Local TV stations appear confident that they have a future despite proposals to scrap their funding from the licence fee, set out in the BBC white paper.
The policy document, published on Thursday last week by secretary of state for media culture and sport John Whittingdale, revealed that while £10m pledged to pay for television content funding would remain until 2020 (or until it is all spent) there would be no more money guaranteed beyond that.
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So far 20 local TV stations have been set up with another 11 stations arriving this year and a further three to come in 2017.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that it isn’t as bad as it could have been,” said Chris Johnson, founder of Liverpool-based Bay TV, established in November 2011 and on the air for 18 months.
“The door is open for us to negotiate with the BBC and build on what’s been offered,” said Johnson. “We all knew that it was a time-limited deal so none of us could plan for it to continue beyond March 2017 so what we have got is clarity on the continuance beyond the charter renewal, which is good, but it’s very difficult to generalise about the affects it will have on local stations.
“Local TV isn’t a single entity. Each station isn’t the same so many are quite distinctly different. It’s impossible to say what the impact will be on all stations.”
He added: “I would have liked to see a renewal of a content requisitions deal on similar terms to the first, but they have decided against this and have gone for a more broad media deal.
“We plan to negotiate with the BBC about how local TV will fit in to that. We have been assured that we will be included in the local media partnership deal that the BBC envisages. We think that’s right and proper and we are better placed than most local media to supply the BBC with what it wants, which is audio and video content.”
The Mercury news agency boss said Bay TV, whichis set to expand to Wales after winning TV licences for Mold, Swansea and Bangor, had a “base model which we are content is working” but said there was “still got quite a lot of work to do”.
Bill Smith, founder of Latest TV covering Brighton, Hove and Worthing, responded with optimism to proposals outlined in the white paper, saying it would be “business as usual” and adding that there “was never going to be any more money” from the BBC.
He said: “What it says in the white paper is that there’s going to be money for funding of local news and local reporting which is also going to include radio and local TV as well as newspapers.
“What we are going to do is offer them news stories, just as we do now, and they will pay us.”
Latest TV, began as an online broadcaster. It has been on the television, on Freeview 7, for just under two years.
Smith said it cost about £500,000 a year to run the station and website. He estimated the station sold about £200,000 worth of stories a year and earned about the same in local advertising alongside an estimated £100,000 in national advertising.
“At the moment we aren’t doing badly,” he said. “We are in profit and we need the BBC to stay working with us. We do more original content shows than Channel 4 and Channel 5 put together. That’s how well it’s going.”
He added: “No matter how good the BBC is, there are things that we can help them with and they can help us with. There has to be a deal. I see it as all good news. But what we would say to the BBC is don’t just think about news. We can equally make quality [entertainment] content in Brighton.”
Johnson, who has more than 40 years experience in newspaper journalism and began his career as a local newspaper reporter in Liverpool, said he also believed the white paper’s proposal to bring in 150 salaried journalists to plug a democracy deficit by providing pooled coverage of local councils has sounded the death knell for local newspaper reporting on town hall activities.
The number could rise to 200 but funding would not be provided until 2017, assuming all aspects of the white paper are ratified.
Johnson said: “I think that one of the things that newspapers need to do constantly to differentiate themselves and make their content completely different.
“Personally I don’t see the benefit for local newspapers in taking the BBC’s money to share town hall reporting with all media. We would be watching them like hawks to ensure fair dealing is done. It will mean they won’t be able to have town hall exclusives, because what’s exclusive to them and what’s pooled content?
“If we hold back a story for a splash your retainer client will cry foul. What we are seeing here is the end of independent local newspaper reporting of town hall meetings. I think it’s a very dangerous road that they are going down.”