That's a question that is sparked by the oft-quoted lament: "Why does Birmingham, Alabama have 8 local television stations whilst Birmingham, England has none?". Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Secretary quoted it in a recent speech. It is a snapshot of a broader issue, that the US has hundreds of local TV stations across the breadth of the country whereas we do not really have (and have never really had) anything resembling that.
We did used to have the ITV regions which was a vaguely regional approach with some local programming but there were only 15 or so of them across the whole country and they have now been merged into the single behemoth that is ITV1.
So why does the US have such diversity of local stations and the UK have such a dearth? Here are a few thoughts.
The USA is a vastly larger country than the UK both in terms of geography and population. The population of the USA is around 5 times the size of the UK and the geographical size is around 40 times the size. These two factors mean that firstly, you would expect there to be many more TV stations anyway. But secondly because they have a population density that is roughly 8 times lower than the UK you would expect that to tilt things more in favour of local stations. For example in the UK it is not unreasonable for a local TV station and news channel to cover Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Warwick and Solihull. They are all within about 50 miles of each other. Whereas in the USA many areas have much lower population density but are much more broadly spread out. It is natural therefore to expect that TV channels will have evolved to reflect this reality.
Which brings me to my next point. In the USA TV stations have often evolved in local areas from the ground up. In the UK, TV stations have (until recently) been very much top down. The USA has an affiliates system whereby local stations often affiliate themselves with a national network such as NBC, CBS, ABC or Fox. They will then often have their own programming including local news during the daytime and then pick up the networked programmes at peak times. It is a looser situation than in the UK where even when ITV was a federated group of separate companies the network scheduling was more tightly controlled and the franchises for each area were awarded in a top-down manner by the government. Affiliates in the US have been known to drop affiliate status with one network and sometimes go with another one as a result of disputes or new management. Can you imagine back in the 1980s if Granada has decided to affiliate with Channel 4 instead of ITV? It wouldn't really have been possible. We just do not have the infrastructure in this country for it to work like that. Perhaps it is a reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit so prevalent in the US that has meant their TV statiions have evolved in this way. Whatever the reasons, it is probably this point above all that is why Birmingham, Alabama has 8 TV stations and Birmingham, England has none.
We then need to ask whether having 8 local TV stations is desirable. I have spent some time in various US states (although admittedly not Alabama) and from what I have seen of the local programming it can be pretty ropey. I guess with so many stations seeking advertising revenues from a much smaller population quality is bound to take a hit. However it is the market that is deciding how many stations can be supported and just because the output is not to my UK taste does not mean it is wrong. It's just that there would likely be a price to pay if we go down a road that ultimately leads to Birmingham, England with 8 TV stations.
I don't think the answer to our current broadcasting malaise lies in making lazy comparisons between two places that happen to have the same name but very different history, cultures and contexts. I think local TV programming should have its place in the UK but it is likely to come from the ground-up organically as need dictates. The technology has already pretty much reached the point where for a very low outlay local people could set up their own station if they wished. Perhaps also a way will be found by social or media entrepreneurs to monetise at a local level and hence provide good quality local content. I expect the internet will play an integral part in this brave new world.
If anything though, the best thing the government could do is get out of the way! Perhaps if we had lower barriers to entry for broadcasting then we would see our own broadcasting landscape flourish.