Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The reality of London Live - how to launch a station in London

And then it came to pass. London's newest TV station was launched writes former Newsnight and Channel 4 Producer David Dunkley Gyimah.

Here's the catch 22. If you're launching a station you have to big it up. You need eyeballs on your product to make advertisers open their purses.  

Trouble is in that traditionally English sporting tradition of "knock- the- TV- of- its- peg", you run the risk of creating expectations so high that unless you're shooting stardust from the TV it's not going to cut it.

It's a delicate win-win.

Success of a kind though can be measured by the fact the station launched. I watched the opening and it reminded me of youth show BBC Reportage and the Mirror's Live TV.

That's not a criticism but a semiotic reflection of the product, as seen by a critic who watches and analyses television. I chair the jury for the RTS News Innovation awards this year and I used to work on Reportage.

Julian Raesmith commenting on BBC Radio 4 about LondonLive compared it with Network 7 with its cool speak and talking at the audience, er somewhat patronisingly. 

Mark Lawson was complimentary in sections for his piece in the Guardian, praising the diversity of the panel: three women and no white metropolis male.

Ellen E Jones of the Independent gave LondonLive a resounding thumbs up. However, the Independent is also owned by Evgeny Lebedev, who also owns LondonLive. Jones says: 

Londoners often wistfully observe that even with so much culture on the doorstep, they never seem to find time to be a part of it. Well now, with London Live delivering all the good stuff direct to your living rooms, there really is no excuse

The ghost of Network 7
picture Saj Idranizovic

Network 7 in the 1980s was an influential programme for a generation of youth. It launched the careers of several uber slick TV people, at a time when, do you remember Davina McCall's late night dating show "God's Gift" and cooking show "Get Stuffed"?

Honestly, I used to stay up to watch this after a night in the student union  (Leicester) watching Terrence Trent D'arby and some red haired bloke daftly calling himself Simply Red.

After the launch party
The dynamics at LondonLive look interesting. Having been involved in the first 24-hour station, 20 years ago, here's what's going on behind the glam.

You've launched. Whehey!

The reality is now, keep going. However, having worked up to the launch with rehearsals upon rehearsals you mentally begin to feel tired.  You don't have a BBC staff quota so it's still all hands on deck.

Management are in celebratory mood. Nothing has fallen of air. Pitches will be devised for new advertisers and sponsors and the metrics from viewing habits will be combed over.

The approach to the 18-30 year olds needs to work. However because LondonLive is new and they have a mixed constituency: experienced managers, youthful staff, and the suits, at some point conflicts arise. 

As one manager said of Channel One's videojournalists, we created prima donnas. It's natural. Londonlive is still finding its way and is experimenting. But as soon as the younger staff become confident, what works with 18-35 year olds - their target audience - begins to rub against what a late 40-something manager says.

This is the time to hold your nerve and build alliances. When it's not working, it's usually because the audience are getting used to the grammar. All TV station's go through this e.g. BBC. 

If you want to create new TV, don't employ TV people who've come through the system is the radical thought. This thinking is more prevalent in cinema. Tarantino, Soderburgh, Lee, Fincher came at cinema from the side with a vengeance. They were not industry bods.

London's special TV
London  is such a diverse community, that it almost requires a different metric to measure audiences. 24-hour TV is what is known in the industry as a "dip-in service".

Audiences will rarely stay for a long sitting. For the networks, strategic devices like tent-pole programming come into effect.

This is where you create an exemplary programme e.g. The Voice and you dovetail it with two lesser well known programmes. The effect is a spill over from the tent pole programme before a portion of the audience leaves.

In the mid 2000s when Al Jazeera launched, its lead creative designer used my site Viewmagazine.tv to create their website. Last week one of the cleverest former BBC's techs Erik Huggers, now the president of Oncue spoke about the primacy of the web to develop programming. I agree.

What's the next generation of web that will pull in the upwardly mobile? Because the perennial problem of 18-35s sitting down to watch TV will not go away.

So far, with flat design all the trend, Londonlive is yet to use the net as a strategic portal.

But it's very early days. Television is a bummer. News drains resources and just when you get better, other networks are breathing over you e.g. Vice - a network rather than a London-based network. 

London's new station will provide lots of intelligence for how to launch a station, but don't expect to read about anything negative in the press. Jeremy Hunt who launched the local TV programming will be watching with interest. If it works, it debunks all the intel that local TV in the UK can't replicate the US model. Let's wait and see.


Post script added September 2014. 
As I write this additional texts, London Live is struggling financially and from a lack of viewers. Its appeal to the commission to change its status, so it could ditch its London content was rejected. In all likelihood, the station will either down size or fold within three years. The group brought this upon themself. Rather than solicit advice from executives behind Channel One which launched London's first 24 hour station in 1994, they chose to go it alone believing they knew something many TV executives do not.

David will be presenting at the international journalism festival (april 30th 2014) on producing a radically different approach to 21st century news story forms from his 6-year-PhD research. (See what Apple say)