Claudia-Liza Armah isn’t just a presenter on London Live, the city’s new local TV station. She’s a true believer in the possibility for a local TV revolution in Britain.
Since her childhood on a West Kensington council estate – just two Tube stops from the London Live studio – 34-year-old Armah has dreamt of changing the capital city’s TV. “My mum was so strict, she didn’t want me hanging around with all the other kids,” says Armah. “So I just stayed at home all the time watching television, and obsessing about one day being part of something new and different.”
Fast-forward to 2009, when Jeremy Hunt – then shadow media spokesman – announced that a Tory government would create ultra-local TV stations up and down the UK. Unlike many cynics in the media, who dismissed Hunt’s plans as uneconomic and unworkable, Armah couldn’t wait to get going: “I was like, ‘Whatever’s going on in London, I’ve got to be a part of it.’ ”
Now Armah’s dream is about to come true, as one of London Live’s four launch presenters. On Monday 31 March, it will become the third local TV station to start broadcasting – after Grimsby and Norwich – but by far the splashiest. And over the next year or so, a total of 25 local stations will take to the airwaves, from Edinburgh to Blackpool to Cardiff to Brighton.
If successful, these tiny broadcasters could reinvigorate local journalism. But that success depends upon winning viewers with great programmes, and even London Live has an annual budget of just £15 million – which is what the BBC spends annually on red button content, and roughly a series of Doctor Who. It’s a tiny amount by TV standards, especially with five-and-a-half hours of news and current affairs to produce every weekday. The three-hour breakfast show, Armah’s lunchtime hour Headline London, and an early-evening programme called Not the One Show will all be anchored from the airy London Live studio, its floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the red buses of Kensington Church Street.
When we meet, three weeks before the launch, Armah is about to present a pilot of Headline London. “We’re trying to get in touch with the kind of people who are at home in the day,” she says. “So we’ll have a bit of business, a bit of stuff for your mums, your students.” The pilot includes items on immigration, trust in the Metropolitan Police, a new fashion trend, and One Direction’s Harry Styles.
Armah writes her own script, and operates her autocue with a foot pedal. This is TV news on a shoestring, but the slightly student feel chimes with London Live’s overall target audience – the 16- to 34-year-old viewers who are valuable to advertisers.
Yet TV history is littered with the failure of both youth channels (BBC3) and local ones (Manchester’s Channel M). London Live will have an uphill struggle – to say the least – to succeed on both counts. “I don’t think ratings will be our primary measure of success, at first anyway,” says Stefano Hatfield, London Live’s editorial director. “It’s about really establishing some must-watch programmes.”
London live is backed by some real media muscle: it’s an offshoot of the London Evening Standard newspaper, owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.
The schedule includes repeats of Misfits, Peep Show and Black Books, as well as original commissions (including a documentary series about drag queens, and a comedy strand with Alex Zane).
“London is taking a mainstream entertainment path, whereas most of the other licensees are focused on local and community-based programming,” says Ed Hall, the chief executive of Comux, the national transmission network that will deliver the local TV stations on Freeview. “Nottingham, for example, has a close relationship with both the local newspaper and the local university – and with a charity in the city that provides media training for disadvantaged communities.”
Local TV stations will also be allowed to broadcast programmes paid for by advertisers, which are banned on traditional TV channels. “I’m seeing some exciting experiments in that, particularly around property programming,” says Hall. “At the moment, estate agents can’t pay to put properties on the telly. On local TV, that won’t be true. So in Brighton, for example, they’re working on completely new formats.”
Until now, local TV’s crucible of innovation has – perhaps surprisingly – been hottest in Grimsby. Channel 7 has been broadcasting on cable there since 1997 and (under its new name, Estuary TV) was the first local TV station to launch on Freeview last November. As well as news, it has a sports programme, On the Bench, and The Moore Show, a late-night talk show about the spiritual and paranormal. But Estuary’s biggest hit is Lingard’s Lincolnshire Rambles.
“Hundreds of people came back to us saying they want another series,” says Lia Nici, Estuary TV’s station manager. “It explores those areas that maybe you didn’t know about. For instance, one episode looked at the villages around Horncastle. Well, Alfred, Lord Tennyson came from one of those villages, and the local pub was where he sat by the fire – on the original pew that’s still in the pub – talking to his friends.”
Estuary TV is owned by the local college, Grimsby Institute, so perhaps doesn’t feel quite the commercial pressures that face London Live. It has nonetheless worked hard to attract advertisers – from national brands, such as Axa Insurance, to local businesses, such as Pettit’s the butchers. Brigg, the nearby market town, received “Portas money” from the Government to try to revive its shops – and has spent some of it on Estuary TV, with tangible results.
Of course, green shoots in Grimsby don’t guarantee a bumper harvest in the capital, and London Live’s launch will be the first real test of local TV’s chances in Britain. “What does success look like? It’s about becoming part of the fabric of life,” says London Live’s Stefano Hatfield. “We’re prepared for all eventualities. And we’re going to have to fight for every viewer – we’re completely aware of that.”
London Live launches on Monday 6.30pm, broadcasting within the M25 on Freeview channel 8, Sky 117 and Virgin 159 — and online at londonlive.co.uk