Ofcom’s decision to award London’s coveted TV licence to the Evening Standard caught everyone on the hop this week, not least its managing director, Andy Mullins. The decision had been slated for the end of February; not that Mullins was complaining.
"TV clearly still has a lot of sex attached to it," he admits. "Having got used to this ‘death of print’ conversation of recent times, it has been great to have so many calls, and to be having more positive conversations."
Doubts about the commercial viability of a local channel, even one beamed to 4.5 million homes, still linger
And so begins the next chapter of the 186-year-old Evening Standard. Barring any major setbacks, ESTV (Evening Standard Television) and its London Live proposition will be available on Freeview’s Channel 8, and on Sky and Virgin networks, by early 2014.
Awarding the licence, Ofcom highlighted ESTV’s "particularly strong position" to market the channel through its own established media network. The promise of cross-promotion, to the annual tune of "at least £5 million worth of media spend", will have tapped into the hidden insecurities that have dogged the initiative.
The local TV franchises were Jeremy Hunt's pre-election ‘big idea’ to support the UK's regional news operations, without top-slicing the BBC licence fee. Back in September 2009, the aspiring culture secretary-to-be promised: "Our plans for a new network of local TV stations - not dependent on the state - would transform local communities, help local businesses and promote our belief in better local democracy."
From the outset, questions were asked about the ability of the TV networks to sustain themselves. Three years on, doubts about the commercial viability of a local channel, even one beamed to 4.5 million homes, still linger.
Lebedev's success in making London's Standard profitable in 2012, from annual losses of £30 million in 2009, and with a ballooning weekday circulation of more than 700,000, will not have gone unnoticed.
ESTV will be hoping to generate an additional £20 million-plus from advertisers per year, lured by the prospect of a deeper engagement with Londoners, and at a fraction of the cost of using ITV or Channel 4.
Mullins and his team's ability to carve out new multimedia partnerships with agencies and clients around branded content and dual-screening opportunities, as well as traditional ads, will play a key part in determining the venture’s success.