Big Centre TV – Television as it should be

150301-big-centre-tvLast night, local commercial television returned to the Midlands.

Big Centre TV is the new local channel for Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull; and is available on Freeview channel 8 (you may need to retune your sets).

London Live, the local TV service for London has hit a problem and has twice asked Ofcom to reduce the amount of local programming it has to broadcast. The first request was turned down but the second, more limited request, was accepted on the basis that the proposed changes “would not constitute a departure from the character of the service.”

London Live is operated by ESTV, a subsidiary of Lebedev Holdings, which publishes the Independent and London Standard. Its studios are located in the Daily Mail’s flagship Kensington offices at Northcliffe House. It is a commercial venture designed to make money.

There is nothing wrong in media companies wanting to make money. But it is inevitable – and very sad – that when media companies are run by money-men, the first thing they do when things aren’t going well is cut the very thing they’re there to do. In this case, local broadcasting.

Big Centre TV appears to be run on a very different basis. Firstly, those behind it are media people – programme makers, journalists and presenters. I’m sure that they, too, want to make money. But their motivation seems to be on making programmes – local programmes – and supporting emerging talent.

We used to have local tv. Or, to be precise, regional tv. But that was lost when Carlton, the London weekday franchise holder, and Granada, the Manchester franchise holder, were allowed to buy up most of the UK’s regional ITV licencees – including Central in the Midlands – before eventually merging to form ITV.

With the merger, we lost truly regional programming and the stations lost their regional identities. Of course, ITV still broadcasts regional news bulletins – and there are some very good people working on those programmes. But nowhere near as many as there used to be. The money men who run the company decided that the half-hour bulletins could be filled without the expense of sending qualified reporters all over the patch to report on whatever was happening. Now, the bulletins will contain one or two report packages. The rest will be filled with the presenter reading a script over pictures.

I could lament the loss of regional tv for hours. And local radio. And local newspapers. And, given the right circumstances I often do.

The money men look at the business and see that they have two types of staff: journalists (and programme makers) who spend money; and ad-sales people who bring money in. So they reduce the number of journalists and increase the number of sales people.

But they don’t understand why that hasn’t resulted in their papers or radio stations becoming more profitable. So they close the newspapers down. Or they merge radio stations with neighbouring stations or syndicate the programmes nationally. And yet they STILL don’t understand why the listeners lose their affinity to what has become just another national brand rather than their local station serving their local community.

So, back to Big Centre TV before this turns into a massive rant about the state of the media in the UK!

The new local station has decided against plush shiny offices in the heart of Birmingham’s commercial district. Instead, they opted to set up shop in the premises of Walsall Studio School. This is an institution, just off the Town Centre, offering specialist education from Year 10 to Sixth Form.

Big Centre TV isn’t just renting space but is also providing opportunities to help train the youngsters at the school. Only time will tell whether this partnership will benefit the youngsters; but it is good to see Big Centre TV begin with fantastic community approach: local media, rooted in and working with the local community.

And it was impressive that their initial launch programme included a prayer of blessing over its staff from a local Christian minister; and that its news programme included a thought-slot from a local Sikh leader – something (a thought from local religious leaders) that we were told would be a regular part of its news bulletins. Any organisation that wants to reach local communities would do well to remember that faith communities (particularly, but not exclusively, the Church of England) are the only organisations to have successfully done this across the country.

Mike Prince (taken from Big Centre TV's website)
Mike Prince
(taken from Big Centre TV’s website)

The names behind Big Centre TV will be well known to many Midlanders above a certain age. For many of us, its director of programmes, Mike Prince, was the voice – and face – of tv. He was the voice between the programmes who became the face between the programmes when Central pioneered the homely in-vision approach to telling us what was coming up.

And its head of news and sport, Bob Hall, will be equally well known as Central’s former sports editor who went on to be the voice of match-reports and live score updates on Sky Sports News.

On paper, Big Centre TV has impressive intentions for local news. But it didn’t live up to them on opening night.

What should have been the big opportunity to show what local news could be; was instead turned into a magazine programme with poorly produced packages of, well, nothing much.

There were reports about penguins at an aquatic centre in Birmingham, linked to half-term (that was two weeks ago); boxing at Walsall’s Banks’s stadium (that took place last weekend); whether students felt that their tuition fees were value for money (timeless); and the Birmingham student Maggie Lieu who is on a shortlist of people who want to make a one-way trip to Mars (something that was covered extensively elsewhere two weeks earlier).

Most of these pre-prepared reports were done by the same video journalist. There’s nothing wrong with a journalist working on more than one story in a bulletin – but it does begin to jar when that journalist is voicing most of the reports. And there should have been more actual news – what had happened in the region that day?

I had the impression that the entire night’s broadcasting – including Bob Hall’s links between the reports in the news – was pre-recorded. For me, this was an opportunity lost.

There were technical problems too. The sound quality in the reports were poor with people interviewed in noisy backgrounds, making them difficult to hear; interspersed with voice-overs recorded in the silence of sound-proofed edit booths.

The video journalists are probably young and inexperienced. They will improve. And I can live with errors like this (so long as they are occasional) if it means that students are being given the opportunity to develop skills that will see them become capable and experienced broadcasters.

But there were other sound problems too; not least the variation in volume between different items. The archive clip of Crossroads shown last night was broadcast at a very low volume, requiring the volume to be turned up full blast. And so, when the adverts came on… Wow! I nearly blew my speakers!

Again, this is something that Big Centre TV can rectify. But they are going to have to do so soon before people get annoyed at having to constantly change the volume.

It is early days – or day (the station, which launched at 6pm last night, has not been on air for 24 hours yet) and improvements need to be made. But I’m hugely encouraged by what I’ve seen so far and I’m very, very, hopeful that Big Centre TV will be television as it should be – rooted in a community and understanding of its patch.

I’ll be watching Big Centre TV (and not just for the Crossroads repeats). If you’re in the West Midlands, you can catch them on Freeview channel 8 (you may need to retune).


Note: This post was edited on 3rd March to correct the statement that London Live was part-owned by the Daily Mail.