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Wannabe Murdochs crash Ofcom's local telly party

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Ofcom's consultation on Local TV has now closed, and the responses offer a slightly worrying insight into what to expect from the new tiny telly stations.

The UK government is completely committed to launching local broadcast television in White Space frequencies. Ofcom is therefore obliged to define what that means and how it will operate despite the fact that no one seems to know how these new TV channels will be funded.

The upfront cost will be covered by the BBC, which will hand over £25m in licence fee money to the company Ofcom selects to run the broadcast operation. The BBC is also committed to spending £5m a year on buying content from these new Local TV stations, which one might imagine would encourage a few bidders.

There are 20 sites earmarked for the first round, but it's far from clear if all the available licences will be taken up. Operations such as Leeds TV are already producing professional content, and reckon they can leap from the internet into broadcast, but others are less confident that Local TV is sustainable at all.

Ofcom's demand that content be produced from within the area covered was well received by almost all the respondents, but the suggestion that all channels produce a hour of local news every day was less well received.

"Such news provision would usually entail a permanent news room staffed on a level not that distant from major broadcasters," says a memo from the University of Wales, basing its response on experience running IPTV channel 3vtv.

"The one hour per day suggested target seems to be adopted from traditional broadcasting models which local TV in a commercial, non-profit, or even combined or partnership model is unlikely easily to be able to meet."

3vtv also needed lots of cooperation with surrounding businesses and local government to be viable, and the university is worried that new franchises might have a hard time establishing that.

Not a problem for Nottingham Trent University whose response is more of a licence pitch than a comment. The university has journalism students, studio space and links to business, but there are worries that such university-backed channels will become self-obsessed and fail to serve the community around the campus as well as those studying within it.

Thinking outside the boxes

Other respondents questioned the regional nature of the awards and the technical standards adopted: the Digital TV Group wants to see DVB-T2 and MPEG4 used, increasing capacity at the cost of compatibility with old boxes.

Scotland keeps beating the drum for its own digital multiplex although it hasn't the money to foot the bill; it's also concerned by Ofcom's intention to put Local TV in the Freeview EPG channel slot 8.

Having a low EPG number is considered essential to the success of Local TV, but in Scotland channel 8 is where the Gaelic-language BBC Alba is already pissing away £22m a year (£10m from the BBC licence fee, £12m in government funds) so Local TV will have to go elsewhere.

The Scottish government also notes, with a sniff, that the 12-year Ofcom licence could well last beyond Scotland's independence at which point Ofcom will relinquish control of the airwaves north of the border.

When it comes to broadcasting the Local TV channels only one company has come out in public to say it will be bidding: the newly established Comux UK Ltd. Comux is owned by Canis Media, but happily shares an address with Aquiva - holders of an effective monopoly on broadcast in the UK - which should help when coordinating installations.

Comux is up to grab that £25m of BBC money, though the corporation recently noted that anyone taking the cash will be bound by Beeb morality:

In particular, we would not expect there to be gambling, pornographic or psychic services, or other such adult related content, whether in the form of programming or teleshopping, and often predicated on the use of premium rate telephone numbers.

That blows plans for a localised Babestation out of the water.

Ofcom still has to ruminate on the responses and publish a final proposal, although given the paucity of response and general consensus among those who did respond that shouldn't take long. Then we'll see who is actually bidding for channels, beyond the handful which are already outed, and then we can see how they're planning to make Local TV pay. ®

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