UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local TV have sparked a lot of controversy and discussion.
Mr Hunt says of his proposals that,
These new, local TV services will be a fundamental change in how people get information about their own communities, and how they hold their representatives to account.
There’s a huge appetite for local news and information in communities the length and breadth of the country. I want people to be able to watch television that’s truly relevant to them, about what’s happening where they live and featuring the people they know.
As the consultation process gets under way, Mr Hunt could do worse than read a booklet from 1979 called ‘Piped Dreams’ which relates the experience of those involved in a much earlier experiment in local TV – two cable-only channels that existed in Swindon and Milton Keynes.
The reason it fell into my hands is because my colleague at ITV Wales, Jerry Cross, was one of the authors. Back in the 1970s, fresh from college, Jerry worked on Swindon Viewpoint. The other two authors worked at Channel 40 in Milton Keynes.
Much has changed since then and some of the concerns of the authors now seem as dated as the technology they were working with.
But there’s a lot that’s strikingly relevant as we approach a new local TV experiment.
The stations in Swindon and Milton Keynes were the only survivors of an attempt to exploit underused cables which had carried ‘piped’ TV channels to areas of poor aerial reception.
Throughout most of the day these channels showed caption card adverts or early Ceefax pages accompanied by BBC radio.
But their main purpose was to broadcast a few hours a week of original programming, mainly in black and white and made with cheaper, ‘low-gauge’ non-broadcast standard video equipment, some live but much of it recorded.
Something from one of the neighbouring schools … perhaps, or a feature from a local club, or perhaps something from a sports organisation in the area – a range of programmes which (so the theory has it) have been produced and perhaps filmed and edited, directly by local groups and individuals.
The philosophy behind the stations sound familiar to Jeremy Hunt’s: frustration at centralised television production, controlled ‘by a professional minority’ which has become out of touch with the real experience of real people.
It didn’t quite work out like that.
The staff found they still had to act like traditional producers: making editorial judgements, prioritising more interesting items and, because it was so time-consuming to train non-professionals, filling up to half the output with their own work.
It quickly became clear that what people wanted to make might not be the same as what people wanted to watch.
‘Viewers have different requirements from such a service than users.
People who wanted to make programmes had very little idea of what they wanted to make, why they wanted to make it and how they could make it interesting. The end result was often barely recognisable as television; boring, unproduced and unfocussed (in more ways than one) with poor sound and vision.
There were indications that a significant proportion of the initiators were middle-class despite the fact that the great majority of the population in the cabled areas were working class.
It’s no surprise that an articulate, active and vocal liberal middle-class would capture the bulk of the stations’ outputs. The authors note that both Channel 40 and Swindon Viewpoint broadcast remarkably similar programmes of ‘folk music, football, fishing, Friends of the Earth.’
There was also the question of who funded the stations; what they wanted from it and what influence they had.
The cable companies behind the six stations which were launched in the early 1970s saw them as ‘good PR’ in their efforts to win permission to expand cable commercially into Pay TV. When the Labour government refused to give them the go-ahead four of them pulled the plug and EMI gradually transferred its ownership of Swindon Viewpoint.
Channel 40 was bankrolled by Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Leading executives of the powerful quango played an active role in day-to-day decision making and also put together a weekly magazine programme, far slicker than any other group could produce. Staff were regularly reminded that some decisions would be unacceptable to MKDC.
It’s striking that Jeremy Hunt uses the argument that his experiment will boost the flow of local news and information. The authors of Piped Dreams say that was one of the dreams of the 70s version.
In reality that information tended to come from local authorities, public bodies, police, citizens’ advice bureaux who produced their own items. And given that the most common motive was to ‘gain publicity for their particular cause or organisation’, the result was long, often unwatchable time-fillers.
Swindon Viewpoint and Channel 40 eventually fizzled out in the early 1980s when the already uncertain money supply finally ended.
Many of the problems they faced in terms of technology, costs, and ability to broadcast have disappeared in the intervening years.
But the question of what is broadcast and who controls that content remains unanswered.
And a very important update it is too. In the comments section a crucial bit of news from the chairman of … Swindon Viewpoint! Not only has it not fizzled out as I said, but it’s adapted to the 21st century with a website that’s well worth a look. Here’s the comment in full and a link. I’m very happy to be corrected on this and very glad to put the record straight.
Hi Adrian, great to read your article but it needs updating! Swindon Viewpoint didn’t fizzle out in the early eighties. In fact it still exists, though it has had many ups and downs. For a fuller history, visit the ‘history’ section (a sub menu of ‘about’) of out website http://www.swindonviewpoint.com you can also see thousands of our programmes – both new and old; and more are being regularly digitised from the archive. Regards, Martin Parry, Chairman, Swindon Viewpoint