The 2014 launch of a London TV channel is set to create a new model for the integration of hard copy, broadcast and online media. A big claim, perhaps, but ‘London Live’ – being launched by the London Evening Standard – is set to break new ground with:1. Integrated newspaper, online and TV teams 2. Broadcast TV augmented by online ‘hyper-local’ news streams from London’s 33 boroughs 3. Split-screen technology to give ‘instant’ reaction from social media 4. Extensive use of video-on-demand and ‘citizen journalism’
The channel may thus help accelerate the fusion of media channels, driven by the shift of traditional advertising to digital, and the growth of consumer spending on entertainment at the expense of news. It may also provide a role model for ‘aggregation’ by traditional media.
This had seemed an unlikely result of the UK government’s roll-out of local TV licenses – 10 years after a previous administration had permitted England’s 50-year-old network of regional stations to be absorbed by the London-centric ITV.
The spark for this new-wave local TV came from media entrepreneur Roger Parry whose vision of regional ‘media integration’ largely got lost in the statutory process, as did other proposals for low-cost broadband channels rather than relatively high-cost terrestrial broadcasts. But the Evening Standard’s plan to capture the rich London media market with a fusion of broadcast, broadband and social media looks inspired, as does Mustard TV from the lively privately-owned Archant newspaper group, in the eastern ‘capital’ of Norwich. These two traditional groups with dominant regional newspapers are the ones to watch in the UK race to build new, platform-agnostic media.
London Live is a major breakthrough for its owner, Alexander Lebedev. The Russian’s five years in UK media have been characterised by : the inventive 2010 launch of the low-priced i daily (think McNews or USA Today) which now sells some 300,000 copies; and striking success in turning the London Evening Standard into a profitable free newspaper after decades of losses as a paid-for title. But The Independent has continued to struggle.
Lebedev is one of a clutch of Russian oligarchs, enriched by the collapse of communism, who have decamped to London in recent years. A personal fortune and background as a former KGB officer rests uneasily with his outspoken criticism of the Putin government and claims that public officials have “embezzled and siphoned off” at least $700 billion from their country in the past 15 years.
In the UK, Lebedev enjoys a reputation as a hands-off media owner doesn’t tell his editors what to say. His story is enlivened by a recent Moscow prosecution for punching a fellow guest live on Russian TV. But his equally exciting UK media adventure (led primarily by son Evgeny) has not yet brought profits. The £2m earnings from the free London Evening Standard are a striking reversal from the £30m of losses in 2008 under Daily Mail ownership. But it’s not enough to offset growing losses from the sub-100,000 The Independent; and the i daily is reportedly breaking even.
In a UK daily newspaper market where most profits come from premium-priced, advertising-rich weekend editions, Lebedev’s try-anything group may become the first to test the viability of reducing the frequency of at least one of its daily papers. Those possibilities are extended now with the launch of London Live which may catapult the group from the bottom of the UK newspaper market to a coveted place as the role model for multi-channel news media. It would be a vindication also for the Lebedev drive for a low-cost model, not easy when you’re publishing three daily/evening newspapers with 300 journalists only a few floors away from where almost twice the number are working just for the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.
It is easy to see, though, how TV success could open up further co-operation with the Mail which, in addition to retaining a 25% share in the Evening Standard, provides premises and ‘back office’ services for the Independent group. The Daily Mail group is increasingly focused on impressive growth in international B2B media, which now accounts for almost 80% of total profits. Although it is making great progress with Mail Online – now the world’s largest newspaper site – it has effectively spun-off its regional newspapers to an semi-independent led by former Trinity Mirror boss David Montgomery. And many believe it could eventually spin-off the Daily Mail too.
So, once the Independent’s losses are reined in and London Live proves itself, the two neighbours might be expected to collaborate even more closely on consolidation in the UK newspaper market. That is a measure of how London Live can transform Lebedev’s media prospects.
That’s a lot to prove, but the Lebedev team are full of determination to change the mould of UK news media. And, for all the journalistic bitching about tight staffing and low expenses, they’re making good progress.
However, it’s not nearly so promising for most of the other UK winners of local TV licences.
In the London-skewed UK economy, the idea of 30+ local TV stations spread (more or less) evenly across the UK, provokes plenty of gloomy predictions including that some of the successful licence bidders won’t even be able to raise the funds necessary for launch – although the current UK-US-Australia TV advertising boom should help. These don’t seem great times to launch a whole raft of new TV channels rather than concentrate on the expansion of online media. And, even in pre-digital days, regional TV has had a pretty dismal history in the UK.
Some Brits remember the wild dreams and big ideas when a station called Greenwich Cablevision opened in an outer London suburb called Plumstead in 1972. Its current affairs coverage included a look behind the scenes of “the entertainments department of Greenwich Council”. Enough said. Next up was Sheffield Cablevision broadcasting games of dominoes and darts from Sheffield pubs – but only in black and white. Next came channels from Swindon and the then new town of Milton Keynes. The Isle of Wight’s TV-12 channel, based in a converted caretaker’s bungalow in the grounds of a school, filmed local bands playing in pubs and productions by the amateur dramatic society. Lanarkshire TV, meanwhile, had a show called Talented Lanarkshire, quiz nights from a local school and a policeman appealing for witnesses in a small-scale early version of a crime-spotting show.
Some of these 1970s broadcasting experiments could have sprung from the decade’s comedy hit Monty Python’s Flying Circus. None more so, though, than a 1989 project from Channel 4. While filming “The Television Village” in the northern county of Lancashire, the producers built a pop-up local station, Waddington Village Television, broadcasting each evening from the church hall. The programmes included scout meetings, music from local singers, and sermons from the vicar . Barring a technical glitch when sheep nibbled through the wires leading from the transmitter, the village station was said to have won 95% of the available audience, beating top-rated soap opera EastEnders in prime time. Residents of neighbouring villages even adjusted their aerials to pick up the quirky programmes. Nobody is quite sure whether the venture demonstrated the potential of ‘parish pump’ TV (and some of the new UK licences are for communities of less than 100,000 people) or that lots of viewers just want to be on television.
Not all local TV in the UK has been quite so home-spun. The distinguished, trail-blazing editor of the Daily Mail, David English launched London’s first 24-hour TV news station, Channel One, in 1994. But that failed. And so did Channel M in Manchester.
Those funny stories are doing the rounds right now as the country’s new-wave of would-be TV entrepreneurs prepare to go on the air. But nobody is laughing about London Live which is set to have an impact well beyond the UK capital.
It coincides with high-activity in US local media including the acquisition by Warren Buffet of more than 60 regional newspapers in the past two years, and:
- Gannett, America’s largest newspaper publisher, has paid $1.5bn to acquire the broadcaster Belo Corp, owner of 20 TV stations and associated websites. It nearly doubles the company’s television portfolio to 43 stations, making it the country’s fourth largest owner of TV network affiliates.
- Two weeks after the Gannett deal, The Tribune Company (still hoping to offload its newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) is paying $2.7bn (£1.8bn) to acquire 19 more television stations and make it the country’s largest TV group.
These are further signs of traditional media companies seeking to broaden their footprint and exploit the melting of media channels. And who knows what might follow from last month’s acquisition of the Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos?
As ever, Rupert Murdoch is not far away from the bleeding edge of multimedia. We should disregard the stock market separation of 21st Century Fox from “new” News Corp. After all, News Corp newspapers are using English Premier League football highlights (bought by Fox’s BSkyB) to strengthen their web site paywalls. And who would bet against newspaper involvement in the BSkyB’s experimental local online TV channel Sky Tyne & Wear? The “news, sports and events” channel was launched 18 months ago and is quietly building VJ (video-journalism) experience and an audience. It claims to have “broken the mould and provided a benchmark for the future of local journalism”.
Some new local TV companies worry that this venture may eventually pose the kind of unregulated threat to their licensed broadcasting that satellite pioneer Sky once did to the UK government-approved (but fatally-flawed) BSB in the 1980s. And everyone knows which Aussie media mogul won that expensive battle.
But, as a reminder of how tough life can be in small media markets, Rock County in Wisconsin has just lost its local TV station – even as the US TV industry is booming. The market was just too small. But Rock’s 150,000 population is a fair bit bigger than many of the local TV franchises planned for the UK. It’s easy enough to make the case for why people are more interested in what is happening in their street than at the other end of the country. But such assertions may not change the longtime habits of advertisers or even viewers.
The announcement of London Live has already got other newspaper groups (especially those which failed to win a local TV licence) thinking again about online TV services which require neither government licence nor broadcasting-scale budgets. Some might also move to buy up (or into) the newly-licensed local broadcasters. The publishers are increasingly focused on the fusion of media types – and a way out of their current dependence on dwindling hard copy. They should visit the Swiss Alpine town of Brienz in the shadow of the Jungfrau mountain, near Interlaken. It is home to a population of 45,000 and a pioneering family-owned, local media business built round a 100-year-old newspaper Jungfrau Zeitung. This is now a multi-media ‘hub’ which delivers local news and content via mobile, web TV, and a twice-weekly newspaper. All content goes online as soon as it is written and, crucially, advertisers cannot choose the platform but must book their ads across all media.
The business has been developed by Urs Gossweiler, CEO of Gossweiler Media and grandson of the company’s founder. It is pure ‘hyper local': the newspaper sells 9,000 copies and the web site has 60,000 page views. But this is not a media experiment: Gossweiler makes profit margins of 30% and plans to roll out its model across Switzerland and then across Austria and, perhaps, also Germany. (see Flashes & Flames: http://wp.me/p3I5kw-zR).
Then, there are the examples like Jamal Edwards’ London-based SBTV music and youth-style channel, now one of the most profitable on YouTube with a regular audience of more than 200,000 (Flashes& Flames: http://wp.me/p3I5kw-TE ). And Leo Laporte’s California-based tech channel TWIT.TV (Flashes & Flames: http://wp.me/p3I5kw-si) provides a still-growing role model for special interest media everywhere.
The common thread between these businesses, London Live, and hundreds more online ‘TV’ channels across the world is that they represent the melting world of media – making the most of video, interactivity and social media. While some come from traditional media, most (so far) are digital natives. The legacy groups might start moving faster when one of their own, Alexander Lebedev’s Evening Standard, shows them how to do it. Just watch.www.flashesandflames