Jeremy Hunt has hit back at critics of local television stations, the flagship policy of his period as culture secretary, accusing competitors of wanting to “rubbish” the approach for their own purposes.
Mr Hunt, who is now health secretary, tried to set up TV channels for every town and city in Britain but the channels that have been set up so far have been dogged by low viewing figures.
“There is a great desire in the Westminster media world to write off ‘local yokel stations’,” he said on Tuesday. “If New York can manage six local TV stations the idea that London cannot sustain one is bonkers, despite the desire of competitors to rubbish it.”
Local TV, which was inspired by the success of regional channels in the US, has been promised £40m of public funding through the BBC licence fee.
So far five channels have been launched, covering Norwich, Nottingham, Grimsby, Glasgow and London, all with a prime slot on the Freeview programme guide, yet they have struggled to attract viewers.
London Live, the biggest station to open, has recorded audience figures in the low thousands for some of its flagship programmes – with its editorial director quitting three weeks after its launch. The 24-hour channel has an annual programming budget of just £15m.
The low viewing figures for London Live come despite backing by Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian tycoon who owns the London Evening Standard and The Independent.
According to the official ratings monitor, Barb, the station has seen viewing figures as low as 300 on some evenings for its flagship London Go evening programme. Its best-watched programme has been Extreme Playgrounds, featuring extreme sports, with 27,000 viewers.
Mr Hunt, speaking to journalists in Westminster, defended the project but conceded there would be some failures.
Asked which programmes he liked to watch on London Live, Mr Hunt vaguely replied “the news” before saying he rarely watched any television.
“All these local TV stations will be a success,” he said, before adding: “There will be some that go bust; that is the nature of things.”
This article has been amended since original publication to reflect the fact that five, not four, local stations are already in operation.
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