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Hunt wants PSBs to provide local content

By
Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture

© Rex Features

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has confirmed plans to ask commercial public service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 to support a new network of local TV services.

In a speech today to the Royal Television Society conference in London, Hunt will outline plans to make it a condition of their licences that PSBs must provide local content in the UK.

He will warn commercial PSBs that they will only be able to retain their lucrative positions on the digital terrestrial television (DTT) electronic programme guides (EPGs) if they guarantee to deliver a certain quota of local programming.

Hunt wants to create a network of as many as 80 local TV stations in the UK to replicate the type of vibrant local services already operated in the US, France and other countries.

Lazards investment banker Nicholas Shott, who was recently commissioned by Hunt to investigate the local TV proposals, has however urged caution on the minister's plans.

Shott's interim report suggests that advertising alone would not sustain the local TV sector and multi-million pound corporate sponsorship deal may be required, similarly to Barclays' backing of the London bicycle scheme.

In a letter to Hunt, Shott said that local TV stations were more likely to succeed in urban areas, but even there "the economics of a TV business funded mainly by advertising will still be challenging" and "additional revenue sources" would have to be found.

However, Hunt is intent on forging ahead with his plans and will ask media regulator Ofcom to make local content a requisite of holding a PSB licence.

"I will begin the process of redefining public service broadcasting for the digital age by asking Ofcom to look at how we can ensure that enough emphasis is given to the delivery of local content," Hunt will say in his speech.

"Of course not all PSBs will want, or be able, to be local broadcasters, but I'm determined that we should recognise the public value in those that do."

He added: "Second, I intend to bring forward new legislation to clarify which PSB channels should get guaranteed positioning on page one of the EPG and its future online equivalents.

"As we move into a multichannel, multi-platform era, this is likely to become the principle intervention through which we repay broadcasters who invest in content with a social or cultural benefit. I want to make sure we have absolute clarity on how that will work."

ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5's PSB licences are up for renewal in 2014, but the broadcasters have long complained about the heavy cost of providing local news content.

ITV even previously threatened to drop its regional news services entirely, but has since softened its position on the matter.

Interestingly, Shott's interim report indicated that a "channel number" in a prominent position on the EPG would be "highly desirable" for local TV.

The approach, which has long been called for by campaigners, would possibly involve a local TV channel being allocated on Freeview or the Red-button interactive service being used to deliver the local content.

Shott's report said that IPTV could offer more opportunities for delivering local programming compared to the high cost of carriage on the DTT platform. However, it also noted that IPTV is probably "some years away from reaching worthwhile market penetration".

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