Richard Lutz looks at the current furore over new station City TV and whether it will get on air…and, if and when it does, what it will deliver.
My finger, as they say, is on the buzzer. Or more specifically on the remote in order to beam into the lift-off of City TV (now called City 8) which was awarded the local license for Birmingham in November 2012.
Here is what we were told by bosses,according to press reports:
November 2011: Birmingham will be a “…super-hub for local tv…”
February 2012: City TV will be “online and on air” in 2013
November 2012: Station launch in April 2014
February 2014: Station launch “likely” in September 2014
July 2014: Launch by November 2014 (which is the official Ofcom deadline).
You get the idea.
Granted the board has tried to launch the plan in the midst of a recession. But the BBC (in effect, the taxpayer) was told to hand over £40 million to aid various city launches and the government in the form of former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been keen on the idea for years. As has the Prime Minister. That’s pretty powerful back-up.
This week, Birmingham MP Steven McCabe threw down the gauntlet now that City has re-grouped, re-named itself City 8 and still plays fast and loose with real hard facts about a launch. He has tabled questions about financing and, simply, whether the organisation will actually deliver a tv station that broadcasts.
But to get away from the fingerpointing and political gestures, let’s find out what an independent analyst thinks:
Professor David Bailey from Aston University Business School said: “I would love to be proved wrong, but the business model never seemed to stack up – in Birmingham at least.
It was never clear how the volume of advertising revenue would be generated to support such an operation. As a result they appear to have struggled to get the finance together to get it off the ground in the first place.”
“It was always odd to me,” he said, “that the BBC was effectively forced to hand over £40 million to the local TV framework across the UK, including capital investment in transmission infrastructure and the purchasing of programmes. Did any public money go in to (parent firm) BLTV. If so, how much?”
So, what we have are broken deadlines, a series of missed transmission starts and ongoing vague arguments over what makes the world really tick – money.
But there is something else. The channel bosses always put big emphasis on the localness of its coverage. That cannot be an empty promise. Viewers will see how the BBC and Central handle news day after day after day and eventually compare this output to the new channel. Will it stack up? Will there be the newsroom manpower? Day after day after day….week after week.
A news operation, especially in TV, is labour intensive. When a gas explosion rocks West Bromwich on a Bank Holiday Sunday, will there be a crew, a satellite truck, a reporter (or two) and eventually a newsroom producer to make it happen and get it on air?
When a major story hits, such as the controversial allegations over Islamic control of the schools, or a terror alert or a major crime story bristling with important issues and legal problems, can the new station have the depth to create a team to handle it properly…and responsibly? A reporter armed with an IPhone and a twitter account will not be enough.
A case in point: A few years back, the Central TV newsroom, where I used to work, sent a senior seasoned journalist helped by a young reporter to get to the bottom of serious allegations about vote rigging in the east of the city. They were told to ‘bottom out’ all the myth and rumour and come back with a definitive overview of this potentially scandalous story. The team returned in a fortnight saying there was no story. It was all smoke and mirrors. Two weeks and two reporters to kill a story rather than rely on ‘rip and read’ or Google mutterings or shallow copycat news stories that meant little.
That was responsible serious reporting. And to their mutual credit, The BBC and Central meet this criteria. Could the City 8 newsroom handle that responsibility to investigate and then not run a story? It takes depth of staff, experience and professional know-how.
If and when the new channel, aka City TV, does come on air and does find its vital funding, when the promises and plans and business model arguments are long forgotten, will Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK, have a real serious station that reflects its importance in Britain?
Will City 8 be more than a tub thumping series of limp items? Or will it represent the viewer and have the depth and resources to reveal what is important, to question what is vitally questionable?