Public Affairs: Public service TV

As a new bill gives the public sector access to TV, Alastair Ray looks at pilot projects

A new weapon is about to be added to the public sector's armoury.

Thanks to changes being introduced in the Communications Bill, communicators will now be able to spread their messages via TV.

As part of a wider move by both central and local government to communicate its policies via TV, the new rules will allow councils, for the first time, to bid for Restricted Service Licences. This will give them a chance to compete with commercial broadcasters for the right to operate local TV stations.

Association of Local Government Communications secretary Michael Baker points out that with councils already being large-scale publishers in print and online, a broadcast environment should be equally successful.

Early experiments offer a real insight to what will be possible. The NHS is about to gain a national digital TV presence following four pilots, aiming to provide details of health services as well as general health information.

David Docherty, chairman of LivingHealth, which offered households in the West Midlands the chance to talk to a nurse via their TV and the Telewest cable network, explains the pilots proved demand for public services via TV was strong.

'Although it was quite a contained experiment in Birmingham to about 36,000 homes, around 45 per cent of the people who could use it, did,' he says. 'Even better, from the point of view of the Department of Health, it was people from lower socio-economic groups and older people who were using it.'

TV, as a means of communication, is also being looked at by government departments. The Department for Education and Skills is looking for a partner to develop Teacher TV. It will offer classroom resources, training and development materials as well as news about events that affect the education sector as a whole.

The right to operate the scheme is currently up for tender and will be piloted in the autumn via ADSL services and DVD trials. If successful, the channel, which will be run by an independent partner, could target up to one million people.

In addition, the cost benefits of communicating via TV compare well to other media, according to DfES team leader for new product development Ben Arora.

'If you are targeting an audience of one million, the cost of communicating with them in other ways can be quite astronomical,' he says. 'And why shouldn't schools in Cornwall learn what schools tried out in Yorkshire?

TV is a really good way of getting teachers to communicate.'

Councils have already been experimenting with TV, although so far most schemes have stuck to text-based interactive offerings.

For example, over the last 16 months Hertfordshire County Council has had a partnership running on ntl, showing a limited number of redesigned web pages on the cable company's local interactive services.

E-government manager Bob Breakey says information about local organisations and elected representatives, as well as health, educational and social services, has been put onto TV. As all the information comes off the central database that also powers the council's website, the cost is around £25,000 a year.

'About 10-20 per cent of the website content is available,' he says.

'I think this year we will be looking to implement some of the transactional aspects we can do on the website on to TV.'

Knowsley council is another that has gone down the cable route, offering a mix of text and stills to 7,000 Telewest subscribers in the borough.

As well as advice about council services, information is available on local history and walks. Since its launch in July 2000, 540,000 visits have been made.

Elsewhere, Suffolk County Council project manager Nigel Blake welcomes the new legislation, citing that broadcast media is a good way to communicate to people who are otherwise difficult to reach in an effective manner.

The council has itself recently developed an interactive service on SkyDigital, in collaboration with Ipswich and Babergh councils. Information has been available via the UK Online interactive TV service since July last year.

Blake says the service includes information such as leisure centre opening hours and how to make an enquiry about student loans or report a streetlight fault. Although there's been little promotion of the pilot, it is currently attracting around ten visits a day.

Annual running costs are around £60-70,000, but at the end of the process the council, which is part of a national pathfinder project that also involves Knowsley, Kirklees, Hillingdon and Somerset councils, will produce a 'how to' guide and a starter kit with money-saving tips for less advanced authorities.

Further north, East Riding of Yorkshire has teamed up with Kingston Communications, which has an ADSL network covering a portion of its district.

TaylorSyms Marketing and Public Relations director Simon Taylor, who was comms and PR manager at the council when the service was launched, says the borough had had communication issues, particularly given the large size of its patch.

'Councils are often coming under the spotlight in terms of products and services they provide. What this does is get into the front rooms of people's homes, giving councils an opportunity to explain in more detail,' he says.

East Riding is also looking at putting its service on the SkyDigital platform as part of the carriage deal negotiated by the Office of the e-Envoy's UK Online project.

Office of the e-Envoy head of external relations John Fraser says the need to put public information on TV is driven by the fact that many groups simply can't be reached in other ways.

'Thirty-eight per cent of the population have never experienced the internet and a significant number of that 38 per cent will have digital TV in their homes,' he explains. 'It's incumbent on us to look at reaching them through other channels.'

Camden was part of the consortium that invested in A Different Kind of Television (DK TV), an ambitious project that broadcast on the Home Choice platform in London.

As well as interactive services, the project also included programming about the local area and DK TV had a licence from the Independent Television Commission.

'It was very nice to have a more quirky, funky form of digital TV rather than a lot of very flat text-driven services a lot of councils have been doing,' says project manager in the council's e-services department Ron Banerjee.

However, the bulk of these projects are pilots, and whether they continue or not will depend on usage and funding. Text-based services that are simply technical offshoots of the council website and the e-government department are relatively low cost operations to run. However, it will be more difficult to fund full-scale local TV with programming.

Hull City Council, meanwhile, has ambitious plans to create a broadband portal with text and video on-demand services for three key life stages - leaving school, having children, and retirement. But the funding required is significant.

'The first stage of the project might cost £4-5m with a lot of content development,' admits the council's strategy and communications manager Steve Fleming. 'For a city the size of Hull that is a big project.'

Central government may have the cash to pump into high-profile TV channels, but the decision will be harder for cash-strapped local councils. The perils of getting it wrong are illustrated by the fact DK TV went into receivership last summer.

'The issue is: is it value for money? Is it the most cost-effective way to tell people about health or what their local council (is doing)?' asks Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust, which runs social action TV station the Community Channel.

Yet Baker says with council PROs now experienced in producing online content and dealing with interactivity on the web, the next step may not be that far away.

'There are some larger city authorities who will look at this agenda much more seriously if the legislative roadblock could be out of the way,' he says. 'I think it makes it much more likely.'

FACTS AND TIPS

Distribution: Digital TV isn't like analogue TV, the channels you can receive depends on the platform. With a choice of digital cable and satellite as well as ADSL, in some areas councils will have to consider which platform will reach the most people in their area.

Finding your channel: Where you sit on the electronic programme guide will have a major impact on the level of traffic or viewing your digital TV offering will get. If an interactive service is filed under government it will probably die from lack of interest. You'll get more interest under local information.

Legal framework: If content is text-based no additional licensing is required, but if you plan to make programmes, you'll need to check if new super-regulator OFCOM requires your service to be licensed.

Structure: Information should be grouped by topic rather than department, as most members of the public don't know how the council is organised.

If you're in an area with a county and district council they may not even know which authority is responsible for what.

Cost: Always crucial. Text-based services that run off the same information database as the council website will be relatively cheap to run once the design work is completed. People who want to make programmes should think about a much higher budget. The Community Channel has a total budget of £500,000 a year.

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