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New West Midlands TV channel experiencing 'learning curve', argues boss

Birmingham | News | Published:

Dodgy sound, a row over Crossroads royalties and a launch show that was more corporate video than glitz and glamour - the newest Freeview TV channel dedicated to the West Midlands has not exactly got off to the smoothest of starts.

Big Centre TV's idea of a big opening night consisted of interviews with some of its executives sitting in front of their computers and discussing a business plan before the station was blessed by a clergyman.

Veteran broadcaster Bob Hall's news bulletin on Saturday was filmed by a camera that seemed to have zoomed out as far as it would go until someone realised and hit the button in a panic.

And the sound was, at some stages, so poor it may as well have been filmed with a hairdryer by the microphone.

But some teething problems are inevitable, particularly given that it has only been three months since bosses were told they even had a licence, let alone having what they needed in place to be up and running seamlessly.

And for all the glitches, there are currently a lot of young and keen people cutting their teeth in an increasingly competitive profession, making programmes in the West Midlands instead of in the media metropolis of Manchester or in London, which has always gobbled up the lion's share. It also promotes local musicians, giving them an audience and reach they would never had had otherwise.

Big Centre, which is based in Walsall's Goldmine Centre, is funded mostly by adverts.

It is not the mighty BBC, with its obligatory television licence fee pumping millions into programmes and promoting itself, lavishing huge salaries on its talent or attending news stories en masse.

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Nor is trying to be. It is a group of people finding their feet on the rather prominent position of Channel 8 on the Freeview network.

Big Centre has acquired 3,000 episodes of the classic Midlands soap, Crossroads and shows it three times a day.

Yet it is already facing controversy as some of the cast are not happy at getting royalties reportedly as low as £1.25 per episode.

Paul Henry, aged 68, who played Benny Hawkins, said he had not been involved in any negotiations, adding: "I don't want it to go out.

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"I don't want anything shown with me in it."

Crossroads is back but Benny isn't happy about the royalties

Other cast members, such as Jane Rossington, who played Jill Richardson in the soap, are actively promoting its re-run on Big Centre.

Chris Perry, channel director, says: "It's nothing to do with us.

"It's a discussion that would need to be had with ITV. We've bought the episodes off them and paid the price we agreed. We're getting a fantastic reaction from fans of Crossroads who are delighted it is back."

Veteran newsreader Bob Hall

Of course, not everyone is happy about another repeat on TV.

"It's about 80:20 in terms of people being happy about it," Mr Perry says.

He urges people to bear with Big Centre TV, saying it is having the same sort of early days troubles as bigger stations.

David Hamilton talks pop nostalgia

"When BBC Two launched it was blacked out," he says. "When Channel 5 launched, lots of people could not even receive it.

"It's a learning curve to get things right and we're listening to what people say.

"We had some sound problems. It's taken time but we've sorted them out."

David Hamilton talks to former TOTP presenter Pete Murray

There are no viewing figures currently available but Big Centre TV can be accessed by around two million people.

Mr Perry says he would be happy to get 400,000 regular viewers - although there are complaints from some people on Twitter saying they can't pick it up.

"We aren't trying to do the same stories as the BBC," he says. "We talk to their news editors in Birmingham every day to make sure we aren't duplicating content.

Bostin' Bear leads the children's programming

"We've had teething problems but week by week we will be making improvements.

"We're doing 55 hours a week of new programming, from 7am to midnight. That's more ambitious than London Live, the equivalent local TV channel in the capital, when it launched."

That new programming includes The David Hamilton Show, presented by the man Ken Dodd dubbed Diddy, emerging from behind a curtain to the sound of a saxophone in electric blue suit.

The show I watched involved him talking about music, including Top of the Pops, when the biggest scandal was about artists miming rather than what one of its most infamous presenters was up to.

Of course the programme did not gloss over that either and there was an acknowledgement of how Jimmy Savile had wooed people and hidden behind his charm.

"He didn't have pals among the other DJs. Although we heard rumours, you couldn't act on them," said Diddy while interviewing former TOTP host Pete Murray, aged 89.

Then there's Bostin' Bear, the programme for kids, which involves a puppet singing a song about how 'I want to be your beeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrr'.

There's wrestling, bowls, darts and ice hockey - all of which with followings that are not getting served because the mainstream broadcasters do not show anywhere near as much of their sports elsewhere.

It's not fair to critique Big Centre's production values without acknowledging that a lot of work has had to take place in a very short space of time.

Yes, some of the programmes such as Sunday night's The 8 Team look like they're presented by teenagers. But that's because they are.

And it's fantastic that a group of young people from Walsall Studio School are getting to develop their skills on a TV channel that sits right next to BBC Three, where many of their contemporaries might go for an evening's entertainment.

No-one else would be able to offer these young people such a prominent platform. And over time, if all goes well, they will grow in confidence and might really give the bigger boys of the Beeb a run for their considerable money.

Big Centre has to balance commercial pressures with being a public service, covering things that the rest of the broadcast media does not.

TV is arguably a dying model in the age of the internet, where people can access what they want when they want, rather than having to go along with someone else's idea of scheduling. But it will stand or fall by what its viewers make of it.

So in the words of Bostin' Bear: "The good and bad we'll share."

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