Eastern promise – but will Mustard serve up real meat?

City tv franchise roll out – comment: by Tim Dawson

East Anglian broadcasting has long been the butt of the nation’s jokes.  Ask those unfamiliar with Norfolk and Suffolk, ‘who is Norwich’s most famous son’, and ‘Alan Partridge’ is dependably their reply.  Steve Coogan’s hapless sports jock (BBC 1991 -, Sky) might be even be credited with putting Norwich on the map, were it not that the city’s reputation as a provincial laughing stock co-exists in the popular imagination with ignorance of its actual location.

‘Look Out East’, the ‘where-YOU-are’ slot on John Mottran’s Broken News parody show (BBC 2005-2006) clearly referenced the BBC’s Look East.  Britain’s entire regional television news was its target, but putting ‘East’ in the title signaled that Sarah, Phil and Russ, the fictional show’s anchors, would be a comic marriage of cheesy knit ware, cat-up-a-tree journalism and studio chemistry that was more Valium than Viagra.

From where Norwich’s reputation for televisual naffness springs, it is hard to pinpoint, although Anglia Television’s networked output of the 1970s – Gambit and Sale of the Century – should probably be in the dock.  Most blame, no doubt, attaches to the latter game show.  Its theatrically intoned introduction promised that:  ‘And now, from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week!’  Thereafter, drab housewives competed to buy cut-price toasters and teasmaids, while Nicholas Parsons umed and arred his way through a script that would have embarrassed a washing machine salesman.

Against this backdrop, Archant, the Norwich-based newspaper and magazine group, launched a web preview of its soon-to-be-broadcast television station for Norwich, Mustard TV.  The publisher won the franchise in the government’s offer of 21 local digital terrestrial television stations and plans to start ‘proper’ broadcasting in the Autumn.

Considering the clips so far available, the fare looks little different from the more homely packages broadcast nightly on ITV and the BBC in eastern England – save for a focus that is even more relentlessly ‘Norwich’ than that served up to the region by the Norwich-based broadcasters.

Given some regional newspapers comically disastrous forays into ‘video’, clearing this quality hurdle can be considered a triumph.  Archant Anglia’s managing director and Mustard chairman Johnny Hustler (I am not making this up) promises that his station will: “extend the valuable service we have been providing the people of Norwich and Norfolk for the past 150 years through our printed and digital publications such as the Eastern Daily Press”.

In the world of provincial newspapers, Archant is committed to the communities that it serves – although being judged against the likes of Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, that is not difficult.  A cynic might argue that a newspaper publisher’s only interest in such local tv franchises is likely to be to tie up existing advertising monopolies.  Displaying a dogged will to self-preservation, however, is more than some regional rivals can muster, and is to be applauded.

It will be fabulous if Hustler is right, and that Mustard, and its counterparts around the UK thrive.  I fear, however, that their imagined harvest may relying on roots extended into stony ground.

City-wide tv franchises were a particular enthusiasm of the previous Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP.  His aspiration was that station’s as formidable and essential as those in the United State’s large conurbations might take hold on this side of the pond.  Some argued at the time – most notably Rick Waghorn – that the future of viable local tv would be based on communities the size of villages, rather than cities.  And, in opting for broadcast areas on the scale that this government has, it has ensured that the bidders would have to be reasonably substantial businesses, rather than back-bedroom broadcasters.

Perhaps Mustard will be the seed that flowers, and establishes for Norwich an entirely new broadcasting reputation.  To displace Partridge as the exemplar of East Anglian anchorman, however, will require quite some feat of broadcast journalism, alas.