Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 359-377)

MR STEVE BUCKLEY, MR JOHN TREVITT, MS ELEANOR STEPHENSON, MR DAVE RUSHTON, MR RICHARD PRICE AND MR DAVID LOWEN

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002

Derek Wyatt

  359. Are you happy with the paving Bill for OFCOM? Do you feel you have been represented there correctly or do you feel we have missed the boat completely with representing your communities?

  (Mr Buckley) The biggest problem with the paving Bill for OFCOM is the detail that we require to see in the Communications Bill proper. We are inventing a structure without knowing the detail of what it is exactly going to regulate. There is a number of things that we would like to be assured of in OFCOM, assuming we are going to have a single communications regulator, but we are being told that we will not be assured of those things until we see the Communications Bill proper. In some ways, we are putting the structure before the content. It would be good to know a little more about the content before we take decisions on the structure.
  (Mr Lowen) For those stations which are operating at the moment, our sights and problems are set at a slightly different level. It is the economic viability and the basic structure of the licences that we operate.

  360. Given a fair wind, what would you like to see so that we can be encouraged to take up your cause?
  (Mr Buckley) We have set out some proposals at the heart of which is a strategic approach to community media development. In order to deliver that, we need a part of OFCOM to be a champion of community media work that understands the linkages between community media as a third sector of the communications industry and the social aspects of community broadcasting, its contribution to social inclusion, to educational agendas, to neighbourhood renewal and so on. There is little evidence that a communications regulator will automatically look at those things unless it has a clear mandate to do so. Communications regulators in the past have tended to look primarily at the communications industry as the thing that they are concerned with rather than neighbourhood development and so on which are our concerns.

  361. It seems to me that you may call yourself a third arm but if anybody was public service you are. The BBC have one foot in OFCOM and one foot out. That is how they like it. Do you think it could be like the Open University which took £3 million out of the licence fee in the late sixties and there would be gradual demand from us, from everybody, to help fund you for the licence fee? Do you think that is one of the issues where they are resistant because they can see that ultimately the licence fee should be made available to you?
  (Mr Buckley) That is correct. It is clear from our experience that there are many models of public service beyond the BBC and an understanding of public service needs to address those other models and support them appropriately through mechanisms such as part of the licence fee or some other mechanisms. The BBC, whilst it pursues important public service objectives, is not necessarily the only vehicle which can and should pursue them. At the local level, public service is best pursued by community based organisations, locally accountable, locally controlled, whose objectives and ways of going about things are structured in a way whereby their public service accounts back to the audience and community they are serving.

  362. The last time some of you came in front of us we enabled the radio to change with regard to schools. Is it 30 pilots that have subsequently occurred on the radio side?
  (Mr Buckley) The Community Media Association came before this Committee last year with a number of people involved in community media work. We were delighted with some of the follow-up to that. We now have a number of experimental community radio services coming on to air in the next few weeks, in advance of legislation, as a pre-legislative pilot. There is no doubt that the Committee's interest and support for the ideas of community radio contributed to the fact that that pilot is going ahead. What we are here today to talk about, in part at least, is the extent to which the Government can take a genuinely cross-media, strategic approach anticipating convergence and particularly looking at the growing and considerable potential that there is in the local community television sector. Colleagues that I have with me today are involved in community television work and can share some of their experience about the different practical approaches to community television and also to the emergence of interactive, community based uses of broadband technology.

Chairman

  363. When we were looking at these things years ago, when we were first looking at the expected impact of digitalisation, one of the things that we were told that certainly I was very enthusiastic about was the potentialities for bringing it right down to small localities and neighbourhoods. We played a certain part with regard to community radio but it is not happening, is it, in the way that we hoped for and it should.
  (Mr Trevitt) It is a very important point you make. Like yourself, I shared the excitement of the potential in this broadband interactivity, particularly when it is applied in the local context. We sit in quite an unusual space in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire. We are geographically isolated. Because of the peculiarities of the NTL network system, we have our own head end there as a legacy from cable. We have an excellent relationship with NTL and we have been exploring the potential and possibilities of producing local content for the local community that has a public service and public sector remit and working with those local communities to train and give them the capacity to take full advantage themselves of this very powerful means of communication. At the moment, we are just broadcasting on the analogue line, broadcasting conventionally on channel seven in North East Lincolnshire to about 70,000 viewers, about a third of the population. We have researching and developing a new programming policy for local broadcasting. We define it as purposive programming. That is designed to systematically support and enhance the strategies and initiatives of local communities and public sector organisations. A particular example of that is our work in education. We are involved in producing programmes, working with local teachers that support and enhance local educational strategies. For example, to raise educational standards and improve the culture of learning. We are working partially with the Education Action Zone and a very forward thinking local authority in North East Lincolnshire to systematically show how public sector content produced for and by the community can deliver and support those broader strategies and initiatives. We are very excited about the possibility of becoming a digital, interactive broadcaster in a local context to show that in practice. Finally, we hope to create a national centre for the research and development of a local, interactive, public service broadcaster and digital content production for the public sector. We need content for these broadband systems and this interactivity. It is only when it is done in a local context that the full potential of what we can all see can happen in this very powerful media sector can be realised.
  (Mr Lowen) On the availability of licence fee funding for local services and the nature of those local services, local services are in their early stages and it is not clear yet whether a pure advertising funded model will work. It seems entirely appropriate that some public funding should be made available to kick start but that should be on the basis of the services which are provided, rather than the operator who provides them. We believe that if there is scheduled regulation there will be public service programming, as indeed there is within ITV and other privately funded organisations. It need not be a not for profit organisation solely that would carry the right to such funding.

Derek Wyatt

  364. As I understand it, most schools have ISDN wired to their classrooms. Now they are beginning to wonder whether the schools themselves should be wired. I have a brilliant teacher who teaches deaf children. There are deaf children in every school. I would like what she does to be sent to the other teachers to see how brilliant she is and vice versa. Is that happening?
  (Mr Trevitt) Yes. We not only produce lessons with local teachers. We find the best deliverers of certain lessons and make them available to all. I think it is an interesting human right to be able to have access to the best teachers and this is one way it can be done. You mentioned schools being connected but NTL have a new product out called community intranet and this will enable us to get the class room to home and this is very important, with the teachers being able to communicate directly with the pupils after school hours as well. This is very powerful technology and we are in very early days but we are researching and developing that in North East Lincolnshire.

Mr Flook

  365. I would like to speak about community TV. I note in your submission you rightly pointed out that LBG collapsed and had a licence for 33 TV channels, of which only three were up and running. One of those three is Taunton TV or TV Local. They have a particular problem in that they are on the analogue platform and they are terrestrial. They are very worried in five years' time or whenever that the Government will switch them off because there will not be any analogue left. What discussions have you had with the Government about that on their behalf, if any?
  (Mr Lowen) We have a common cause in that at the moment local television licences are in the analogue domain only. There is no legislation to provide access to digital. There is no opportunity for simulcast. The licences are very short as well. Up until a few months ago, we had very limited access to Government. That has changed. Now, there is a comment already in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology papers and submissions pointing out that we will not be able to have a digital future without the grant of digital spectrum alongside other broadcasters.
  (Mr Price) Mr Flook, you have the advantage of having a live station in Taunton operating in a way that we would want it to. We have another five or six stations on the air but they are not up to the levels that you are seeing. We have not collapsed; we are in administration at present. We are quite proud of what is coming out of Taunton.

  366. If I can say something therefore and ask a question to CMA on that. It works very, very well where there has been funding and LBG brought that funding to Taunton TV. Beforehand it was a much more hand to mouth basis, it seemed to me, but with better equipment and I think greater morale within the station it worked very well. The administration is not their fault, they are still providing a very good service.
  (Mr Lowen) Thank you.

  367. My understanding was you could go up and down the country, see Channel 6, punch in Channel 6 and there would be your local community TV programme and that was very good. My concern though is that, as the CMA have put in their submission to us, you would like to split it between Licence A and Licence B, Licence B being an LBG type restricted service licence. My concern is that requires greater money for more people to want to start watching as they have done with Taunton TV and whether Licence A would have that capital investment to attract people to get the quality, Mr Buckley?
  (Mr Buckley) I do not think it is the case that it would not have that capital investment. The reason we propose the distinction between the category A, not-for-profit licences, and category B licences operating on a commercial basis is in order to diversify the structure and therefore the content of the sector and to diversify the financial sources that are used to establish local and community television. There is a lot of experience of not-for-profit community broadcasting around the world both in the radio and in the television environment which has shown that different services contributing to the overall plurality and diversity of what is on offer to the listener can be achieved by the use of public funds where appropriate as well as commercial investment for commercial services. Our experience is that it is much easier to raise public funds for investment where the public funders have a clear guarantee that that money is going to remain in the public sector for the lifetime of the licence. On the other hand, it is equally clear that commercial investors require to invest in companies which can be bought and sold and where shareholder value can be realised by selling shares as well as by generating trading profits. So the economic underpinnings of these different models do diverge and if we are going to get more finance into the sector then a structural approach to regulation is going to assist us, we are quite clear on that point.
  (Mr Lowen) We feel that there should be a fairly open approach to where the money comes from which will be available to all. What we did find in seeking refinancing in the autumn was that the lack of digital clarity going forward and the certainty of these licences continuing beyond the analogue phase was a great inhibitor to an investor.
  (Mr Price) So too was the four year licence. Where we could look at the fifth and the sixth year and a lot of the cases coming through to breakeven and to profit, in a four year period you could not. The present Act only allows the ITC to give you a four year licence. That is one of the big problems at the present moment.
  (Mr Rushton) The experience from Dundee, where I run a local station there, in many ways backs up both of these issues. The funding model is currently in some disarray largely because of the difficulties of the licence being extended and the lack of knowledge about the digital future. We have to stress, I think, that we have to find a way forward for transition so that we do not lose audience in the interim as analogue starts to shrink and digital starts to take off. If we leave it until the period when digital is there and then get given a frequency, our business or our community enterprise, whichever way we are doing it, will have effectively died for two or three years in that interim period. It is important that we find a way of making that bridge conceptually now so that investors will move through to that period of the digital future.

  368. If I could ask one small supplementary. Would a solution for LBG be to have a tie up or come out of administration with a digital platform?
  (Mr Price) So we knew where we were going, yes, and know that we do not have to stick to a four year licence. I do not mind a review of the licence at four years but if you have done a good job you ought to get an automatic roll on for another four or whatever. Four years is too short to make a commercially viable operation work particularly in the present area. The advertising side of this is quite encouraging. These are going to be, in my belief, the local newspapers of the 21st century. If you look at advertising that has been going on, the size of the advertising revenue in the local press market, one of our associates has seen a six per cent increase and that has been an average across the market. We believe that this is a powerful operation. Once we can sort out those two major things, the question of where we get the digital and the licence period, then you will find we can find more money to come in for sensible investors.

John Thurso

  369. Reading your various evidence papers, a clear feeling runs through that you are rather fragile minnows in a pond dominated by some pretty aggressive sharks and that your fear is that you may be just forgotten about or left out of the equation altogether. One aspect that I was interested in pursuing of that were your recommendations regarding OFCOM itself, both the fact that you should be represented properly and be in there. The point you made that it should be established as a more broadly based body of six to 12 non-executive members and then you went on to talk about OFCOM should have a strategic approach and particularly look at a citizens panel and other things. Could I ask you to amplify your thoughts there because I am very interested in those notions?
  (Mr Buckley) I think what we need to see much more clearly in OFCOM is its commitment to citizenship interests and to public service. At the moment there is some confusion over this. That confusion is partly demonstrated over the ambiguous approach to the BBC within the overall regulatory framework. Also it is simply not written down in the Bill that we have on the table how these interests are going to be properly met. Now in practice we would like to see, as I said earlier, a community media division in OFCOM that is clearly addressing these issues from the local perspective and from the local public sector broadcasting perspective. That needs to be something which runs right through OFCOM'S entire approach, it needs to be a regulator which puts citizens' rights first rather than purely economic regulation. At the moment that does not remain in our view sufficiently explicit in what is done on the face of the Bill.

  370. Am I right in thinking that you have a fairly clear view that if OFCOM'S board is put together as it might be expected to be, it will give tremendous weight to all the big players and nobody will really be looking after your interests? One of the key things you might be looking for is somebody on that board to very clearly look out for your particular interest.
  (Mr Buckley) Absolutely.
  (Mr Price) I think we are in agreement with this one. It is very much a useful plus.
  (Mr Lowen) It does indeed extend beyond OFCOM. It goes into the industry discussions. You have heard about the digital stakeholders group earlier. I think there has been in the past no real interest among those large players to allow people like us to sit at the table because we are competitors to spectrum.
  (Mr Buckley) This is clearly an issue. I think spectrum in particular is at the heart of the matter. Representing our present situation in the pecking order of spectrum is a DCMS paper which puts local and community television somewhere beneath theatre microphones in the order of priority. We find ourselves sitting around the room in the digital television stakeholders group not just competing with the interest of the broadcasters who in many ways will be happy to see some expansion of local and community television but with the mobile phone companies who want to get their hands on broadcast spectrum and take it into the private domain for use for telecommunications. Clearly that is quite attractive to Government and clearly the commercial players in that case are a good deal bigger than the broadcasters. In that sense we really are minnows, it is not just a perceived reality for us, we face some very big competitors for the spectrum that we would like to get hands on in the digital future.
  (Mr Lowen) I worked in ITV, in different places, for nearly 30 years. When I said I was leaving and said where I was going to the parting words were "Ah, you are joining the enemy".

Rosemary McKenna

  371. Just one very quick point. In my local area we did appear to have at one time local television. It is in Lanarkshire, my constituency is on the outskirts of Lanarkshire and it did not receive television at all. At the moment though—it is following up your point about becoming the local newspaper—I am very concerned because all I see on it, all we seem to have on it at the moment is how to buy a car, a second hand car and that to me is not local television.
  (Mr Price) We began to get ourselves involved in that area. We did not get directly involved in the programming, I never had anything to do with that programming. The programme I alluded to in Taunton is where we want to go.

  372. They brand themselves as local television which is one of the problems, is it not?
  (Mr Lowen) Yes. They are an independent company. I think it is fair to say they were finding it very hard to survive and that may well have reflected in the programming that was put out. We believed it was entirely appropriate that there should be targets set for quality of programming and range and diversity and local content as well.

  373. Which there is not at the moment, is there no regulation at all?
  (Mr Lowen) There is no regulation at all at the moment but then there is no certainty in the licences. Now we have said to the ITC that we feel it appropriate that there can be a quid pro quo. Give us some licences which ensure a commercial future and on the back of that by all means put in the legislation which requires us to sustain the standards.
  (Mr Rushton) A number of the earlier licences which got started were quite ambitious in terms of the staffing and the studio infrastructure they put in place. In many ways they mimicked a regional television service. In some ways now some of the other services which are running are much more server based and more like the conception of a small scale radio station in terms of the technology that they use, using computers for the delivery of signal. In the case of the Dundee service we are able to run a 24 hour high quality service with a small amount of local programming but it is the amount that the local people want, plus Teletext, and it is there and it is reliable but with only five staff. Some of the stations are looking at 40 or 50 staff and you can imagine the difference in advertising base that is required to sustain a start up with that number of people involved. Lanarkshire did have a large number of staff when it started, through no fault of its own there were no other models to look to. This is now an industry that is developing very diverse ways of moving forward. The models which are available are now quite interesting in so far as they allow for quite small areas to have services which potentially are viable from an advertising base and from the community resource or one or other of them, it does not have to be either or.

  Rosemary McKenna: As you have probably just seen the radio station does an extremely good job. It is very well received. I believe that community radio and television could achieve a lot given a fair wind.

Chairman

  374. On Sunday afternoon in my constituency I attended a meeting in a local bowling club of the Friends of Crowcroft Park and they showed a video of their achievements over the last year. Thousands of people milling around who did not come out on a wet Sunday afternoon would have been really interested to see that and more of it. How and when can we make that possible?
  (Mr Buckley) I think that is exactly what community television has been seeking to achieve. For many years the local and community based video production sector has had little option except to show videos in rooms to small numbers of people. The emergence of platforms on which that kind of content can be distributed will generate a whole sea change in the way in which video is used in communities. At the heart of that opportunity is getting guaranteed access, ie "must carry" rules in the cable environment and getting sufficient frequencies allocated in the future digital terrestrial environment.
  (Mr Lowen) And those of frequencies of sufficient power to cover whole communities, not parts of communities. On that sort of programming we would take absolutely the same line as the CMA. We believe that sort of programming is going to be the heart of any local service. It is about local people doing what they do every day. It is about my cricket club getting on television rather than the county cricket club or the international clubs.
  (Mr Price) Even if the technical quality, Chairman, is not quite up to standard, I would still want to see it on the air because of the local interest.

  375. One of the things I noted in what in many ways is this ludicrous and bizarre proliferation of the use of mobile phones, is that it is a fascinating manifestation that people do not just want to be talked at, they want to talk and they want to communicate with other people. My own view is there is a very wide thirst in this country, which public service broadcasters just do not accept, that people do not want to be objects of what is said and shown, they want themselves to say and to show things. Last time in our last inquiry we were able to facilitate a certain amount of that. I value particularly your presence here today because I believe in the end that is what democracy in this country is about, not being on the receiving end but originating.
  (Mr Price) A great friend of mine, Chairman, invented the video box in Canada 20 years ago so you went in and you put two dollars in the thing. They decided to charge for it so people did not totally waste their time. They gave the money to charity and they ended up by having hundreds of people coming along and putting little points for two minutes which they would then put on air and it was a huge, huge success. I would like to see that here too.
  (Mr Trevitt) Yes. It is a very critical point. I think it is not just about giving access to the media, though, I think it is about getting structured and supported access. I think this is very, very important. We are part of the ICT learning centre bids project and we have mobile studios going down into the streets working with communities but giving them the capacity to communicate effectively long before they get the technology.

  376. I think that is an important point you make because there is no possible reason why our interactivity should not spread to this. If a local group is opposed to a planning application they could use the interactive media to get people together, could they not, to oppose it.
  (Mr Trevitt) Absolutely.

  377. In that way democracy spreads. Perhaps one of the reasons why people do not vote as much as they did in elections is because they are sick of being talked at, they want their say.

  (Mr Price) One final point about employment. If we manage to put these stations together and have them as a group—we graduate something like 40,000 media people in this country and then we have a huge gap of where they go—we reckon that if we put the 30 stations on the air over the next two or three years we will find that something approaching 1,000 of these go into this and it will be a base for training for the whole of the television world. I hope we will be able to do it.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for coming this morning.


 
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