October, 2008

Issue Du Jour

I’m loathe to return to this subject because it has been done to death everywhere now. But I think a few key things have come out.
1. The two presenters were exceptionally juvenile doing what they did and should have known better.
2. Although they were employed to push boundaries, they are well aware of where to stop. They have to (and to be fair, they have) accept some level of responsibility. They are not children.
3. The BBC was way too slow in responding and getting proper, in person responses and apologies made. They should have known better that in a 24/7 news environment, every day brings a new paper, every hour a new bulletin on rolling news channels. “Get your retaliation in first” someone once said. If the BBC had got in first with fully fledged apologies, there’d be nothing to attack them about.
4. The BBC has lost a very good radio controller.
5. Blaming it on producers alone is still not enough. Of course at time of writing, I don’t know who the “senior” individual was that passed the programme as fit for transmission, but if you’re a producer working for a big-name talent, saying “no” to them can be next to impossible. And if you do say no, you might find yourself shifted off their show, and possibly out of work, because the talent complains that they don’t get on with you.
6. The suspension of Ross is very likely to affect others with the cancellation of various shows probably meaning various freelances will no longer have a gig. As well as staff members of his production company, many of the technical crew – camera operators and so on – are employed on a freelance basis. Let’s be a bit creative, and get someone else to present Film 2008 next week rather than just cancelling it altogether.
React fast, and react smart. Not doing that cost BBC1 its controller, and now Radio 2 its controller as well.

Overblown Nonsense

So the Ross/Brand things has blown up out of all proportion. Seriously. The scale of the media frenzy is in no way proportional to what actually happened. When I wrote about this the other day, I did so in a way that discussed something that would be of interest to people who read Media Guardian.
Reporting the number of complaints that the BBC or Ofcom or whoever has received is facile and meaningless. It only invites comments about why those people aren’t complaining about more important things.
If you want to find worse things that are happening in broadcasting in the UK, I suggest that you subscribe to Ofcom’s Broadcast Bulletins. They send around a neat weekly email which runs through them. This week, they fined a TV station £15,000 for broadcasting some guy who claimed that his homeopathic remedy cured cancer. That’s outrageous.
It’s clear that the likes of Sky and the Mail are egging on the debate in a massive way, but frankly that’s irrelevant. Similarly irrelevant are the media aspirations of Sachs’ grand-daughter. Anybody who says otherwise is on a dangerous road towards the “she was asking for it with those clothes on” type defence of attacks on women. And Sachs’ age is also irrelevant.
Sky News’ coverage would lead you to perhaps not realise what’s going on elsewhere in the world right now. The Congo, US interest rates, umm, David Tennant quitting Doctor Who. That sort of thing. I’m surprised they don’t have the Sky Copter up hovering over Brand’s house. This is on a scale not seen since Maddie went missing. Just to be clear, the coverage of that was abhorrent and unnecessary too.
It’s clear now, that both Ross and Brand have realised they’ve done wrong and are sincerely sorry. Brand’s quit his show – which frankly was wrong for Radio 2 anyway, and curiously placed on a Saturday night at the precise time that many of his prospective listeners would not be around (Prior to Humphrey Lyttleton’s death, his 11pm Monday jazz programme got a bigger audience than Brand’s 9pm Saturday show).
Of course Brand still has his stand-up, his new C4 series, a new hardback book, a new paperback book, the odd presenting gig and a burgeoning film career. He won’t be destitute.
So where to now? Well Ross will be off the TV and radio for a while. A producer will be fired. I doubt anyone senior at Radio 2 will have to walk. Everyone at the BBC will have to attend some new course like they did for running competitions. And that’ll be that.
It’s fair to say that this has been poorly handled by the BBC. As soon as someone senior had listened back to what went out – ie. last week, before most of the press got into the game – they should have carried out their suspensions and investigations. Leaving things to drag on this week has helped nobody.
And I really don’t understand why politicians – beyond perhaps, those at the DCMS – or anyone else really, are getting involved. They really ought to be asking why ITV is no longer providing a proper local news service, and is getting rid of all its PSB remit. Serious issues.
I do despair of our media sometimes and the ignorant coverage we get. I really do.

Dead Set

I’ll write more about this perhaps at a later date, but it suitably scary and a thoroughly enjoyable piece of drama. Obviously influenced heavily in style by 28 Days Later, but still excellent. How many times did I find myself saying “If only… If only…”?
I see that it got a very strong audience of 1.19m. But I do wonder about the sense of E4 not to run a trailer for part 2 or let the audience know that Dead Set is airing every night this week.
The Spooks-like lack of credits, and the disappearance of the E4 DOG were ordained by the producers. So it’s quite possible that the no-trailer idea was also theirs. But still…
E4 scheduled Dead Set in a one hour ten minute slot. I somehow suspect that it’d actually comfortably fit into an hour slot, but they were packing their biggest show of the night with ads. C4 and its spin-off channels are making a habit of the “long” hour. The Neil Morrissey vehicle tonight is scheduled to run 1:05, as is Desperate Housewives tomorrow. This is a show that happily fits in a one hour slot in the US, so as I’ve said before, we see more ads on these shows that US viewers do.

Responsibility In Front Of A Microphone

In the last couple of days we’ve heard plenty about a “prank” that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross played on actor Andrew Sachs a couple of weeks ago on Brand’s Radio 2 Saturday evening programme. As part of a pre-recorded show, when Sachs didn’t answer his phone for a pre-arranged interview, Brand (new book – Articles Of Faith) and studio guest Ross (new book – Why Do I Say These Things?) made what can only be said to be insulting comments to Sachs’ answerphone about his granddaughter.
For whatever reason, it took a while before the story reached the dizzying heights of the Mail. Brand “apologised” on his show the following Saturday (just gone), although tore into the Mail for its support of fascists during the thirties.
Now the BBC has formally apologised to the 78 year-old Sachs.
The whole incident really does leave a nasty taste in the mouth and is only the latest in a series of “stunts” where highly paid DJs have used their microphones to malicious ends. Up until now, none of them has been publicly chastised. They’re big stars, after all, and they’re unlikely to face fines that a commercial station might.
It would be unwise to get into any legal ramifications of this particular case, although it’s notable that Sachs is probably quite reliant on the BBC for much of his voice and radio work.
This reminds me of a dark period of Chris Evans’ history when he worked on Radio 1. He spent a week broadcasting from Scotland, and in an especially petulant episode he mocked Moray Firth’s Tich McCooey, mocking the DJs salary compared to that of his own team. The details are to be found in the excellent book about Radio 1 of the period – The Nation’s Favourite by Simon Garfield (Did I lend you my copy? I can’t find it). The whole episode left a nasty taste in the mouth.
More recently, we’ve had Chris Moyles escape censure for using the word “gay” in a derogatory manner. Seemingly, because kids use it in the playground, it was harmless. Playgrounds are full of unpleasant racist and homophobic language. That doesn’t mean that it’s OK to use it on-air.
And in a less well reported episode, that Sony award winning doyen of 6 Music, George Lamb, acted like a school bully after legendary Kinks frontman Ray Davies decided that he didn’t want to get involved in a specious “interview” – sample questions “what’s your favourite vowel.” When Davies thought better of the interview and tried to use the excuse of a poor line to get out of the interview, refusing to continue it when called back, Lamb used it as an excuse to blast Davies and make feeble jokes at the man’s expense.
In all these incidents, we’ve got people irresponsibly making use of their fame and audience to brow-beat others into submission. Just because they think that the radio equivalent of kids playing knock down ginger is funny, doesn’t mean that it is, or is fair.
But is it funny?
Well that really isn’t the point. If I pour paint on you, some people might find it funny. You might not enjoy it. Particularly if you weren’t a willing participant in my “pour red paint over you” stunt. So even if I promise to replace your clothes after the event, you shouldn’t have to put up with my juvenile prank.
In the Brand/Ross incident, the programme wasn’t live and therefore someone thought it was OK to transmit it. The BBC is promising an inquiry.
But will any of the DJs responsible have their knuckles rapped in a meaningful way? Ross is the BBC’s highest paid entertainer, and Brand is the up and coming star. Moyles is the leading light of Radio 1 and has avoided censure, and I’ve not heard a thing about Lamb getting told off.
What I really hope that it’s not just the “editorial” figure who approved this that gets the blame. It’s the easiest thing in the world to blame some producer. Should they accept some blame? Absolutely. But when you’re handling your network’s top talent, it’s not as simple as that. We’ve seen producers get fired before over some of the faked competitions. But they’re not the only ones responsible. Presenters must also take responsibility, and it doesn’t matter how feted they might be.
Will DJs be fined or suspended for a meaningful period? Will Brand or Ross make a proper sincere apology without concerning themselves with the political views of a paper seventy years ago (I detest the Mail as much as the next person, but that’s irrelevant in this instance)? Next time Radio 1 tackles bullying will they have a leg to stand on if DJs on a sister network are getting away with precisely that?
The real shame is that they’re both reasonably talented individuals. Ross can and does make good documentaries. Film 200x is well worth watching. Ross’s radio programme can be funny. I must admit I find his chat show persona wearing. The nadir was surely his cringeworthy “interview” with Gwyneth Paltrow earlier this year. It really didn’t come across as funny in the slightest, and while Ross went down in my estimation following that episode Paltrow’s professionalism increased my respect for her.
Brand meanwhile is someone who had previously left me cold. I admit that I was beginning to warm to him slightly, but this episode has has significantly decreased that.
I expect to see some firm and appropriate action – something beyond just a producer being reprimanded. And some sincere apologies.

ITV

Far too much has been written about Kerry Katona and her behaviour on This Morning a couple of days ago. I can’t be bothered to go into it, and if she is ill, I’m not about to link to YouTube clips of her being ill on national television. That’s despite whatever I might think about someone who lives their life in Heat and Zoo magazines. If you feel that your interviewee is not fully with it, curtail the interview and either go to a pre-recorded piece or a commercial break. Don’t dwell on it.
But I think some of the post-rationalisation has been interesting. First of all we had Philip Schofield defending himself and ITV on Chris Moyles because she’d actually arrived at the studio really late.
I don’t doubt that Schofield is an honourable man, but I find ITV claiming to care about Katona’s welfare somewhat questionable when my weekly ITV.com email dropped in my inbox today:
“Watch Kerry Katona on This Morning…” said the subject line.
“Watch Kerry’s dramatic interview.
“Kerry Katona caused a stir on This Morning this week.
“Did you see the controversial interview? Watch it and see what all the fuss was about.”
For which read: it’s not fair that YouTube gets all the traffic. We want some of that action.
That’s clearly the most important thing happening on ITV this week, because it’s the only headline story on the email.
I expect that even now, executives are eagerly poring over their analytic programs seeing what kind of uplift the Katona footage has had.

Freeview News

It’s been an interesting week or so for Digital Terrestrial Television in the UK – or Freeview as it’s better known.
SDN has somehow been able to squeeze a little extra space out of the platform and put another channel up for auction, and it was won by Discovery.
Before everyone gets too excited thinking “Woo-hoo – Discovery Channel’s coming to Freeview,” I should point out that it will be a new, so far un-named channel, that will be coming Freeview’s way. Expect to see repeats of programmes previously shown (and reshown) on their main brand services.
It was illuminating to read that only one third of Discovery’s revenues actually come from advertising. Allowing for some sponsorship cash, some DVD sales etc., and some digital media revenue, that still means that upwards of half their revenues come from subscriptions. Perhaps somewhere in the 70p to £1.00 of your monthly Sky or Virgin Media subscription (I’m guessing). That’s not revenue that anyone will give up lightly.
But the bigger Freeview news is the Ofcom announcement that HD is ready to roll on the platform. It looks quite exciting – there’ll be a BBC HD channel, an ITV one and a C4/S4C one (depending on whether or not you live in Wales). This essentially means that all those people with HD Ready TV sets who don’t currently subscribe to Sky HD or watch movies or play games on their Blu-Ray/PS3/Xbox 360 consoles, might actually have something to watch.
[An aside – it’s somehow very funny to hear about people who have a Sky HD or Blu-Ray player and then hook it up to their TV with a SCART cable, and then perhaps extol the virtues of high definition!] Interestingly, the commercial broadcasters are looking at subcontracting space on their HD channels in off-peak hours. Channel 4/S4C will either offer an “on-demand” service overnight, or sub-let their capacity, while ITV will simulcast between 1800 and 2300, but may also offer “on-demand” services or sub-let its off-peak capacity.
This whole endeavour will require new boxes for everyone who wants to receive the channels to allow for the MPEG-4 and DVB-T2 standards. And I’d guess that it’d be in most people’s interests to heavily promote PVR devices rather than simple £20 decoders. If ITV and C4 are going to sublet capacity then viewers will need to be able to record their services. So I’d look out for a “Freeview+ HD” badge on any box I’d buy.
I’m interested in the idea of “On Demand” though. Sky has something called Sky Anytime TV which has never worked on my Sky+ box, but records and saves choice Sky programming for me to watch “On Demand”. I’d imagine that it’s this kind of thing that ITV and C4 are thinking about. I may not have realised that I wanted to watch Jamie Oliver last night, but C4 knows better and has recorded an overnight version of the show for me to watch at my leisure on an “un-used” part of the hard-disk on my PVR (it doesn’t record the peak-hours version because I’m more likely to be using my PVR to watch/record other channels). These on-demand services needn’t be HD either. Ofcom was happy in its invitation to apply, to consider multiple SD services to be offered in off-peak hours.
I just hope that sub-letting capacity isn’t a backdoor into offering premium rate programming on a subscription or pay-per-view basis.
The other interesting aspect of this is that the new technology that’ll need to be employed for HD is exactly that which Sky was wanting to put through with its “Picnic” proposal. To re-cap: it wanted to replace its three current free-to-air Freeview services (Sky Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News), with four premium channels (e.g. Sky One, Sky Sports and Sky Movies – yes I know that’s only three). Sky got in quite a bitter row with Ofcom over who was prevaricating and who was providing what information.
With the technology that Sky wanted to implement likely to be built into all Freeview boxes post about 2010, perhaps they’ll renew their interest in the scheme? Of course their capacity is not enough to provide HD programming, but they could undoubtedly broaden their offering to Freeview households. While I appreciate the news and sports news channels, I get the feeling that Sky isn’t really trying with Freeview. Sky Three is an afterthought that is only very occasionally used well. It’s true that you can watch repeats of superior acquired programming like Deadwood on the channel, but with a 0.6% share in September compared to 1.0% for Sky One, you know it could do a lot better. Don’t forget – Sky One is not available to Virgin Media or Freeview customers after all!
The one thing that still concerns me about this move to HD is what impact it’s going to have on channels that are already being broadcast in that space. To make it clear, Multiplex B – the spectrum being handed over for HD use – currently carries all the BBC radio services, BBC Four/Cbeebies (time sharing), BBC Parliament and the BBC interactive channels (two full service channels, plus the news on-demand channels).
All this has to be packed into Multiplex 1 (currently used by BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three/CBBC, BBC News, and by regional radio services in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland), and Multiplex 2 (currently used by ITV1, C4, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, C4+1, More4, E4, and a radio service). Anybody who watched the coverage of Arsenal on ITV4 the other night will realise that the bandwidth on this multiplex is not spread evenly, and some channels have very poor resolution – especially if you put them up on your brand new 37″ HD ready TV. Multiplex 1 is on 16QAM and will move to 64QAM which does allow more capacity – but I’m worried about the quality of the shifted channels, and those already on Multiplex 1, and especially, Multiplex 2.
Ofcom, with its original findings, presented this very simplistic diagram of what would happen:
multiplexes.jpg
But I remain concerned that quality is going deteriorate following this shift.
London is perhaps going to get these new Freeview services ahead of much of the country following an announcement from Ofcom consulting over whether a pilot scheme should be held here. But this looks like utilising additional spectrum which means that even if it works fine, we won’t know how things will work out when we’re limited to the six DTT multiplexes currently in existance.
Of course, post analogue switch-off, there’ll be plenty more spectrum around, but Ofcom looks to be trying to make as much cash from that as possible and not simply handing it over for more Freeview services – HD or otherwise.

Rankin and Oxfam

The Today Programme website has a great audio slideshow from photographer Rankin who’s been out to a camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo with Oxfam to photograph some of the people who live there.
There are some fabulous photos which have been taken in a very different way to how you’d normally see such images. The photos are also on display outside the National Theatre on the South Bank. So I shall have to stop by and see them.

This Is War! Robert Capa At Work

There’s a fabulous new exhibition of the work of celebrated war photographer Robert Capa currently on display at The Barbican.
It features, in detail, several key events that Capa covered from the Spanish Civil War through D-Day to the end of the war. Alongside Capa’s work, we also have that of his partner, Gerda Taro, who shot alongside Capa much of the time.
It’s wonderful to see some of the most famous photos of the twentieth century placed in context. So the famous shot of a man being shot and killed in Spain, is surrounded by the shots Capa took before and after it. For some reason, a few people came to question its veracity, but putting it alongside every other photograph that Capa and Taro took that day, makes it clear that it was a horrible accident that Capa caught the moment of the Republican soldier’s death.
Incidentally, like many others, I thought that the photo showed the man’s brains or skull being blown off, but that’s actually a tassle on his cap that we see (I say “we” – but of course the photo’s not mine to reproduce here. You can see a smaller representation at the Barbican’s website in the top right hand corner, or here at the International Center of Photography).
The other standout images are those that Capa took on D-Day where he accompanied the US troops on Omaha beach. An accident when the rolls of film were being rush developed in London following Capa’s return means that we have very few of the photographs Capa took left, and what we do have are not as good as they might be. But they still bring home the horror of war, and they obviously informed Steven Spielberg when he made Saving Private Ryan.