Jeremy Hunt’s mixed messages about PSB channels

One of my colleagues drew my attention earlier to a story about Jeremy Hunt in the Telegraph, titled “Provide local news or lose your TV guide slot, ITV and C4 told.” It was quite a striking headline, and he wondered if it was even possible for him to have such influence.

The article stated “Today Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, will warn the major channels that their guide position is at risk if they don’t provide local news.” And when a newspaper says something like that, it usually means that they have been given a copy of the speech beforehand.

Is it possible?

Can a Minister do anything like this, even if he wants to? Well, actually yes. Electronic Programme Guides are covered by an Ofcom code, and that says that PSB (Public Service Broadcasting) channels have to be given prominence, and that the Secretary of State can add to or subtract from the list of PSB channels.

So, on the face of it, if ITV and C4 don’t pull their weight with local material (not that C4 has ever had any; it had a different job to do, catering for minorities) then they could find themselves losing their right to the top spots on the programme guide. Here, I could venture into an aside about how it was previous broadcasting reforms under first the Conservatives and then Labour that have stripped from ITV every shred of the regional programming it used to have, but that’s for another day.

Is it practical?

While on the face of it, it might be possible for Hunt to say to ITV and Channel 4 “You’re not doing what we want, down the EPG you go,” there are more problems than just the potential for Ministers to bully broadcasters into doing what they want.

PSB status is important not just for a place in the programme guide. On Freeview, it’s also intimately related to coverage, and Freeview is going to be the de-factor way of receiving television after switchover.

The PSB channels were given space, because they were PSBs. The BBC had two multiplexes (the chunks of capacity, each of which can carry several channels, also known as a mux), ITV and Channel 4 shared one, and the other three muxes are commercial (though Channel 5 has first dibs on half of one, and there are various other complications and tangled ownerships).

After switchover, there will be three PSB muxes; one will carry the BBC channels, one the HD services, and one the ITV and Channel 4 services with a slot for Channel 5. Channel 5 gets a space on that because many transmitters around the country will only be carrying those three muxes. The other three, with channels like Dave, E4, Sky Three, Sky Sports, ITV4, Film 4 and others won’t be on many relays, because the commercial operators don’t see the benefit.

That means that they’ll have less coverage, and people in rural areas won’t get all the channels (by percentage population, most people will get everything, nevertheless, some people are going to get fewer channels than others. Estimates are around 90% coverage for all channels, and 98% for just the PSB services, a difference of some 4.5million people.)

Now, it would be a bit odd, surely, to say to ITV “Well, you don’t have PSB status any more, so you can’t be on channel 3, but we’ll let you keep the space on that PSB mux” wouldn’t it? You can’t be a PSB sometimes, but not at others.

And what of the people who might gain PSB status by providing local news? Wouldn’t they be entitled to space on a mux that reaches everyone in their area, rather than just those on a main transmitter?

Effectively, to have any logic, the plan would have to involve swapping some of the channels on the ITV/C4 mux for others, otherwise regardless of channel numbers, you’d have the bizarre situation where local news wasn’t available to a lot of people, while there was universal coverage of channel that were no longer deemed PSB.

And there’s also another consequence of that. Given that most people think local TV will find it hard to survive, it’s going to be run on a shoestring – don’t expect glossy production values with amazing graphics. Don’t even expect something like Southern TV’s old Day By Day programme, most likely.

So, how do you think people (or voters as they’re sometimes called) would react if they suddenly found that, not only was Coronation Street or Desperate Housewives on a different channel number, but that if they lived in some rural areas, they couldn’t receive it any more? And the alternative was a distinctly budget local news operation?

I’m sure some people might welcome the news, but I suspect rather more would be pretty annoyed – and they might well think “Actually, couldn’t we just have Day By Day back, in its old slot?” That, surely, would be a better idea – something like the proposed independent news consortiums the last Government talked of, if ITV’s so determined to banish every memory of its regional past.

(There’s also talk of ‘ultra-local’ broadcasting, using extra frequencies; that would allow these new PSBs to get a slot in the cities, without bumping ITV or C4 services out of the way, but it would still be an odd arrangement, with non-PSBs getting better coverage, and local services very unlikely to be available in rural areas, where the cost of reaching those 4.5 million viewers could be prohibitive for a small organisation.)

What’s going on?

Later in the day, a story in Media Guardian caught my eye, “Traditional channels safe from being pushed down EPGs, says Jeremy Hunt,” which seems somewhat at odds with what was reported initially. The Guardian headline appears to be based on questions and answers afterwards, and they too point out it’s not quite what the speech implied.

So what happened? Did the Minister get a reality check from someone? Was the speech poorly drafted? Did someone point out that 4.5 million viewers in rural areas might translate into quite a lot of votes? And has Mr Hunt got quite as much of a grasp of his portfolio as those of us who are interested in broadcasting would like him to have?

Now, as some who read this site will know, I’m not a friend of the Conservative party, but even if I were, I think I might be tempted to ask whether or not whoever let the original idea be floated really had as much idea about the sheer impracticality of it as they should have, and the potential implications.

If any Minister wants to have the confidence of people in certain areas, they need to exhibit a decent grasp of the practicalities of what they propose. And so far – especially with now abandoned talk from last year of tearing up the BBC charter – I have to say I don’t have a lot of confidence in Jeremy Hunt. Some of that is undoubtedly down to my own political views, but really – if you’re going to float ideas, from whatever party, think about them first. Don’t put them in a speech and then row back from them in the Q&A immediately afterwards.

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