Small-scale revolutions 

1 September 2001

Local television had for many years been typically of a ‘regional’ nature; that is news, events and programming was at best focussed on specific areas dictated by the coverage area of a particular broadcaster.

Unless you live in the Channel Islands, UK viewers were typically served with regional news programmes on BBC and ITV channels that covered more than one county. In a half-hour regional news broadcast that is watched by the entire region, there’s only time for the most important stories. A major story in a region such as a chemical spill would naturally take precedence over a relatively less important event such as a protest concerning a proposed village bypass scheme.

However if you lived in the immediate area which was affected the bypass scheme, the protest story would be of far more importance to you than a chemical spill that occurred twenty miles away, even if the spill directly affected more people as a consequence.

More recently, local ‘optouts’ have been introduced so that, for example, viewers in Oxford and surrounding areas get a portion of the BBC’s South Today regional news programme devoted entirely to them. Previously Oxford, in the north of the region, sometimes got a ‘raw deal’ in terms of news coverage compared with the rest of the region.

Until recently it was very expensive to equip a television studio which was capable of producing pictures of broadcast quality. Decent television programmes are still expensive to produce, so regional television remains the best compromise for news coverage whilst maintaining a high quality service that the bulk of the population will find acceptable to watch on a regular basis. Advances in technology have made feasible an entirely new class of television service – local television stations that typically serve either a small densely populated area – Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford – or a larger but less densely populated area such as part of the Scottish Highlands or the Isle of Wight.

These local services are licensed on a short-term basis either for up to 56 days for specific events or for four years for community stations before they are reviewed under a system known as RSLs or Restricted Station Licences. This scheme had previously applied for several years (under different rules) for short-term radio broadcast licensing – either for special events lasting less than a week or more stringent licensing for longer periods. RSLs can only operate where a spare frequency allocation is available, and due to severe congestion of the UHF television broadcast channels – four or five channels plus neighbouring transmitters, digital terrestrial allocations plus sometimes foreign stations all competing for limited space – severe limitations are placed on the coverage area of each RSL except in very remote areas such as the Scottish Highlands.

So what are local television stations like in terms of their character and presentation? The strict rules governing transmitter power and coverage area result in a very limited audience for a station’s programming. These stations therefore have such a small potential audience they cannot charge exorbitant fees for showing commercials as a result, therefore the resultant programming budget is minuscule even in comparison to the less watched satellite and cable channels. Indeed it is only the cheapness of modern digital video technology that enables such RSL stations to produce any form of programming whatsoever given the extremely limited budget at their disposal.

Typically this results in only of a few hours a day devoted to original programming. The rest of the day is typically being filled with repeats of the same programmes, programmes cheaply acquired from elsewhere, a series of still advertisement slides, or a rebroadcast of some existing channel (such as the ITN News Channel, Sky News or QVC.

The first of these RSL services, TV12, started three years ago on 31 October 1998 – it initially served just parts of the Isle of Wight but it has since gained permission to increase its transmitter power from 1kW to 2kW, enabling parts of the south coast of England to be also served as well as the island itself – with three small relays planned for Wight itself to plug the gaps. By comparison, one of the main (four) channels typically has a transmitter output power of 50kW or greater, which means excellent reception over a wide area as opposed the often much smaller transmitter output of an RSL service (with the odd exception to this rule) – the ITC website carries details of all current and planned RSLs and their transmitter strengths.

Due to the restrictions placed upon RSLs (after all the transmissions are exploiting tiny holes in frequency coverage), an upgraded aerial is often required for optimum reception (especially if a narrow band aerial is being used) plus the local transmissions may be on a different polarisation (horizontal or vertical) from the four or five main channels. As for the actual programme schedules, RSLs make heavy use of 24-hour news channels as filler since they make a relatively cheap source of programming that is never off air and also provide a easily available national news service which isn’t available to viewers without digital or cable TV services.

Advertisement breaks are usually occupied either by cheaply made adverts for local businesses, expensively produced commercials which are also shown nationally, ‘infomercials’ for specialist products such as cleaning fluids, or public information films. Local companies can now advertise on television to a small but significant audience very cheaply – in some cases costing as little as £10 for a simple caption.

Many of these RSL stations have a very similar overall ‘look and feel’ to them. This is because even if they are unrelated to each other they more or less have the same economic constraints, therefore as a result RSL stations tend to rely on the same or similar forms of programming, commercials and promotional since it is the best that can be achieved on a minuscule budget. Station logos tend to be animated using computer graphics with effects such as solarisation (in the case of Six TV Oxford and MyTV Portsmouth) so as to look impressive at minimal cost, and since the branding is relatively unsophisticated a permanent on-screen logo ‘bug’ is usually employed to reinforce the channel identification.

Local television is not entirely a new phenomenon – in the past, cable networks have had services such as Swindon Viewpoint which pioneered the concept of local access programming back in the 1970s – but these new RSL stations make the concept far more accessible to the local community and literally help bring the local touch back into television.

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