A decade and a half after one family firm abandoned its attempt to run a television channel especially for London, another is trying to succeed. Channel One ended in 1998 when, just one day after the third Viscount “Vere” Rothermere died, colleagues at his Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) lost no time in closing one of his pet projects following four years of losses. The channel’s other main supporter, Sir David English, had died just a few months before. One must wish for better luck for the owners of the new channel, London Live which launched on Monday evening.
Instead of the very old British money of the Rothermeres this venture is funded by the very new Russian money of the Lebedevs. In 2009, the Russian businessman and former KGB agent, Alexander Lebedev, bought the then ailing London Evening Standard from Lord Rothermere’s heir. Lebedev installed his own son Evgeny as the Standard’s chairman.
By turning the paper into a high-quality (and profitable) free-sheet the Lebedevs succeeded where the Rothermeres failed. Now they are trying to do what the Rothermeres also failed to achieve – use the editorial and advertising sales synergies of the Standard to develop a profitable TV channel.
They start with a useful leg-up from the government – a prominent free slot in every London home on Freeview. By comparison, Channel One was only in homes with cable. But better distribution alone cannot guarantee success. The Standard is a top-quality editorial product. Can London Live build on its relationship with the Standard to produce a channel that people in London will watch?
For weeks the pages of the Standard have promised good things to come on London Live but what was striking from the first 24 hours of TV transmission was the absence of any mention of the Standard or any obvious on-air tie-ins. It looks like a new stand-alone channel based on scarce resources, no sense of it being part of a bigger, established media player. I spotted just one guest appearance by a Standard reporter and one by a reporter on the Independent, another part of the Lebedev family’s media holdings.
Both on-air and online London Live’s news reports were slim offerings compared to the Standard’s news coverage. The day after launch the news site was still headlining a story which appeared on the Standard site three days earlier. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt not to dilute the impact of the Standard but it hardly helps the fledgling TV operation and its online offering.
The opening half-hour of the channel looked woefully under-planned and under-resourced for a launch show. One presenter walked round in circles on the South Bank telling us four times how “incredibly exciting” it was (it wasn’t) and how the show had been “talking to some of the best people in London” (they hadn’t). The other presenter, at a film premiere, told us six times he would be speaking to Emma Watson and Russell Crowe before he eventually did. Crowe, we were told, would only appear “here”, in fact he appeared on the BBC’s London News and other outlets.
The next hour was called “Not the One Show” – and there was no danger we would mistake it for the real thing. A bizarre top shot revealing that the studio is crammed into a tiny office space increased the impression of cheap TV.
Then came a change of gear, in-house production giving way to new programmes made by independent producers or old ones bought from broadcasters. Jamie Oliver’s production company Fresh One made “The Food Busker” and suddenly the difference in production values was there to see and enjoy. It may be that these out-of-house shows will be the best things on the channel.
London Live has a refreshingly diverse cast of presenters who, uniquely for a TV service for London, actually look like the capital looks at street level. It has colourful branding and some smart promos. It didn’t fall off the air at first attempt. But nor has it offered much so far to bring viewers back. For the sake of the investors and the staff lets hope that the best is yet to come.