media

Diversity in Media – Measuring Social Class

On Sunday I wrote a piece on Ofcom’s Diversity in Television report, and in particular, noted my disappointment that it didn’t measure social class.

The feedback I got can basically be summed up with the question: “Yes, but how do you measure class?”

So I thought it was worth exploring the issue a bit further.

Measuring social class isn’t easy. What you can’t do is simply ask people to mark themselves on a form. You need to collect proxy information that can provide you with some kind of methodology to measure it.

Here we come to census v survey.

A census is a record of every single employee, whereas a survey is a sample of some of the population. While ordinarily you’d want to measure the responses of all your employees, if your company is big enough then a survey may suffice. Not only that, if you know that some employees are likely to feel uncomfortable answering certain questions, then you’re likely to need to use a survey.

It’s for this reason, by the way, that surveys conducted about sensitive areas such as sex, should be treated with extreme caution, since many do not wish to answer, and indeed may be answering untruthfully.

Of course, there are rightly concerns that this is sensitive data. What right does my employer have to know about my parents’ education, or jobs? And as an employer, do I feel comfortable asking employees to collect this data?

It is sensitive information, and it needs to be collected and measured responsibly. So that probably means that it shouldn’t sit as a field in an employee’s record on an HR system, anymore than you’d record someone’s sexual orientation or religious beliefs on such a system.

Yet we also collect data on those sensitive areas. It’s usually collected in survey form, and on an anonymised basis. The collection is probably best handled by a third-party specialist research company who can assure employees that the data is not being used for anything other than measuring diversity in the workplace.

It’s important that social class data is collected as it impacts on many behaviours across societies. So while it’s hard to do it, groups like the Office of National Statistics have to collect this data, and indeed they have their own methodology for doing so. Notably, these are based around employment status (employer, self-employed or employee), organisational size and supervisory status (does a person supervise others, and in what context?).

As The Guardian reported over the weekend, the BBC has made the decision to use a staff survey which measured parents’ occupations, noting that its staff showed a higher likelihood of their parents having achieved higher managerial and professional occupations than the wider population, suggesting a class imbalance compared with the wider population.

Now it’s certainly true that an organisation the size of the BBC is able to get an external research company to measure such indicators, and provide norms to compare against. But Ofcom’s report was based on UK broadcasters who all had turnover’s of £1bn or more, so I’d argue that each of them is in a position to do a similar job.

On the other hand, a small indie isn’t in such a position, and the size of that indie might make such data relatively meaningless anyway.

Yet if the media industry is serious about diversity, then this does need measuring, and doing so on a pan-media basis with some central funding, could mean that the broader industry could be surveyed.

Mind you, as a friend of mine said to me, if you banned unpaid “internships” tomorrow, it may fix the problem quite quickly.

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

The Nightly Show

Before ITV launched The Nightly Show into the 10:00pm weekday slot I said that we should avoid comparisons with US late evening talk shows since contrary to popular belief, it’s not trying to be one, and we should hold off looking at the ratings until it had settled into something a bit firmer.

This kind of show will never hit the ground running. There will be teething problems and the show will have to learn what kind of beast it actually is. It’s completely naive to expect that it will come to our screens fully formed no matter how much piloting there had been prior to launch.

I’m not going to claim to have watched every episode thus far, indeed I’ve only watched a handful. But I think that now we’re a few weeks in, we can get a more reasonable handle on what it should and shouldn’t be doing.

The initial round of criticism came as much as anything from ITV’s choice of first guest host – David Walliams. It really shouldn’t have come as a shock that his humour is broad and a little rude. Had nobody seen Little Britain? He was never going to be making incisive political humour at the expense of Donald Trump or Brexit. Instead we had lots of pre-recorded bits where he dressed up as women, as well as some slightly underwhelming interviews. Martin Clunes is a nice guy, but they really needed a bigger name to launch the show. The problem with Walliams is that he’s not all that interested in having a talk with a guest. Instead, he’s always looking for the next gag.

That was completely different in week two, when John Bishop took over. He’s got more experience in this area having already recorded a series of long-form interviews for W, and is recording some more for a second series. His week saw him carry out a more conversational style presentation with interviewees including Roger Daltrey and Martin Kemp. These interviews ran on a bit longer too.

In Walliams’ final Friday show, he’d had Bishop on as a guest (this would become a regular thing, as hosts passed on the baton – literally a microphone unlike any the show actually used), and when Bishop listed his upcoming guests for the new run of his W show, it seemed to be a slightly more inspiring list than guests he had lined up for The Nightly Show the following week!

Actually, the whole piece was very meta with a tacit acknowledgement that week one hadn’t worked and Bishop being ever-so-slightly barbed in his criticism of the show.

Incidentally, at time of writing, that video has less than 2,500 views. On the show’s YouTube channel, many of the videos have only scraped into four figures. Only some clips featuring boxers seem to have found any traction.

A top tip to whoever’s running the show’s YouTube channel is to include some kind of description along with the video – one video simply has the word “amazing” in the description.

Another intriguingly says “Ant and Dec get a taste of their own medici,” while seemingly having nothing to do with the dynastic Florentine banking family.

I’d guess that not properly including descriptions really won’t help people to find the videos from a Google search.

The third week saw Davina McCall take over the reins, and there seemed to instantly be a return to week one, with a pointless 60 second quiz that David Walliams had tried in his first episode (it didn’t work then, and it didn’t work now), as well as lighter guest interviews that elicited little to nothing from guests Boy George and Vicky McClure in the first show.

There is no shame in a daily show like this burning through ideas. You try something; it doesn’t work; you move on. If something does work, then great, you can bring it back another time.

In a recent Radio Today Podcast, Danny Baker mentioned, somewhat in passing when talking about the Sausage Sandwich Game on his Five Live Saturday morning show, that Chris Evans would create fairly solid “bits” each week on TFI Friday, that would then get flung away permanently in place of whatever else floated his boat the following week. He was burning through ideas on a weekly show. For a daily show, you really need to keep delivering new ideas at a rate of knots.

The only difference otherwise I could see was the addition of an Ellen-style DJ booth to the set, although the DJ seemed mostly interested in displaying his Beats headphones than doing much in the way of DJ-ing.

By the end of the week, the show seemed to have become some kind of dating show, perhaps recalling Streetmate, Davina’s breakthrough show from the late nineties, with overly produced segments of first dates and dating stories. Mel C was a guest, but Davina was barely interested in the answers to her list of questions, and Mel had been much more entertaining earlier in the week on Alan Davies’ show over on Dave.

And simply reading unfunny gags from an AutoCue does not make for a monologue.

I admit that I was tiring by week four, when Dermot O’Leary came on. He’s a safe pair of hands, but this was light entertainment writ small. He had a pianist on for no obvious reason, and was just a bit average.

Wednesday saw a terrorist attack in Westminster, and ITV dropped the show in favour of the news starting earlier at 10pm. Running pre-news on the day of a tragedy is always going to be tricky, and over on Dave, they didn’t show Matt Forde’s show either that night (even though it had been recorded the previous day).

At this point you have to wonder how successful the show is commercially. Aside from the Amazon Echo sponsorship credits, I saw barely any actual ads in the centre break. And the audience figures have not been great, being heavily reliant on hits like Broadchurch to get anything vaguely half-decent.

In my first piece, I said that we should be careful making comparison with American shows, and I tend to be in agreement with Richard Osman who explained quite clearly on Radio 4’s Media Show that he didn’t think this was an attempt by ITV to replicate that kind of show, whatever everyone’s preconceptions are.

He said that he wouldn’t be presenting because it wasn’t that kind of show. It’s an ITV show and it’s on in peak, so in effect it’s an extension of the kind of shows ITV runs on Saturday nights. Indeed Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television, said himself in his Guardian interview:

“This is a sort of LWT version of ITV. It’s loud entertainment, high-quality drama, and fun.”

In essence, this is Saturday night ITV stripped across the week.

If you’re actually looking for something a bit more ascerbic – more John Oliver than David Walliams – then you should really have been looking at Dave on Wednesday nights, where the aforementioned Unspun with Matt Forde has been running. It’s overtly political, seemingly modelling itself on The Daily Show with “correspondents” and has the traditional band that many US talk shows have. Although MP4 includes three serving and one former MP, always left me wondering how they’re always available for studio recordings, until the week when the SNP’s Pete Wishart was late to the recording due to Parliamentary business.

What next for The Nightly Show? Well they have a few more weeks to go, with upcoming presenters including Gordon Ramsey, Bradley Walsh and Jason Manford (so one woman in seven announced presenters).

I think they do need to settle on a permanent host. Having someone different come in each week to mould a show around is just unnecessarily hard at a time when the overall show’s tone is still finding its feet. Being a guest host on something firmly established, like Have I Got News For You, is much easier. There’s less of a learning curve, since the guest host knows what’s expected of them. Even then HIGNFY regularly returns to the same guest hosts each series.

The Nightly Show desperately needs that stability, as otherwise it’ll veer around week after week.

I think they probably need a larger roster of writers too. You’re going to burn through material at quite a rate on a show like this – at least you are if you’re not going to let mediocre material make it to air. That means a large writers’ room with people vying to get material into each night’s show.

That also means that you won’t end up burning out your writers, while at the same time, it keeps the quality threshold high. With all the attendant criticism, it must be really hard to be a writer on that show and not doubt what you’re doing. It also probably means they take the safe option all the time, and that’s not what that show needs right now.

And I’d also suggest that if you’re picking someone, theoretically randomly, from the audience, it does seem strange that they’re sitting in a camera-friendly place, and they’re already mic-ed up.

There is a tendency too in UK TV criticism to want to see a show fail. I don’t mean a big drama. If SS-GB doesn’t hit everyone’s critical buttons then never mind. There’ll be another Sunday night drama along in a minute.

The critical column inches about The Nightly Show have not really stopped since the show began. And I realise that I’m contributing to them in my own small way. Of course part of that is brought on by the show’s format itself. Each week a new presenter means that there’s an excuse for a new critical appraisal. Is this week’s presenter better than last week’s? Remove that obstacle and the show can settle down a bit.

I suspect that News at Ten Thirty will stay in that position. Although ratings have been hit since the move, a stronger offering in the 10pm slot could help. I’m not convinced that’s 90 minute dramas incidentally. I would imagine that they’re incredibly hard to sell internationally for one thing. And they also demand a lot more from the viewer. But a few edgier sitcoms, and a panel show or two might work there. Shorten “Play to the Whistle” for example (60 minute panel shows are always overlong); move Harry Hill to that slot; actually try something a bit more political.

There is definitely room for some incisive satirical TV, and we really don’t have it on British TV. There’s Have I Got News For You, and that’s basically it. BBC Two has just announced The Mash Report (a working title) with Nish Kumar, which is indeed coming from The Daily Mash. Certainly this will be something to look out for.

Celebrity RIP Tweets

We have just come through 2016, and for many, it won’t be fondly remembered. Election and referendum results notwithstanding, there were a number of deaths – often of people very much revered.

Today, when someone dies, we learn about it almost instantly. The news will turn up in social feeds. Alerts on our smartphones will tell us about breaking news.

And if you don’t personally get the news that way, it’s entirely probable that someone near you will hear it that way. Then you might switch to a 24 hour news channel or put on the radio.

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

The old idea of news cycles has long since gone. And that means that when something happens, we need instant analysis and reporting.

Yet the reporting of someone’s death can really grate with me. If the name is big enough – say, David Bowie – then everything stops.

Breakfast TV and radio that day was thrown over to rolling news and reaction to his death, with the announcement having come at around 7am UK time.

But actual details about the death are initially likely to be limited. A manager will have perhaps put out a brief two-line statement saying that the person died peacefully in their sleep, and that’ll be about the long and short of it. It’s possible that it was well known that the person had been ill for some time, or it might come as quite a shock – an unforeseen heart attack perhaps.

However, the media has hours of airtime to fill. Fans want to remember their heroes.

The first thing that reports of a celebrity death will include is quotes from their peers. And these now tend to come from social media – especially Twitter.

The problem is that it can almost feel like there’s a rush on for other famous, and not-so-famous people to have their say. Now of course, the democracy of the internet means that we can all have our say, and while another artist may have been friends and worked with the deceased star, someone else might have been inspired by that person, or perhaps just loved their work.

But in the media, he who shouts first, gets quoted first. So instead of a carefully curated collection of thoughts of those who perhaps we’d be most interested in hearing eulogies from, we get the thoughts of those who happen to be Tweeting soonest.

It can be as simple as whoever wakes up and hears the news first is the person who’s thoughts lead the news bulletins over the next few hours.

“Tributes have been coming in for Deceased_Star. Talent_Show_Winner said, ‘I always looked up to them. I was really proud that I was able to sing one of their songs in the semi-final of Talent_Show. They inspired me.’ Meanwhile Twitter_Loving_Comedian said, ‘It was a privilege to work with them at Charity_Event.'”

Well, thanks for that.

I’m not saying that the comments made by said famous folk aren’t heartfelt and don’t count. I can’t tell you whether someone is posting something on Twitter because it makes them look good and relevant that they comment, or whether it’s just an earnest tribute towards someone who was important to them in whatever way.

But at 7.15am there are scores of journalists scouring Tweetdeck looking for anything any famous person says. So a politician with a reactive PR person gets in early, but older and wiser people – who would previously either actually been called by a journalist, or released a statement via an agent – don’t get heard early on. (Read a great piece by Andrew Collins based on one particular Tweet here.)

I understand the difficulty on the other side of the fence. You’re a music journalist, and suddenly every broadcast outlet and newspaper is calling you asking you to either speak on air, or write 1,500 words for tomorrow’s edition – and needing to be online by lunchtime.

There’s a brilliantly funny story by ex-Word editor and Whistle Test presenter, Mark Ellen, in his book Rock Stars Stole My Life, who relates being called by broadcasters everywhere to comment on the death of Michael Jackson. The running gag was that Paul Gambaccini – seemingly always on top of every news producer’s contact list when a musician dies – was stuck in traffic in a cab.

But they’re journalists, and that’s to be expected. And anyway, I’m not really talking about them.

I’m talking about news reports that are full of basically random famous folk. Yes, the facts can probably be summarised in a couple of lines, but there are hours to fill! And so we get pretty much whoever’s available at short notice and whoever happened to hit Twitter first.

In due course, over the following few hours, a better selection of comments is gathered. Relevant friends and artists have their thoughts collected. And the TV channels stop using the same B-roll footage that they found on YouTube, archivists delivering much better quality, interesting and relevant pictures*.

* Although this is likely to be the subject of a future blog. Despite having a vast wealth of digital material at our fingertips, it’s disheartening how many television obituary packages seem to consist of badly captured and screen-grabbed footage. When Liz Smith died recently, ITV News’ obit seemed to consist of footage simply grabbed from the BBC iPlayer of a recent Royle Family reairing. Even allowing for this being over Christmas, surely a higher quality source could have been found?

Problems with News Video

Recently the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report, authored by Nic Newman.

If you’re interested in the media, and particularly journalism in the digital age, then it’s an essential read. The report, which is supported by groups such as Google and the BBC, surveys 50,000 people across 26 countries about their digital news habits.

The report is available to download, with lots of additional resources like data tables and chart packs for deep-diving into.

I’m going to concentrate on one area of the report: video.

If you’ve been paying attention to news sites, and indeed digital media in general, there has been a lot more video in recent years. Social media and news sites more often than not playing videos by default, and spending money to push the platform. Video, the belief is, will grab users’ attention and drive increased readership.

And for the most part, this seemed like a sensible move. More people were watching more video as both home broadband and mobile 4G coverage improved. But with regard to digital news, there’s been a bit of a speed-bump on the road.

“One surprise in this year’s data is that online news video appears to be growing more slowly than might be expected. Across all 26 countries only a quarter (24%) of respondents say they access online news video in a given week. This represents surprisingly weak growth given the explosive growth and prominence on the supply side.”
(Page 19)

The real reason for the growth in video, beyond the perceived demand from users, is the higher advertising yields that can be achieved from video. Those pre-roll adverts, whether skippable or not, are worth much more than other display inventory which has not been the saviour that news organisations or others had hoped it would be. Something to do with infinite inventory I suspect.

News providers were positively driven to increase their volumes of video to meet revenue targets.

“Across our entire sample, the vast majority (78%) say they only read news in text or occasionally watch news video that looks interesting. Just one in twenty (5%) say they mostly watch rather than read news online. “
(Page 20)

And the reasons for this relatively low growth are pretty obvious. This chart is from the report:

newsvideos

I think those reasons – the first four in particular – chime with me, with the fact that I can read text quicker than watch a video being the chief one.

Yet frustratingly, more news seems to be appearing in video-only form. I read much of my news via the feedreader Feedly, and most news site’s RSS feeds limit what Feedly can see. That’s fine – whether coming from a feedreader, or much more likely, social media, news providers want to ensure they have strong branding and potentially monetise me with advertising.

But when I click through to a site and see a story that is only, or mostly, video, then I simply close the tab and click away.

Video really needs to add something to what I can read for it to be of true value. I’m not saying I don’t like video news – I watch TV news bulletins on a daily basis – but in a digital world, video is much more an interruptor.

– If I’m on the train to work looking on my mobile, I may be listening to music. Video puts that on pause so I can hear the soundtrack. Newspapers never forced that on me. I can read text and listen to music simultaneously.

– If I’m at work, then I can quickly scan a story to see if it’s important. With video I have to fumble around for headphones, or risk interrupting colleagues.

And video takes time. From hitting the play button to getting to what I want to see is not usually the best experience. Frankly, there’s nothing worse than a news provider who has built their own video platform (or bought one), and you just know it’s not going to be as fast-starting as, say, YouTube. You’re going to see a swirly “loading” graphic before an advert loads painfully slowly. At the end of the advert, there’ll be another delay as the actual video loads. 30 seconds of that before a video that’s only 45 seconds long itself doesn’t seem like a fair transaction.

Fundamentally, humans can read in their heads faster than someone can read out loud. So all things being equal, I’ll choose the most the most efficient way to get to the story. For the most part, I want to read stories not watch videos. I can quickly gauge how interested I am in a story from the text. Video is a hit or miss affair.

It’s perfectly true that some may prefer video, so by all means offer both video and text. But consider even making the transcript of the video available. As a friend pointed out on a social media, that instantly makes the video more accessible, and increases the search engine optimisation of what you’re producing.

Video is actually much more expensive than text – or text illustrated by photos – yet everyone seems to want to do it.

My suggestion is that unless video is a primary output of your organisation, I would use it sparingly. Produce only videos that really add something to the story. There are various groups who are adding text to videos and making them viewable without sound. Fine as far as it goes, but they tend to be relatively simplistic. You can’t delve deeper into a story that way, yet if I’m spending 2-3 minutes with a story which is what a video is demanding of me, then I expect to come out with a much richer understanding of the issues than I went in with.

Video is not the be-all and end-all, and news providers would do well to remember that.

Leading Questions

These are my own views, and do not represent those of my employer. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we’ll continue.

It’s fairly understood that depending on how you ask a research question, you can get different answers. In research terminology, questions that can elicit a particular response are called “leading questions.”

You see the same things in legal dramas all the time: “Objection Your Honour! The prosecutor is leading the witness!”

SurveyMonkey published a great blog on the problem last year with some good examples of leading questions:

“How short was Napolean?” rather than “How would you describe Napolean’s height?”

“Should concerned parents use infant car seats?” rather than “Do you think special car seats should be required for infant passengers?”

Sometimes leading questions can appear by accident, or through poor phraseology by whoever’s asking the questions. But other times, it’s deliberate. Perhaps a particular answer is being sought, and the research just has to back up a pre-determined view.

This week saw the publication of the White Paper on the future of the BBC under a new Charter.

Now I don’t propose to write too much about that here – it could all get a little heated and contentious. Buy me a pint or get me a cuppa if you want to know my views. But I do want to highlight some of the research that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published alongside the White Paper.

While research is always useful for a major piece of Government legislation, and indeed a research-based approach to legislation would be welcome, it was curious that the research that was commissioned was conducted in the first quarter of 2016 after nearly 193,000 consultation responses, 9,000 Radio Times responses (once the DCMS asked for the password), more than 300 industry experts and organisations had been consulted, and 9 industry round tabels had taken place.

Charter Review Timeline

But nobody can complain about additional research can they?

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Take this example question:

Local regional national

(The colours from left to right represent: Completely agree, Agree strongly, Agree slightly, Neither agree nor disagree, Disagree slightly, Disagree strongly, Completely disagree, Don’t know)

The question implicitly infers that because the BBC has radio stations, then commercial radio stations will not be able to get an audience. It’s binary. You either listen to the BBC or commercial radio. You can’t possibly listen to both.

That’s not an egregiously bad question, but it’s certainly poorly framed.

There are questions asked where it’s frankly impossible for a member of the public to fully know the answer. For example, is the BBC spending licence fee money efficiently?

Unless you work within the media sector, you probably don’t actually have much knowledge of this. Indeed, even within the BBC, you might need to be in finance to have a true picture.

You may have a perception of how efficient the BBC is with its money, but that might be tainted by anti-BBC press reports for example. Perception is important of course, but we need to be clear that’s what we’re measuring.

If your view on efficiency is based on disliking how much prize money is awarded on Pointless (a relatively trivial part of a single programme’s budget compared with studio and staff hire, etc), then you’re not really answering the question properly.

Distinctiveness is a key word in this charter. Some variant of this word is used 155 times in the White Paper by my count.

But how do you determine distinctiveness? Seemingly, you just ask.

Here are a pair of questions again about radio:

Radio Distinctiveness

And again they’re very leading. The questions infer the answer in the way they’re asked. The first questions seems to saying, “Radio 1 and Capital/Absolute are the same aren’t they?”

In spite of that, most people don’t actually know, because most people don’t listen to Radio 1. Now 10m people a week do listen, but 43m people don’t. The question wasn’t just asked of Radio 1 listeners, or Radio 1 listeners who also listen to Absolute Radio or the Capital Network. That would be a sensible thing to ask, since those people would actually be able to discern the differences. So the answers again come down to perception, perhaps based on no knowledge of the stations at all. And when does perception become prejudice?

The same of course applies to the Radio 2 question, comparing it with Heart and Magic. It’s asked of everyone regardless of their listening habits.

And of course all of this is before the reality of the differences between the services – a quick look at CompareMyRadio can help here on the simplest level – the range and overlap of music played by different services.

Now to be fair, I think most of the questions in this questionnaire were actually fine, and the results are pretty consistent with other responses. But when you see a few questions like that sticking out, it does make you ask deeper questions about the whole process. And when those findings are then used to frame key parts of the White Paper, you only question the process even more.

Satire, Parliament and Dennis Skinner

Commons

Last week Labour stalwart Dennis Skinner was ejected from the House of Commons for the rest of the Parliamentary day for calling the Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave” during his statement on his father’s off-shore affairs to Parliament. The Speaker, John Bercow, didn’t like it, and Skinner was forced to leave.

Skinner regularly entertains with his witty and acerbic comments, so this wasn’t out of character. In this instance, Skinner had a particular interest in the subject and had confronted Cameron on it previously.

What’s interesting is how the news was later reported beyond the day’s news reports.

On Friday, Have I Got News For You covered it, pointing out that Parliamentary rules prevented them from showing clips on a satirical TV programme. They instead used an “artist’s impression” as shown above.

Now I’ve written about this issue before – here in 2009, and again in 2011.

As the licences to use material from Parliamentary coverage make clear:

no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire;

This is despite some changes in copyright legislation which, to my non lawyer’s eyes, would seem to be at odds with them.

So it was slightly surprising to sit down and watch Monday night’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sky Atlantic, originally transmitted by HBO on Sunday evening, and see footage of Commons, lifted from the BBC’s website, and used by Oliver for, well, satirical purposes!

skinner

Of course in the US, they have separate copyright rules and restrictions, and they don’t have to adhere to UK rules. Fair Use probably applies, and so the footage was used. And programmes like this, The Daily Show and many others, regularly use C-SPAN coverage of US government business to illustrate their stories. Only the Supreme Court remains off limits to cameras (Oliver has notably used a “court” of dogs to illustrate exchanges, alongside audio recordings which are allowed).

I was slightly surprised to see that Sky Atlantic didn’t edit that segment before UK broadcast however, since it does seem that they’re in violation of Parliamentary rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trimmed down version is used for any rebroadcasts, although at time of writing the full unexpurgated episode is available on Sky Go.

It’s a ridiculous rule of course, and the point is that the footage is widely available.

Last month Rupa Huq MP, sister-in-law to Charlie Brooker, requested that it was lifted, but her request was denied by Chris Grayling MP, leader of the House of Commons.

As Brooker is quoted is the Telegraph as saying, “”Have I Got News For You can’t use clips from the House of Commons, whereas This Week can – with funny music dubbed on top.”

And of course, you can very easily view the footage, including Skinner calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave” on at least two occasions before he was required to leave the Commons by the Speaker for “Disorderly Conduct.” Here it is on the BBC website for example.

I can even go ahead and make an animated GIF of it!

giphy

But for goodness sake, don’t let the footage end up on a satirical television programme in the UK. Whatever would happen then?

F1 to Follow Cricket Into Obscurity

Here’s how F1 and Bernie Ecclestone do business:

21 December 2015Channel 4 wins terrestrial rights to Formula 1, after the BBC hands them back. There was rumoured to be a fight with ITV for them.

Bernie Ecclestone, Chief Executive Officer of the Formula One group said: “I am sorry that the BBC could not comply with their contract but I am happy that we now have a broadcaster that can broadcast Formula 1® events without commercial intervals during the race.

“I am confident that Channel 4 will achieve not only how the BBC carried out the broadcast in the past but also with a new approach as the World and Formula 1® have moved on.”

(No – that second line really doesn’t really make any sense, but I swear I cut and paste that from the press release!)

20 January 2016 – Channel 4, having announced a new presenting and commentary team, broadcasts its first race in Australia as the new F1 season gets underway.

23 January 2016 AM – The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GDPA) publishes an open letter to stakeholders, followers and fans expressing concerns about their sport. This includes an implied concern about the changing TV environment as the sport has shifted from free-to-air to pay TV, leading to a decline in overall audiences.

23 January 2016 PMSky Sports announces an exclusive deal for all F1 rights from the 2019 season. Only the British Grand Prix and highlights will be made available free-to-air – presumably somewhere like Pick TV.

In essence the sport will disappear from most UK viewers’ screens despite a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers being British based, employing many people.

I’m very much a laissez-faire F1 watcher – or at least I used to be. If I was around and it was on, I might watch. But over the years, it has become duller. Tracks have turn numbers and not names; over-taking is so rare we get it from multiple angles; racing is manufactured through forced pit-stops; each season there are seemingly less than a handful of drivers who can win a race while the rest make up has beens. And that’s before we get to the dubious political aspects of F1 which sees the carnival pitching up in whichever country will give Bernie Eccelestone and his cronies the most cash.

Earlier this year I was appalled when I saw that Silverstone was recruiting for volunteers to help out at the British Grand Prix a la Olympic volunteers. This is a multi-billion pound industry. Would you expect, say, a commercial music festival to be manned by volunteers? Nope. They’re nearly all paid. It may be minimum wage, but that’s still cash in hand rather than a T-shirt.

I’ve got to feel sorry for Channel 4 in all of this. They’ve not been given a chance by F1. They’ve only broadcast a single race before losing the rights, and there’s been no time to see what innovations in coverage they can bring to the sport before the tablecloth has been whipped from underneath them. They have no chance to prove their metal or attempt to make a viable business case for continuing their coverage beyond the first three years. What kind of “partner” does that to you? I think that even if this deal has been in the making for many months, it’s extraordinarily bad grace of F1/Sky to announce it so soon.

It’s as though F1 is sticking two fingers up at C4 and saying – carry on paying us for the next three seasons, but we don’t care, because we have a new best friend.

Yes – Sky wants F1 exclusively. The fans are probably considered upmarket, and often don’t follow other sports. But expect ratings and interest in F1 to wane as it has done for cricket and golf before them.

Out of sight – out of mind.

I understand that this makes sense to Sky, because Sky has profits to achieve each year. But you’d be foolish to think that Sky actually has the long-term interests of the sport in mind. Instead they have spreadsheets detailing what proportion (and it will only be a proportion) of free-to-air F1 viewers they can sell subscriptions to.

I’ve no doubt their coverage will be technically superb. UHD is fine in principle, but in practice I’ll wait for standards to fully finalise themselves before I even think about upgrading. And you do have to listen to the world’s dreariest commentator in Martin Brundle – the man who on learning in 2011 that Sky would share rights with the BBC, instantly Tweeted a “come and get me” message.

But popularity will diminish as it has done with cricket, and is doing with golf. That’s what happens when your sport is owned by an investment company. They want the highest returns over the shortest period.

Search Engines in Film

wile-e-coyote-acme-products-catalog

In the Road Runner cartoons, Wily E Coyote often needed to buy various bits of equipment and products to try to stop said Road Runner. Invariably those anvils et al, were supplied by the Acme Corporation, a fictional company with a curious catalogue of products. It was always fun seeing what Acme was producing next. But we all knew it was a fictional company, and that was part of the gag.

Now I know that films and television do a terrible job of representing things that nearly everyone viewing knows about on a day to day basis. People sat at computers don’t use the mouse or trackpad on film because that’s not as exciting as someone beavering away on a keyboard.

When characters get sent text messages (at least until Sherlock changed all that), we saw curious screens with MASSIVE LETTERING that didn’t look any text messages or phones any of us had ever experienced.

Newspaper headlines often, but not always, appear on fake newspapers. However, even when they appear on real ones, they are particularly expository in tone – clearly written by someone who’s never been near a newsroom and has no idea how to write a headline.

The list goes on.

But if there’s something today that annoys me more most, it’s the fake search engine.

The drama you’re watching requires a character to do some research, perhaps look up another person. They naturally hit the internet. They open up a laptop (usually a real, branded laptop), and do an online search. On a fake website.

They don’t use Google. They don’t even use Bing.

Someone has had to create a fake search engine, that’s not already a real domain, and then make it look a little like Google, but not very much.

Why do they do this?

It’s incredibly distracting for the audience, because the entire watching audience has used Google. So by not using Google, you’ve drawn our attention out of the story and into wondering why the character is using AcmeSearchEngine.com or whatever.

Put it this way. The phone the character is using is probably an Apple or a Samsung. We know that because we can see the logo. If the producers made a fake handset and put, ooh, a “Banana” logo on it, we’d think they were going mad.

Similarly, everyone drives real cars. Real, branded, cars. They’re Fords, or Audis, or Range Rovers or whatever. Nobody goes out and designs a totally different car for their character to drive, because if they did, we’d all be sitting there saying, “What on earth is that car they’re driving?”

I realise there’s a whole host of dramas that won’t even use real operating systems. I’m not talking about SF, where it’s understandable, but productions set in the present day. They’re not using Windows, and they’re not using OSX. They’re not even using Linux. Some graphic designer has mocked up a bunch of screens and they’re using that. And we’re all sitting there thinking: “That’s not like an computer I’ve ever used.”

So why do filmmakers use fake search engines?

Probably the main reason is explained on this, now slightly old BBC site:

Products, Logos & Brand Names

All products, logos, brand names and trademarks that are featured prominently in your film need to be cleared for use by the manufacturers or businesses concerned. It’s often worth getting someone you know/your art department to create fictional brands instead to avoid the hassle. If you do use real products find out who to talk to at the manufacturers via the press office. Some of the clearances can be done in pre-production, (if you have an art department they should have an idea of which products they want to use), but there will always be new products that come up on a daily basis. If the product, logo, brand name or trademark is non-distinctive in the background, you most likely (but not definitely) do not need permission to film it. For instance, if you are filming an exterior street scene and the BMW car logo happens to be in a showroom behind the action and no reference is made to BMW as a company, then you are likely not to need their permission. As a general rule though, you should avoid filming or referring to any product, logo, brand name and trademark that shows a company or its product in a detrimental way. This is essential as many companies that own the rights or trademark in brands, logos and names will have the money to pursue infringement actions against you, and may follow a strict policy of taking action against infringers to protect their brand.

And there are obviously slightly different rules that apply in different countries. So the easy thing to do is not include any brands at all.

But if you follow that through to its logical conclusion, no real brands would ever get used. Yet if a gang of villains in a drama use a black Range Rover to carry out an armed robbery, does Range Rover get to complain? Or if a character uses an iPhone to negotiate a drug deal, can Apple stop the production. Indeed if a character shoots an unarmed bystander at point blank range with a replica Glock, is that OK? There is branding to one extent or another on all of those, and in any case, the design is also trademarked.

I realise that there’s a whole history of fake and real products on the internet. In Coronation Street, Rover’s Return regulars are famously fans of the fictional Newton & Ridley beer. Eastenders similarly has a fake brand. But in both soaps, the convenience stores tend to be stocked with real products, and while the camera doesn’t linger, nobody has blacked out the Kellogg’s logo as they might on Blue Peter build.

Set against fake products, there is product placement, where brands pay for their products to be used in shot. In the UK, that’s regulated by Ofcom, and you’ll see a logo in programmes that use it. Serious dramas, as a rule, don’t tend to use it, although some soaps on commercial channesl do. In the US, the credits normally alert you to any product placement. Although if it’s done badly enough, you’ll know yourself. Music videos can be particularly egregious in this field.

But there is another sort of “placement” – prop placement or prop provision. This is acceptable in the UK and elsewhere. Essentially there are middlemen who accept payment for supplying productions with props.

If your production needs a bank of computers for a particular scene, then you phone up a prop provision company and they’ll help kit your set out for you. Need to borrow a luxury car for your lead character to drive but your budget won’t quite extend to hiring one? They may be able to supply one free.

And it turns out that there is a whole industry that will also supply productions with fake websites. Thanks to Dave Walters for pointing me to Search-Wise.net, in fact a domain owned by a company called Compuhire, a company who specialise in in-vision graphics. So as well as fake search engines, the design fake graphics for computer screens, and ensure that those screens don’t cause flicker (for example with older CRT displays, the refresh rates of on-screen monitors need to be compatible with the number of frames per second your production is filming in to ensure that you don’t get strange banding effects on the screen).

But it’s not just search engines that this fakery happens for. Consider the simple newspaper. You want your character reading a non-specific newspaper in a scene? Well Hollywood has got you covered. Indeed Slashfilm has a great piece detailing a single prop-newspaper that has been repeatedly used over the years in a vast range of productions – from Married with Children through to Modern Family. It’s clearly a copyright free and brand free paper.

Slashfilm suggests it might be a playful gag from prop-handlers in a similar way to the inclusion of the Wilhelm Scream. But the real reason is that the papers are supplied by a Hollywood props company called Earl Hays Press, who specialise in printed props, and this is just a cheap standby standard. Note that in this instance, these are papers that aren’t used for close-ups.

I know that it is possible to use brands without permission in productions. Consider, for example, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. That film was made without the permission of Facebook, and had to employ lots of trademarked material. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was reported as not being happy at its production at the time. But I suspect in any case, that lawyers were heavily involved from the script stage onwards. See also the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film on Steve Jobs.

But what about the 1985 comedy The Coca-Cola Kid? The film begins with a big scrolling-text disclaimer:

Coca-Cola-Kid-Disclaimer

Yet the entirely fictional film, dealing with an American trying to sell more Coca-Cola to Australians, undoubtedly includes many many references to copyrighted and trademarked products. The filmmakers had to be explicit in their unauthorised status, but the branding is there in the film throughout, and according to IMDB, the filmmakers still had to clear the film’s title with Coca-Cola, who one would assume, insisted on the disclaimer.

And then there was the case of the indie film, Escape From Tomorrow, notable for having been shot almost entirely at Disney World without the permission the Disney company. At the time it was made, there was a belief that Disney might attempt to stop the film being distributed, but in the end they didn’t perhaps believing that the Streisand Effect might have given the film more press than leaving a small indie film alone might otherwise generate.

However a good piece by Tim Wu at The New Yorker explains that the film is probably protected by US copyright law which allows for commentary and parody.

In researching this piece, I did ask a lawyer friend of mine, why production companies were so careful at not including real brands. They told me that while many car brands, for example, won’t be cleared, it comes down to the three Rs – risk, reward and resource.

Production teams have limited resource and will decide whether or not to seek approval based on the perceived risks in using that brand. How prominent will it be in the production, and who is the audience. The brand will find out that it’s been used one way or another, so will they pursue the production company at a later date?

If the use of the brand is considered derogatory, damaging or inappropriate, then the production company can expect a cease and desist letter with intellectual property infringement claims.

There are also other considerations including the launch of new products, or even rebrands that might be happening. Notably Google recently changed its logo, and it might prefer to keep its old brands from appearing in the media.

I’ve no knowledge of whether Google is or isn’t especially litigious in this regard, but my friend did mention the recent comedy The Internship. I’ve not seen this film, but this Vince Vaughan alleged comedy scores a mighty 34% at Rotten Tomatoes.

This film was clearly made with a great deal of assistance of Google. And because of that, it’s actually possible that Google is under an obligation to chase unauthorised use of its brand elsewhere because of financial considerations made elsewhere. This can be part of agreements for product placement too, with brands contractually obliged to protect their assets.

So there you go. It seems like fake search engines, and fake social media networks for that matter, are likely to be here to stay. It seems a shame, because otherwise realistic portrayals are suddenly very fake in the viewer’s eyes, but producers usually prefer not to take a risk.

Finally, here’s a supercut of fake websites, including a number of search engines and social media sites. Obviously none of these stand out as fake at all…