the more important issue is the BBC’s activity in the area of local television. Ofcom highlighted the risk that expansion of the BBC’s local activities may stifle commercial innovation already taking place and we await the result of their consultation on local digital services."

Chris White-Smith, managing director of regional newspaper publisher Newsquest’s sales and marketing arm, says: "Arguably, more than any other media industry, [newspapers] are experienced at recognising and responding to new entrants in the market. With the growth in broadband access to the internet we are seeing a new phase in the convergence of online and broadcast media and an accompanying acceleration in the fragmentation of these channels’ audiences."

He says it could be argued that the launch of ITV Local is "a recognition on ITV’s part that it is the broadcasters that face the greater threat to their core revenues from broadband, rather than newspapers".

The difficulty with entering the classified advertising market, he says, "is in achieving a critical mass whereby consumers automatically turn to trusted brands for the best deal in the market. This is the great strength of local newspaper classified advertising."

As for ITV’s home-made ads, he says: "This is something that we have been aware of for some time and is something we will look at closely if the demand for these services is proven to be there.

"Our Newsquest Online Network will integrate new services and take advantage of new broadband possibilities where appropriate in our local markets.

"The classified advertising market clearly is large and continues to grow year-on-year. In every market there will be winners and losers, but the regional press is confident in the long-term strength of its proposition and its continued growth. No other medium can match the inherent attributes of the newspaper: portable, convenient, accessible, disposable, content-rich and inexpensive."

Paul Erlam is a freelance journalist and media consultant. He is a former producer of Meridian Tonight

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