May, 2008


I noted recently that NBC had bought Merlin, a new series commissioned by the BBC and produced by Shine for broadcasting this autumn. At the time, I hypothesised that this was probably the first British series since The Avengers that had been bought by a major US network for its primetime schedule.
Well, Power begs to differ. The company is producing Crusoe, a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, which will be broadcast this autumn on NBC.
According to the Mediaguardian article: “Power, the show’s UK producer, claims this is the first time a US network has directly commissioned a British supplier for nearly 40 years.”
I’m not entirely sure that this is true. The series that again’s being compared here is The Avengers, yet that was commissioned by UK TV company ABC for the ITV network. The Emma Peel episodes were still commissioned by the UK, with onward sales to the US ABC network. While those sales undoubtedly facilitated things like the switch to colour 35mm, that’s not the same as a direct commission which is what Power has had.
Crusoe is being shot in London, South Africa and the Seychelles. Power obviously has some strong connections with South Africa, with much of the recent (awful) miniseries/film Flood having been shot there despite near enough the whole story being set in London. Still Power was also behind Casanova, so they don’t just make dodgy mini-series.

Fine TV

Isn’t TV great at the moment? We’re nearly into summer, and Euro 2008 will overtake BBC1 and ITV1, but the sounds of cupboards being scraped are already being heard.
Starting last Sunday, and continuing for the next three weeks, is a new run of everyone’s favourite – Ultimate Force with Ross Kemp. I say “new”, but I don’t really mean it. These are the last three episodes of the fourth series that ITV1 wimped out of showing back in 2006. The credits reveal that they were made in 2005, and yet only now, three years later, are these episodes finally making it to air. Fear not, I didn’t watch two hours of this nonsense, but sped through it at 48x speed, laughing at an Afghanistan-set episode which was obviously shot somewhere in Wales where eighties episodes of Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven were made.
Of course die hard fans will already have the DVDs which were released some time ago, or watched them on ITV4. It’s very odd that they’re only now showing up on ITV1. I believe there are some odd TV accountancy rules which mean that the cost isn’t born by the channel until the show has aired. Mind you, the last three episodes of the Royal Navy set drama Making Waves have never been shown!
I wonder if Kemp is a little embarrassed by all of this now. He recently made Ross Kemp in Afghanistan for Sky One, and it wasn’t actually that bad. I’m sure lots of running around without helmets or much protective gear in dodgy ITV dramas that are basically made for export, is now not as smart as it might once have seemed.
Over on Channel 4 tonight, here is what they’re showing during peaktime:
20.00 How to Look Good Naked
21.00 Gordon Ramsay’s F Word
22.00 The World’s Smallest Man and Me
If that’s not a schedule to make your mouth water and wish that the licence fee was top-sliced for the benefit of Channel 4, then what is?
How to Look Good Naked: “Will an entire orhcestra be prepared to bare all?” Not before the watershed it won’t. And in any case this is simply worthless television. Bizarrely, this is the show which’ll have a special edition made for the Edinburgh TV Festival later this summer.
Gordon Ramsay’s F Word: You don’t hear much about Gordon Ramsay these days do you?
Sorry – you hear about him ALL THE TIME. He’s never off the telly. When he’s not making Kitchen Nightmares, he’s making the US version of Kitchen Nightmares (which in no way is faked in way at all). Or he’s making Hell’s Kitchen in the US. Or he’s writing a book. Or he’s running a marathon. Or, very occassionally one assumes, he’s actually working in one of his many hotels (Wikipedia has quite a list).
The World’s Smallest Man and Me: It has one of those descriptions-as-titles to ensure that even the most stupid person understands from the outset what the show is about. On that basis alone I couldn’t ever bring myself to watch it. But then, even worse, it’s presented by the moronic Mark Dolan. Now to be fair, I know only a single fact about Dolan, and for all I know he’s witty and the very personification of charm itself. But that single fact I know is that he presents easily the worst programme on British television – something that makes The Word look like The Ascent of Man. I am of course talking about Balls of Steel. And for that, there’s no forgiveness.
What’s wrong with Balls of Steel, an “hilarious” hidden camera show made by that stable of fine television, Objective Productions? Well what’s right? ITV1 showed An Audience Without Jeremy Beadle on Friday night as a tribute to the man. What came through from that is the lack of malace Beadle showed to people who were set-up on his programmes. That’s simply not the case with Balls of Steel whose producers simply mock those people who are set-up on the show. Half an hour of the testcard would be preferable. And Channel 4 would be more honest if they got people to phone up on premium rate phone numbers and then simply had the public chat to one another.
I’ve not got a great deal of time for famed scientologist, and sometime movies star Tom Cruise, but when these muppets squirted him with water at a film premiere, brandishing the Channel 4 name, I think he was entirely right to be upset. If the film company had withdrawn press credentials from Channel 4 for other programmes, then this show would have swiftly disappeared.
I can only imagine the amount persuasion it takes for the production team to get victims to sign release forms to air the footage. I’m staggered that Channel 4 persist with this rubbish. And they want some of the BBC licence fee to support this crap?
So yes, I don’t care how “Louise Theroux” your new Channel 4 series is Dolan, you’re forever stained in my eyes from three series of this.
Meanwhile, on Friday, ITV1 is showing Brtiain’s Best 2008, presented by Piers Morgan, who ITV has suddenly decided is some kind of talent. I’m not quite sure what he’s actually good at doing. I understand his books are mildly entertaining, but I’m not about to rush out and buy one. And there was that series he presented on BBC1, YOu Can’t Fire Me, I’m Famous. But ITV has rushed to grab him because of Britain’s Got Talent – Opportunity Knocks for the new millennium. I’m not entirely sure what he, or indeed any of the judges, have got to give them the experience to judge talent. Simon Cowell has obviously worked in music for a long time, and Amanda Holden is an actress, but Morgan is journalist. So to my mind, his views are as relevant as, well, mine. Which is to say, yours as well. It’s not even as though he’s witty – from the little I’ve seen of the programme, he’s just a bit sleazy if the contestant is female, young and attractive (all virtues he doesn’t have). Still – good luck with him ITV!

Future of Public Service Broadcasting

With Ofcom’s review underway, and with the usual calls for the BBC’s cash to be spread a bit thinner, with “top-slicing” and the like, commentators are often keen for the UK to adopt a model similar to public television in the US. There, cash is raised by subscribers pledging money directly. Relatively little state and federal funding is actually received by broadcasters – something in the region of $500m or so for radio and television. So pledge drives are required to get viewers and listeners to support stations, and corporate sponsors are sought out to provide cash.
That’s the future some would like to see the BBC have. But in retaliation I’d say look at the dismal state of US broadcast news. ABC, CBS and NBC broadcast their nightly news programmes at 6.30pm and that’s it for most of the country. The programmes are relatively parochial, because the networks have cut back on their overseas bureaux. There was even talk recently about third placed (in news terms) CBS doing a deal with CNN to buy in their news, thus ending a news provider that famously once had Edward R Murrow broadcasting from the London rooftops during the Blitz.
There’s no word yet whether or not this will come to pass, but that does bring us to the US cable news channels. You’ve got CNN (CNN International, the service we get to see on this side of the pond, is a different beast), Fox News and MSNBC. Again, these services tend to concentrate on domestic news to a large extent, and are made up of a series of personality-led programmes (see the current fight between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly). While I’m sure Murdoch would love the ratings that Fox News brings in the US in place of the rather more restrained and truly balanced Sky News, brings, I’m not sure that this would help us in our understanding of events around the world.
PBS, of course, has The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer – a significantly more measured and reliable news programme. But this programme is struggling because it’s lost one of its major corporate sponsors, and is unable to make up the shortfall of cash.
“Not only are corporations cutting back on all forms of advertising during the current economic slowdown, but public television’s model – soliciting long-term commitments – is also increasingly out of step with the changing needs of corporations, which no longer sponsor public television programs for purely philanthropic reasons.”
No wonder so Americans are finding themselves left with, well, the BBC on either BBC America where a US-oriented service has recently launched, or on PBS (although that’s not without it’s problems).
Is that really a future that we want in the UK?

The Mysteries of Scheduling

It’s obviously too complicated a story for me to comprehend, but some recent scheduling decisions really don’t make a great deal of sense to me.
First of all there’s Saturday nights. No, I’m not talking about Pushing Daisies on ITV1, although that really did make no sense. I’m more interested in the general start and end times of the various primetime BBC1 (and ITV1) shows. Broadly speaking the Saturday night schedule for BBC1 at the moment looks something like this:
The Kids Are Alll Right
Doctor Who
I’d Do Anything
The National Lottery – 1 vs 100
Love Soup
The start times for Doctor Who for the seven episodes we’ve seen so far this series have been, in order:
Next week, there’s a week off to make room for the Eurovision Song Contest. Now, does that make any sense to you? The knock on effect is felt for all these programmes. Check out the start times for all 12 episodes of Love Soup:
You really do need to pay attention, or have Sky+, to keep tabs on that show. It really can’t have helped the ratings especially.
Now I always thought that the schedules were largely dictated by the press times of the listings magazines. Furthermore, the BBC got a slight lead on ITV, as the commercial operator had to set start times a little earlier for the benefit of its advertisers. I’m not sure the latter part of that’s true any longer, but the Radio Times et al still need to go to press something like 8 days before the first Saturday of the week.
And it’s undoubtedly true that the BBC’s done its best to ensure that I’d Do Anything does not overlap Britain’s Got Talent on ITV to too large an extent (although it’s happy to let it over-run a little in the hope of damaging its competitor).
But while I don’t believe that schedules should be so set in stone that they can’t make allowances for big sporting events or other one-offs such as this week’s Eurovision, some semblance of normalcy can’t do too much harm surely? There’s a bit of a debate over at MediaGuardian about the shifting forward by 24 hours of The Apprentice next week due to an England friendly in the regular Wednesday night slot. But shifting one episode for one week is perfectly acceptable. It’s the regular moving around that I dislike.
The other strange scheduling decision is that of what’s shown at 10.00pm on Tuesdays on BBC2. For the last few weeks it’s been Later… with Jools Holland Live! Instead of the usual hour long programme, for this series they’ve made it shorter and broadcast it live at 10.00pm on Tuesdays. Then, if you prefer the longer version, you can still find it on Friday’s after Newsnight Review where it always used to sit.
My question is simple: which one of those should I be watching? On the one hand, I can see a shorter version of the show on Tuesday squeezed in between programmes on abortion and Newsnight. Or I can watch a neater edited version, with more actual music on a Friday. In fact, given that the music performances are the reason people tune in (it can’t be for Holland’s ingratiating interviews), then the Tuesday edition is a waste of time. I suppose it fills a half-hour slot that otherwise would go begging, but that’s not reason enough. And even more so, it’s to get Later’s ratings up. As an aside, it’s worth listening to this podcast with Mark Cooper of the BBC talking about music television on the Beeb.
And now it seems that this pattern is to be repeated with the programme that will share the time period throughout the year – The Culture Show. There’ll be a foreshortened Tuesday show, and then a longer version in the late night Friday slot. In this instance, that’ll simply mean pieces that we didn’t see on Tuesday only making it to air on Friday. On that basis, why would I bother with the Tuesday show aside from it being on a little earlier? There just doesn’t seem to be any logic. Now I will admit that the Saturday 7.00pm-ish slot on BBC2 (with a same night repeat later on) was pretty poor scheduling. But this again feels like it’s in the wrong place in the schedules, and makes little to no sense.

Orange LiveRadio

Orange has announced its LiveRadio – effectively an Orange branded Wi-Fi radio. You pair it up with your wireless router and away you go listening to internet radio from around the globe.
So far, so normal. You can buy a cheaper device elsewhere. But the Orange LiveRadio does allow you to purchase music from the Orange music store (I assume music that’s played on specific Orange music streams). And the inclusion of downloading podcasts to the radio is nice.
But £99.99 is too high. Seemingly Orange has sold 10,000 of these devices in France (where at 129 Euros at the current exchange rate, the price is actually slightly higher than it is in the UK!), so perhaps it’ll do well, but I think these things need to come down to less than fifty quid before they really hit the mainstream.
I do however note that very nearly the first thing you read on the LiveRadio purchase page is a note to say that the radio is unsuitable for people who have a 2 GB cap on their monthly downloads. And it further tells customers that they should switch off their radio when it’s not in use to prevent consumers contravening fair usage policies.
Who would have a 2 GB cap on their downloads? Well, if you’re on a free Orange broadband package, you might. Orange’s basic plan these days has a 6 GB cap on it, but that’s a paid-for plan. When they originally offered free broadband to their mobile customers, there was a 2 GB cap.
And I find it plainly bizarre that something using as little bandwidth as internet radio could leave me liable to contravene any ISP’s fair usage policies. I’m a heavy radio listener, and playing around with a 32k mp3 stream of Virgin Radio in Winamp, I can see that I’d be using 14 MB an hour. So listening at work for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for a 4 week month would result in me using 2.2GB a month. And if I upped that to the 128k stream (8.9 GB a month on the same basis), I can see that I’d be in serious trouble if I was even on Orange broadband’s most basic paid-for service…

Chinese Earthquake and the Media

Last night I was flicking around the outer reaches of Sky, and came upon CCTV just as the top of the hour was approaching. So I decided to see how the awful Chinese earthquake was being reported in south western China on the English language version of the Chinese state TV service.
Well of course it was the main story, but what was really interesting were the pictures, or lack of them. Unlike the BBC or Sky, who seemed to have a reasonable quantity of imagery of collapsed buildings as well as stills of people being pulled from the rubble, CCTV mainly had images from other cities that had felt the force, but where buildings hadn’t fallen, and where the worst damage was limited to cracks in those buildings’ infrastructure.
Certainly they had people from the Chinese seismelogical organisations explaining the quake, and an interview with the Chinese premier explaining how help would be on its way. But little in the way of “action” footage.
It can’t really be embarrassing for the Chinese government to admit that a major earthquake can cause large amounts of damage can it?
Meanwhile over on the BBC’s blog, Rory Cellan-Jones blogged about Robert Scoble being one of the first to share reports about the earthquake, as he used Twitter to pass on links and other people’s “twits” to his gargantuan following on that service.
The tenet of the piece is that Twitter is becoming a news source. But I’m not sure I agree with this. As I said, when the UK had our insiginificant little earthquake a couple of months ago at 1am in the morning, I Twittered it, and read other people’s Twitters prior to Five Live, Sky News and BBC News 24 beginning to report it. But does that really mean that Twitter’s a news source? I’m not so sure. I still want verified information.
Twitter can be a way to pass on news stories, but it’s limited to where the technology is available, and the use to which it’s made locally. For example, I suspect that if something big happened in Brazil, it’d be Orkut I’d look towards. But as ringsting-iom wrote in his comment on the BBC blog, the mobile networks went down very quickly, so getting Twitters out isn’t easy.
And I don’t recall a similar Twitter explosion following the cyclone that hit Burma where of course the military junta keep everyone under very close scrutiny (and are now causing the unnecessary deaths of thousands of its citizens by being very suspicious about all the aid being offered to them).
First hand citizen journalism will continue to play an important role in what gets reported, but it’s not the same as a properly resourced news organisation with the facilities to check and double check what’s happening – not what I think might be happening.

What Does Commercial Radio Have To Do?

I’ll once again preface this piece by saying that these are my personal views and don’t represent those of my employer.
I wrote a week or so ago about the poor showing of commercial radio compared to BBC radio in the recent RAJAR results for Q1 2008. What we saw was commercial radio fall to a low share of hours while the BBC continued to rise.
And I mentioned at the time that all radio hours are holding up, but does that really show the whole story? I hope nobody minds too much, but I need to dispel a common myth. Commercial radio will often gloss over the “all adult” numbers and point to 15-44 year olds where commercial radio has been traditionally stronger.
But what’s been going on there? Well here’s the chart for overall listening among this audience:

The audience is holding fairly firm, although there has been slippage. But let’s look a bit closer and compare commercial share with BBC share in this market:

This is one scary chart. Commercial radio is still leading the BBC, but it’s obvious that the gap has closed considerably in recent years and we’re now down to 51% plays 47%. At the current rate, the BBC is going to overtake commercial in the coming year.
So why is that? Well let’s look at the commercial sector a little more closely:

This is even scarier. It’s clear that the losses are coming from local commercial radio. National commercial radio hasn’t done too badly – helped by national brands coming on-board largely via digital radio. But those small gains don’t make up for the losses sustained by local commercial radio.
So why is this?
If there was a simple answer, I’m sure they’d all be doing it. But I’ll return to investing in the product. That can be the only way to regain some of those audiences. Is that going to be achieved by networking? I’ll let you decide that.
But let’s return to something I glossed over a little earlier on – that overall decline in 15-44 listening. It’s modest, but is it a sign of things to come? Am I just painting a picture of gloom? Well here’s a chart that’s a little better to look at – 15-24 listening:

Overall – a flat picture of listening hours. So they’ve not all gone to then! Phew.

Commercial radio’s lead over the BBC is a bit better than among 15-44s, although there is a little recent dip that commercial radio could do without. But the next generation is still there to be won.

The one disappointment remains the continued slippage in local commercial radio. It’s still significant, and again is only partially made up for by national brands.
So some scary charts, but ones that need to be faced up to. Some remedial action is needed, and it can’t all be the BBC’s fault.

Madge in Kent – What A Hoo-Haa

Here’s a complete non-story: Madonna swore twice during her post watershed performance that was broadcast live on BBC Three and Radio 1 as part of the station’s Big Weekend in Maidstone.
So there were swear words in programme that featured a warning, and viewers got an apology anyway. Anyway, she’s edging 50, and has to do anything she can to stay “cool” doesn’t she?
Personally I think the real story was probably Madge asking the assembled Radio 1 listeners whether they were high. That seems to have drawn no press condemnation at all!
Overall, it was a pretty flat set – a couple of tracks from the new album and absolutely nothing older than music. When she started strumming Satisfaction on an electric guitar it was just terminally embarrassing. As Lisa Verrico, from The Times said, it was like “an embarrassing auntie desperately trying to be hip.”
Incidentally, is it me, or is the Mail’s recently revamped online offering a little off-message compared to the printed edition? Here’s their shocked report of the short set replete with perhaps less than family friendly photos. And here’s a photo of actress Natasha Richardson, along with a helpfully zoomed-in photo to illustrate the story.