What is the difference between Birmingham UK and Birmingham Alabama and why should you care?

Jeremy Hunt, minister for Culture, Media and Sport, thinks that City TV is the way forward for the UK media scene. Hunt sees micro local television as a way of helping to deliver the “Big Society” strategy because it will make local politics more vibrant if it is televised. He says it will help to decentralise government and to deliver an increased sense of influence and belonging. At the RTS conference in September, Hunt outlined a vision that would deliver a network of city TV channels that might: broadcast for as little as an hour a day; be free to affiliate with each other to bring down costs; be able to offer nationwide deals to advertisers; piggyback on existing national networks, including broadband infrastructure; exploit new technologies such as YouView and mobile TV.

The City TV idea seems to be the suggested official line for developing local democracy in which Hunt says media must play its part. I’m not sure what the City TV schedule would be, and what happens if it launches on a platform of programming that owes more to popular entertainment than political news. So what if it is less like Newsnight and more like “Croydon’s got Talent” (which is, lets face it, more likely to generate an audience)?

Hunt doesn’t just want City TV to be a political success but also commercially viable. One of his big arguments for this is based on a “related worlds” thought. If Birmingham Alabama can sustain local TV stations then why can’t Birmingham Midlands? The two cities are similar in population (Birmingham Midlands is bigger in fact). And Birmingham Alabama manages to sustain not just one but seven channels.

I was recently asked to be on a panel (moderated by the awesome Steve Hewlett) to give a media agency’s view of the commercial opportunities that Birmingham UK TV might offer clients. As you’d expect I did some preparation, and talked to a number of interested parties. The consensus from this is that it seems unlikely that City TV in Birmingham Midlands is going to reproduce the experience of the Birmingham Alabama TV schedule.

A subsequent session entitled “A tale of two Birminghams” indicated why not.

There is no BBC in the US for a start, so providing any kind of local TV news always belonged to the commercial sector alone. Advertising is very different – you don’t see the beautifully crafted national commercials that expect in the UK. Instead there is cheap and cheerful, hard sell local advertising. There is now, and has always been, very different regulation. So a commercial local market has flourished without the restrictions that City TV has had here in the past. And there is more money too. TV in the states has a bigger share of the advertising market overall. Local advertising has a bigger share of the total pot than it does in the UK. And finally GDP per capita is 40% higher than it is in the UK.

And its 19 degrees and sunny this week.

Let’s all go to Birmingham Alabama 

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