London Live gets a hammering

Broadcasters slam London Live bid to slash local content

Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV and rival bidders have lined up to slam London Live’s proposals to radically reduce its commitment to local programming.

The Evening Standard-operated television station wrote to Ofcom in July to request a number of changes to its licence, including slashing its primetime local content by two thirds – from three hours, to one hour a day. Cutting local repeats and diluting its service commitments were also priorities.

Ofcom invited views from interested parties and has published 20 responses on its website this week. All were critical of London Live’s proposals and most called for them to be dismissed outright by the media regulator.

C4 raised concerns that allowing London Live to change its licence so soon after it launched in March would “devalue” public service broadcasting in the UK. The commercial broadcaster argued that London Live’s proposals “fundamentally alters the nature” of what it was established to provide.

“C4 believes that such a move could devalue public service broadcasting by casting it as a burden instead of a privilege that can be diluted and dismissed so quickly after launch,” C4 said.

Channel 5 agreed with its counterpart. “Such a decision would also send the wrong message to other holders of L-DTPS (local TV) licences and those bidding to acquire them: that it does not really matter what is put in applications, because it can always be watered down substantially afterwards,” it said.

Both called on Ofcom to reject London Live’s proposals, as did UKTV, which said the plans were “unjustified, discriminatory, not legitimate and do not reflect the statutory and policy regime intended” for local TV.

A common theme in all of their responses was concern that London Live’s plans are a nakedly commercial attempt to grow audience share and take advantage of the Freeview channel 8 slot it has been granted as part of its 12-year licence.

Indeed, chief operating officer Tim Kirkman told Broadcast in July that licence changes would free-up London Live to air more “commercially sustainable” content, such as general entertainment acquisitions and, potentially, infomercials. He said the channel needed flexibility to prosper.

But UKTV argued: “Removing several of the ‘PSB-like’ burdens applicable to local TV licensees whilst retaining the ‘PSB-like’ benefits can be seen to amount to an unjustified regulatory intervention in the commercial landscape.”

Local TV bidders condemn plans

As well as criticism from some of the UK’s biggest commercial broadcasters, other local TV bidders and licence holders piled in to slam London Live’s proposals.

Jim Manson, group managing director of the Sir Michael Lyons-backed YourTV, claimed that London Live’s proposals risk damaging the reputation of local TV around the country.

YourTV lost out on the London licence, as did London 8, the bid backed by former C4 chairman Luke Johnson. The latter said that if London Live’s requests are granted, it will seek a judicial review of its licence award.

Guy Hornsby, who helped co-ordinate London 8’s bid, said: “It is clear that, if ESTV’s original licence was sought on the basis of the amended commitments they now seek to make, the licence would not have been granted to them.”

Law firm Fieldfisher made a submission on behalf of Richard Horwood’s unsuccessful London bid, Channel 6. It said: “It would appear to be highly unfair to other bidders in the licence application process if Ofcom were to permit ESTV substantially to reduce its voluntarily-offered programming commitments just a few months after the channel had launched.”