Those of us who saw Jeremy Hunt on the panel at the Polis debate on the future of Digital Britain (17 November 2009), when he was Shadow Culture Secretary, will not have been surprised about his comments at the Royal Television Society last night.
His quest to create a thriving local TV market in the UK is obviously deeply embedded in his personal agenda, and on the face of it to be applauded. However, as comment and reaction today has shown there are still many questions to be asked as to how it is actually delivered.
Mr Hunt’s favourite analogy is the comparison of Birmingham Alabama with Birmingham UK, the former which has eight local TV stations whilst the latter has none, in spite of Birmingham UK having the larger population and arguably being the nation’s second city. However, the analogy also highlights the cultural differences between the two and suggests that behaviour may be a bigger barrier than commercial viability.
Apart from the obvious fact that the US is bigger and that the distance between cities is much larger, and that with 3 time zones people need news delivered in local time, there is much less experience of truly national media. Even USA Today, the only paper that claims to be a ‘national’ reaches only just over 2 million people, a tiny proportion (0.6%) of the US population of nearly 310 million. Compare this to the Sun which is read by nearly 5% of the UK population, or even the Daily Telegraph which is read by 1%. Well regarded titles like the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune have essentially regional circulations in spite of international clout.
It is the same with TV. The network syndication model mixes nationwide entertainment with local news and people tend to associate with their local station as much as with the network partner – ie people identify with WUSA9 in Washington DC as their local station rather than CBS as the network. TV news starts with the local (albeit covering a large area), then moves to the national and finally international focus.
In the UK we are smaller (in terms of distance and population) and more centralised (politically and in terms of focus of news). Perhaps because of our history and culture our news tends to start with the International and work down to the local. We seem to be predisposed to look at macro level and then consider the local significance. That is not to say that local news is not important or that we should not have more of it, but rather to question whether our cultural appetites conditioned to consume it as the Americans do. Perhaps it is a bigger challenge to change the culture of national news consumption than it is to create a commercial model for local TV.