How niche TV is broadening the horizons of advertisers

They may not make the headlines like ITV’s new digital channel, but small TV channels are quietly emerging to offer narrowly targeted audiences to advertisers. If only agencies appreciated them

As the cable industry finally unites with the merger of NTL and Telewest, and the upheavals continue at ITV, it is easy to overlook the revolution that is taking place at the other end of the spectrum, where small new television channels continue to spring up almost daily.

More 4 starts next week and ITV4 next month – two additions to the “families” of channels being established by the main terrestrial broadcasters. But you may not have noticed – unless you scan the Sky electronic programme guide (EPG) regularly – that the Local Government Channel went on the air last week, on Sky Digital channel number 277.

It runs for just half an hour a day, from 6.30pm, which may not seem much of a channel, but it aims to extend its hours within the next 12 to 18 months. Run by two former BBC producers, with a presenter from Sky News, it’s part of a new breed of targeted TV unleashed by the digital revolution that could change the way we think about – and use – TV channels.

For years people have talked about the prospect of “narrowcasting” and niche TV. But the rapid growth of the digital platforms means such channels can now reach into millions of homes, and entrepreneurs are queuing up to try out new business models. Many involve gambling, sex, shopping and SMS texting – but a surprising number are laying claim to the term “public service broadcasting”.

Channel 277 is run by a business called Information Television, which carries programmes from government departments, public bodies and other institutions. It has a unique licence from Ofcom that allows public bodies to sponsor programmes and influence the editorial content. Some would say that is blurring the lines between programming and propaganda. Others would claim it’s simply a new way for public bodies to communicate with the public, unfiltered by a sometimes hostile and uninterested media.

It’s the brainchild of Fred Perkins, who used to run the Government’s Stationery Office and sees TV as a potentially much more powerful medium than print for public bodies to communicate with their staff and their users. “Quite apart from the programmes themselves, there are lots of events that government departments put on – roadshows, debates, conferences – that could be brought to a much wider audience very cheaply through TV,” he says.

The first edition of Local Government Television carried an interview with the chief executive of the Local Government Association, about how London would cope with a New Orleans-style emergency. Information Television is also carrying programmes from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Executive and a docudrama about Freedom of Information, sponsored by BT.

It’s not the only example of niche public service TV. Teachers’ TV launched earlier this year, funded by the Department for Education and Skills. London TV, produced by Enteraction, which also runs Thomas Cook TV, is funded by VisitLondon and aimed at promoting the capital to visitors. And The Community Channel, part of the Media Trust, carries programmes made by and about charities.

The problem for all these channels is how to entice people to watch, amid all the competing claims on their screen time in the home or office. An alternative model is to bring the TV to the audience, whether in a pub, to reach sports fans, or a supermarket, to reach shoppers, or – as one enterprising company has managed to do – in universities to reach students.

With most students returning to their lectures this week, SUBtv has built up a commanding presence on the campuses (MW April 15). Its niche TV channel – heavy on music, comedy, sport and lifestyle programming – can be found in more than 90 student unions, where the broadcaster has installed its own large plasma screens. It has just added Newcastle, Glasgow, UCL and a facility underneath the Oxford Union.

Advertisers include the mobile phone companies 3 and Vodafone, the poker company Titan Poker, the internet phone company Skype and a TV Licensing’s evasion campaign, which is targeting students as they go back to university. SUBtv is even making the ads, getting students to tell jokes which – like the &£1,000 fine for not having a licence – are “not funny”.

SUBtv chief executive Peter Miles says the company expects to move into profit next year, a year ahead of schedule. But there is one thing he and Information Television’s Perkins agree on: it is much easier to get advertisers interested in their channels than it is the advertising and media agencies.

“It’s hard for agencies, because they don’t have the time or the resources for all the new media,” says Miles, “but they do seem wedded to traditional TV. Client companies have bought into our channel much more than the agencies.”

Perkins agrees: “Our prices are so low for half an hour of TV time that they don’t seem to interest the media agencies, which would much rather be dealing with big budgets. Yet this is a way of using TV that simply wasn’t possible before.”

Agencies – and clients – take note.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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