Saturday, December 17, 2011

Channel Vision by Paul O'Connor

As the talk turns to setting up local TV, I found an article I wrote in 1999 when local TV channels were setting up. What can we learn from them today?

Channel Vision
Published in Big Issue
July 1999
by Paul O' Connor, Undercurents

Bored of TV game shows? Tired of endless soaps? Then why not broadcast your own shows? You could be controlling a slice of the airwaves alongside Rupert Murdoch and the BBC¹s John Birt(or Greg Dyke) for under £7,000.

For the first time in British broadcasting history anyone can use spare frequencies on the airwaves for local television broadcasting. If you live in or around Oxfordshire, the Isle of Wight, Leicestershire or Lanarkshire you will be able to tune in, free of charge, to Britain¹s first local terrestrial broadcasts without having to put any techno-paraphernalia such as decoders, cables or satellite dishes on top of your TV set.

The most notable of the four local TV stations at the moment are Oxford Channel 6 and Leicester¹s Midland Asian Television (MATV). A spokesperson for the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which issues the broadcasting licences, says they awarded one to MATV on the grounds that ³the service, targeting the large Asian population of Leicester, would provide a genuine alternative to existing services in the area² Looking at how dismally all minorities in Britain are represented on terrestrial TV, it is easy to see how important an Asian community TV station will be to Leicester. Programmes ³are mainly in Hindi and English, but some material in other Indian regional languages is planned², says Vinod Popat, the 43-year-old managing director of MATV. ³Sixty per cent of our programmes are being aimed specifically at the Asian audience and the remainder are cross cultural, covering such areas as sport, news, music and pre-school.² Popat had failed in an earlier attempt to obtain radio broadcasting licences for both London and Leicester.
The £7,000 costs cover the two-year licence and the search for a spare frequency. However, the crunch comes when you have to allow for at least another £500,000 for the transmitting and editing equipment. One person who put his money where his mouth wants to be is Thomas Harding, who was previously involved in running the alternative video news service Undercurrents. A co-founder of the Oxford channel, Harding says, ³We have set up the first TV station which produces 100 per cent programmes about local issues.²

Oxford Channel 6 is set to challenge traditional radio by supplying the news and views from the local community. Even Oxfords most outspoken radio presenter, Bill Heine, has joined up as a part-time presenter for Oxford Channel 6. Looking startled in the bright studio lights, his normally confident radio voice wavers as he tries to deal with the various camera angles while facilitating the sex education debate going on around him. The launch date for Oxfords local Channel 6 was set for the sixth day of the sixth month. Plastered throughout the city, Switch To 6 On June The 6th² stickers pleaded to the public to tune in. The 43 staff, mostly unpaid volunteers, packed themselves into the studio with the financial backers, city dignitaries and gatecrashers to start the countdown to the predictable launch time of 6pm

The champagne flowed and tales were retold of state-of-the-art edit suites crashing at vital moments, the never-ending struggle to cut costs, and the local planning battle which threatened to pull the plug on the channel when locals tried to stop them from putting up their roof-top transmitter. The channels managing director and ex-cheerleader Deborah Cackler began the countdown to 6pm. Her reason for setting up the channel, she says, was ³to support local independent companies and make programmes which will reflect the homogeneous community which Oxford actually is. The atmosphere was expectant as 120 people joined her in the 30-second countdown to usher in the first pre-recorded transmission.

Viewers were told they would 'get their kicks on Channel 6'. Programmes cover curios like odd village names, weird sports, the lives of nightshift workers and the local music scene. All the video journalists use public transport or bicycles to get around Oxfordshire to report the numerous daily lifestyle features. Ironically, back at HQ, the city¹s largest car dealer is sponsoring the flagship programme, 6 on 6.

Andy Colborne, 27, gave up his job in London to work as a volunteer with the Oxford Channel. As he watched his first feature being broadcast to a potential half a million people, he said, I'm now actually doing something for myself and the community around me. I see it as an investment in my future.Many of the volunteers believe they have learnt more in the few months with the local station than they could ever have done working within the larger stations.

A spokesperson for Central TV reinforced the station's fear of competition. The market to gain television viewers is becoming more and more competitive, with increasing outlets on cable, digital and the Internet, but with high-quality programming like ours we intend to stay well in the lead.² With a budget of nearly £20 million a year to develop and market Central TV¹s regional news and current affairs programmes, the pressure will be high for the new local stations to lure the public away from their familiar programmes.

Thomas Harding shrugged off Central TV¹s claims of superiority, saying, ³Oxford Channel will not be going for the hard news which Central TV news offers with their 30 minutes of crime, disasters and murders. People are tired of hearing all that. We are setting out to tell stories about the community they actually live in.²

Oxford Channel¹s current affairs programme Stir It Up mixes cooking with politics. People from the Asian, white and black communities debate various issues around the kitchen table while the camera zooms from the debate to the kitchen where the host is showing how to cook national dishes. The result is a passionate debate on racism as an Asian diner claims that ³black people get a hard time because they are not as well organised in councils as the Asian community².

Shying well away from any intention of broadcasting political debates is Simon Bond of City TV in Wiltshire. Bond has applied for eight of the licences in all the major cities stretching from Newcastle to Bristol with the dream of building his very own media empire. Without any clear vision on programming he comes across as a man with more of mission to make money rather than to challenge any social problems. Bond intends to lower running costs by franchising unspecified programmes across his Channel 6 stations. No guidelines prevent any form of rampant commercialisation of the licences but as he says, ³So much of this business is not about making television but about managing cashflow, and although we are free to air, we still have to encourage the viewers somehow to actually turn that dial.²

City TV has joined the other 66 applicants for the current round of licences. The local stations currently broadcasting will be joined by another in Derry, Northern Ireland, on September 19.

Undercurrents is an award winning alternative news service producing videos of people taking inspiring actions. http://www.undercurrents.org

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