Media Forum: Is Tory media plan viable?

Can Cameron's regional media proposals really work, Alasdair Reid asks.

Two weeks ago, we saw the Opposition leader, David Cameron, offering to give Ofcom a good kicking. Last week, it was the turn of his shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt (acting as Robin to Cameron's Batman), attempting to dish out the treatment to Digital Britain. Or a part of it at least - its proposals touching on regional media.

The Tories clearly view Labour's media policy as an easy target - and it has created an advisory panel, with members including Elisabeth Murdoch and Greg Dyke, to help it chip away at policy faultlines.

But debate about the future of regional media, you could argue, is hardly about to set the nation's pulses racing. On the other hand, at stake is one of the central pillars of the Government's current outlook - the notion that, where the UK's media sector is concerned, the free market is basically finished.

Lord Carter's Digital Britain report assumes that, in the current economic climate, it is impossible for ITV to meet the regional news bits of its public-service broadcasting commitments.

The proposed solution is to make up the difference by dipping into a licence fee pot previously the exclusive domain of the BBC.

Just not good enough, is Hunt's response - this doesn't help create sustainable business models in regional media. His alternative blueprint involves wholescale deregulation, paving the way for the creation of Local Media Communities. Cross-media ownership rules would be relaxed, as would provisions blocking mergers and consolidation in individual sectors, notably local press.

So we'd see the emergence of LMCs offering a comprehensive service across TV, print and online content - each covering an individual city or a group of towns.

Mark Dodson, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group Regional Media, has a unique insight on this proposition. As well as being a regional publisher, GMGRM runs the local TV station Channel M in Manchester. But Channel M has been under the cosh - in April it made more than half of its 70-odd staff redundant. Dodson says: "Research shows there is an appetite for local news and information on TV. Our own experience shows that more than 300,000 people tune in to local TV each week."

He argues that advertising revenue can be generated to offset running costs; yet the only way to make local TV profitable - and therefore viable in the longer term - is to develop a new TV audience measurement and trading system. Barb just isn't sensitive enough to provide meaningful data on local TV audiences, he points out.

Even so, Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA Media Futures Group, would remain sceptical. Regional TV programming has always been an expensive luxury for ITV. He adds: "I'm mystified about how local newspaper publishers could find the revenues where ITV couldn't. There just isn't enough ad money out there."

Rachel Hall, the director of regional press and radio at ZenithOptimedia, wants to believe in the Hunt blueprint - because local and regional media remain an important part of the whole fabric of the country. But she has reservations: "Consolidation might help. If there is a criticism of local media from an advertising point of view, it's that it isn't the easiest to buy. On the other hand, we'd be wary of the emergence of monopolies. We'd want a competitive market."

But Charlotte Bell, a director of Feather Brooksbank, just doesn't believe there would be viewer demand. She says: "There is very little point in advertising to non-existent viewers - and with regional newspaper and TV news audiences dwindling, we'd question whether there is enough of an appetite for local news to sustain the stations.

"In our own Consumer Connection System research of more than 10,000 UK adults, only 11 per cent said keeping up with local news is important. The failure of previous attempts to create similar services is a big clue as to whether Hunt's plan would work."

MAYBE - Mark Dodson, chief executive, Guardian Media Group Regional Media

"For this to be successful we need to create an audience measurement system more sensitive than Barb, which will provide an industry-accepted trading mechanism."

NO - Jim Marshall, chairman, IPA Media Futures Group

"It's odd to assume that local newspaper groups could succeed where ITV has failed. It has never been viable. In the old days, ITV subsidised regional news from revenues across its other programming strands."

MAYBE - Rachel Hall, director of regional press and radio, ZenithOptimedia

"There's an opportunity for improvement in the quality of local media. And local advertisers want more opportunities to tap into it. We'd need to see the detail before judging whether it would work."

NO - Charlotte Bell, director, Feather Brooksbank

"We'd question the quality of output from these stations. Hunt seems to suggest costs can be cut by using volunteers, which hardly instils us with great confidence. Consumers will not watch poor quality programming and advertisers will not want to appear within it."

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