Will Publicly-Funded That’s Solent TV Leave the Region for Good?

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

BBC-funded local TV station That’s Solent is one of the channels that could leave its community altogether under plans submitted to Ofcom. Former That’s Solent journalist Dale McEwan also reveals that That’s TV paid nothing for using studio space at Highbury College for four years, despite standing to earn millions of pounds of BBC licence fee payers’ money and exploiting journalists.

 The company behind local TV station That’s Solent has ‘provisionally’ been allowed to run its entire network of 20 stations from just seven studios/main production offices. Critics say the move goes against the whole point of local television, and there are now fears that That’s Solent will be one of the stations allowed to be based outside of its region.

After months of investigations and Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by S&C, broadcast regulator Ofcom has finally revealed wider plans for hyperlocal That’s TV licences to share studios and production offices in cities across the UK.

Ofcom previously explained the rules to S&C, stating that each local TV licensee must ensure that its studio and/or main production base is located within the licensed area unless permission is given. For example, That’s Solent TV must be based in the Solent area.

But in a complete U-turn, Ofcom looks set to allow That’s TV to take the ‘local’ out of local TV.

S&C recently discovered that That’s Solent left Highbury College in Cosham, where it had been based since launching in November 2014. That’s TV and Ofcom are refusing to reveal That’s Solent’s whereabouts. There is now a strong chance that That’s Solent will share a studio or production base with another station outside of the Solent region.

A former That’s Solent employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, told S&C the move is similar to local radio that is now broadcast nationwide from London, but is unacceptable for this publicly-funded enterprise.

‘While it’s OK, but not desirable, for these big radio groups to do this – they are privately owned and funded companies – it’s not OK for [That’s TV director] Dan Cass to siphon money from the BBC – taxpayers – to provide a local TV service, which he is failing to do.’

That’s Solent TV logo

What is local TV?

Local TV is a Conservative project devised by former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. That’s Media is the UK’s largest operator of publicly-funded local TV stations, and 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.

BBC funding for That’s Solent should have ended in November 2017, three years after the station launched. This is another reason why there may now be plans to operate the station outside of the Solent area.

Ofcom has now confirmed suspicions that some ‘local’ That’s TV stations already have their studio/production office outside of the community they are funded to serve. This is despite millions of pounds of funding from BBC licence fee payers being earmarked to support the company. Ofcom said it is currently not taking any action against That’s TV despite these apparent licence breaches.

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 covering their substantial petrol expenses – all while BBC funding pours in.

Some colleges and universities severed ties with That’s TV when these details came to light last year, asking stations to leave the premises. S&C understands that this is why some stations are already sharing studios within the same community.

Staff at That’s Solent TV. Shown: Charlotte Briere-Edney, Daniel Cass and Dale McEwan (Left to right). Image credit, Dale McEwan

Taking the local out of local TV

In October last year, S&C started to suspect that That’s TV stations were sharing studios outside of their local areas. S&C has been pushing Ofcom to reveal the location of That’s Solent and other studios since that time.

Ofcom said in October, ‘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.’

The regulator 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 That’s TV had not requested the regulator’s permission to base stations in different cities.

S&C pushed Ofcom’s media team to explain where That’s Solent was based and what action was being taken against That’s TV for any licence breaches. But Ofcom repeatedly said it could not comment any further.

S&C then sent a freedom of information (FOI) request to Ofcom asking for the addresses of all That’s TV studios and offices. The regulator is now using freedom of information laws to withhold this information but has confirmed that some licences do not have a studio and/or main production base in the licensed area.

So where will That’s Solent operate from?

 It is understood from Ofcom’s FOI reply that six of That’s TV’s 20 stations already do not have a studio or office in the licensed area. Five licences have an office in the licensed area but use a studio outside of the area to record programmes.

That’s Solent is one of nine licences that Ofcom believes has a studio in the licensed area.

However, in what appears to be a blunder, a YouTube video shows a That’s Solent presenter reading out the station contact details for That’s Salisbury during a pre-recorded bulletin on 5th February this year. The presenter then gives the contact details for That’s Solent.

The Twitter account for the presenter shows that he works for both That’s Solent and That’s Salisbury. It seems very likely that That’s Solent is now recorded and broadcast from That’s Salisbury’s studio.

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 bulletin also featuring stories from Basingstoke, Newbury and even Birmingham.

Ofcom is withholding That’s Solent’s address details, so S&C cannot confirm the station’s whereabouts. The regulator’s FOI response also reveals that it does not hold a full address history for each That’s TV station.

A FOI reply from Highbury College discloses that That’s Solent left the college in November last year due to ‘mutual consent’, but did not elaborate further.

The FOI letter also shows that That’s TV rented premises at Highbury for free during its entire four-year contract. The company agreed to offer training opportunities to students in return for the studio and office space. But former That’s Solent employees previously told us that That’s TV was not benefiting Highbury students’ education.

The FOI response says no complaints were made to the college about That’s Solent.

That’s Solent TV gallery at Highbury College. Photo credit, Bill Butcher.

Why is Ofcom allowing stations to share studios?

That’s TV wrote to Ofcom in July last year to float the idea of sharing studios and/or main production bases. That’s TV then sent a more detailed proposal to the regulator in January this year.

Ofcom’s FOI response states, ‘The proposal seeks Ofcom’s consent [for That’s TV] to establish seven studios/main production bases for the 20 local TV services.’

Ofcom’s deadline is June for these proposals. In light of this ongoing process, the regulator said it is not taking any action against That’s TV for licence breaches.

The broadcast regulator told S&C that it is not changing the rules surrounding local TV, nor does it intend to do so.

A spokesperson said, ‘Licensees are, however, able to seek Ofcom’s written consent for alternative arrangements. As explained in our [FOI] response, That’s Media submitted an initial proposal for the sharing of its local TV service studios and/or main production bases for our consideration.

‘We have provisionally agreed to this in principle, however, we are awaiting further details from That’s TV on its specific proposals, before reaching our final decision. At that point, we would publish any decision we reach, setting out the rationale for it.’

The former That’s Solent employee disagrees with Ofcom’s move, adding, ‘There are plenty of people who would [make local TV] without the BBC funding, purely because they want to make local TV for local communities. Ofcom should strip [Cass] of his licences and give them to these people. Although I imagine that once the BBC funding dries up Cass will sell That’s TV anyway.’

Recent media reports suggest Evgeny Lebedev – owner of the Independent and Evening Standard – is in talks with Cass in hopes of selling his failed local TV channel London Live, which has never made a profit and is ‘running up losses of £30m to date, according to filings at Companies House’.

S&C has repeatedly approached That’s TV director Dan Cass for a comment but has received no reply.

 

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

Star & Crescent: That’s Solent TV: Delivering for Portsmouth Students?

Star & Crescent: How Local is That’s Solent? Investigating Publicly-Funded Local 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”.