How Local is That’s Solent? Investigating Publicly-Funded Local TV

That's Solent's former TV studio at Highbury College. Photo credit Bill Butcher.

The first of That’s TV‘s local stations, That’s Solent, has left Highbury College, leaving audiences uncertain if the station is still located within the community it claims to serve. Journalist and former That’s Solent video journalist Dale McEwan continues his ongoing investigation into Jeremy Hunt’s failed local TV experiment, which has cost BBC licence-fee payers millions of pounds, seemingly with little accountability for its failings from regulator Ofcom.

The UK’s largest operator of publicly-funded local TV stations – including That’s Solent – has withdrawn information from the public on where its stations are based, despite the company standing to earn millions of pounds of funding from BBC licence fee payers.

Rules set by the government’s broadcast regulator Ofcom state that local TV stations across the UK are supposed to be based in the locality they serve, implying That’s Solent should be based in the Solent area. However, addresses of the locations of That’s TV channels  – including That’s Solent – have disappeared from the business’ website.

Ofcom said it cannot share details of station addresses, despite S&C asking for this information since October last year.

S&C’s investigation found That’s Solent has left Highbury College in Cosham where it was based since launching in November 2014. The whereabouts of the station are now unknown. That’s TV has refused to confirm if That’s Solent is still located in the region and Highbury College has not responded to requests for a comment about That’s Solent’s departure from the college.

What is local TV?

Local TV is a Conservative scheme devised by then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. That’s TV holds licences for 20 stations across England, Wales and Scotland. That’s Solent was the broadcaster’s first channel to launch under That’s TV director Dan Cass.

That’s Solent TV logo

Previous S&C investigations revealed That’s TV’s drive to cut costs, not invest in programming and exploit staff by over working them, paying them the National Minimum Wage, keeping them on zero-hour contracts and not paying their large petrol expenses – all while BBC funding pours in.

Some colleges and universities severed ties with the company when these details came to light last year, asking stations to leave the premises. S&C understands that this is why some stations may now be sharing offices within the same local area, forcing the company to keep address details hidden.

Each TV channel stands to earn up to £300,000 of licence fee money over a three-year contract. Stations air their news content on daily bulletins and that same footage is sent to the BBC in exchange for funding. The BBC pays out regardless of whether it uses the content or not. That’s TV stands to earn millions of pounds across its network of channels. Up to £40m of BBC funds were earmarked to fund the entire local TV scheme and the new infrastructure to allow stations to broadcast.

In July last year Ofcom decided to halt plans to award more licences for new local TV stations due to financial concerns.

BBC funding for That’s Solent should have ended in November 2017, three years after the station launched. This may be another reason why the station may be sharing an office outside of the Solent area.

A former freelancer for That’s Solent who wished to remain anonymous said, ‘Surely as a local TV station, it would want to interact with its audience? What has it got to hide other than the fact that it isn’t a local station at all?’

Adequate oversight?

S&C first informed Ofcom of station address discrepancies in October last year. Our investigation found that at least four That’s TV stations had been asked to leave the colleges and universities they were based in.

That’s Hampshire was asked to leave Queen Mary’s College in Basingstoke in summer last year. Notice was served on the station because a BuzzFeed investigation revealed that Thats TV had ‘gamed’ the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee payers’ cash. The firm was also accused of exploiting and over working its freelance journalists.

It then emerged That’s Hampshire staff were working out of the That’s Thames Valley station 17 miles away in Reading.

Ofcom said at the time, ‘It is a licence condition for all local TV licensees to ensure that the main production base of the Licensed Service, and/or studio from which the Licensed Service is broadcast, is located within the Licensed Area.’

In this case, That’s Hampshire TV should have been based in Basingstoke, not Reading.

Ofcom added that a studio can only be located outside of the Licensed Area if prior written consent is given by the regulator, and confirmed That’s Hampshire had not requested the regulator’s permission to work out of Reading.

At the time, Ofcom’s website and That’s TV’s website both continued to show Queen Mary’s College as the out-of-date address for That’s Hampshire. That’s TV had not informed Ofcom that it had left the college and the regulator confirmed plans to write to the station to determine whether a change of address had taken place and where the station was based.

The regulator said in October last year, ‘Should Ofcom find the service in breach of condition 3 of its licence, we will take the necessary regulatory action.’

It is now four months since Ofcom made that statement and the regulator says it cannot give details of where That’s TV stations are located. Ofcom has not taken any action against That’s TV.

Should audiences know where publicly-funded local channels are based?

A screengrab from December 2018 shows That’s TV removed all of its station addresses from its main website, including details of That’s Solent, leaving only a contact address in Salford.

On 20th December 2018, Ofcom removed the out-of-date addresses for the four stations that had been asked to leave the college or university they were based in, replacing them with the Salford address.

In January 2019, Ofcom deleted all addresses for the remaining 11 That’s TV stations in England and Wales and replaced them with the Salford address, including for That’s Solent.

Station addresses given on Ofcom’s website sometimes reflect a licensee’s contact details, not necessarily the studio location. The regulator told S&C it does not publish studio location details for any other TV licensee.

However, studio addresses were publicly available until S&C investigations revealed discrepancies.

Former That’s Solent employees believe the public have a right to know how their BBC licence fee money is being used and if a station is located in the area that it is being funded to serve.

A former employee told us, ‘The whole local TV project was launched to provide local TV to local communities and this isn’t being done. [That’s TV director] Cass has no interest whatsoever in making local programming. There are plenty of groups out there who would have loved a licence to make local TV but were deprived of that opportunity by Cass.’

When asked about the lack of transparency in That’s TV’s addresses, Ofcom said in a statement, ‘We are in discussion with That’s TV about how it is complying with rules which, unless other arrangements are approved by Ofcom, require all channels to ensure their main production base and/or studio is located within their licensed area. These discussions remain ongoing.’

So where is our local TV coming from? And does it matter?

An observant viewer told S&C they saw a Salisbury postal address appear onscreen during a recent That’s Solent news bulletin. The viewer never saw the address after that. It may be that That’s Solent is now based in That’s Salisbury’s office, although the location of that station is also unknown.

Understaffed newsrooms mean that That’s TV stations frequently have to fill bulletins with stories from other areas. The top story in a recent That’s Solent news bulletin was about Salisbury, with the station also featuring stories from Basingstoke, Newbury and even Birmingham.

When launching his local TV initiative in 2011, Jeremy Hunt, then culture secretary, said, ‘Eight out of 10 consider local news important. Nearly seven out of 10 adults feel localness of stories is more important than them being professionally produced.

‘People in Barnham don’t want to watch what is going on in Southampton. People in Chelmsford aren’t interested in what’s happening in Watford. That is the system we currently have at the moment, so that is what we are trying to rethink.’

Unfortunately, Mr Hunt’s ‘rethink’ has clearly not delivered the results he planned.

S&C contacted That’s TV in October 2018 to clarify station addresses but received no reply. The company has been approached again for a comment but has not responded. S&C has submitted a Freedom of Information request to Ofcom for details of station addresses.

UPDATE 6th August 2019. The first paragraph of the story was updated to include that Dale McEwan is a journalist and former That’s Solent video journalist.

Read more about the continuing investigations into That’s TV:

Buzzfeed News: Revealed: Britain’s biggest Local TV company has “gamed” the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee payers’ money

Star & Crescent: What the BBC Licence Fee was Meant For? My Time With That’s Solent TV

Star & Crescent: Former Employees Call for BBC Investigation of That’s Solent TV

Bella Caledonia: Selling Scotland’s local television to That’s TV is a travesty

Press Gazette: Interns at BBC-funded local TV company say they passed out through exhaustion

Private Eye: Listen to the Page 94 podcast, January 2019, where Adam Macqueen explores That’s TV, “the ‘local’ telly which is anything but”.