Digital: a cautionary tale

Window and aerials

At the heart of the Digital Britain report published yesterday is the government’s laudable desire to ensure everyone in the UK has access to broadband internet access.

In the words of the report: “We need a programme to ensure that everyone can connect to the digital economy, that its benefits and advantages are available to all. This means ensuring that all have access to the skills to participate effectively; and that the content and services available give everyone a good reason to take part.”

This was thrown into horrible relief last night when a neighbour, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, rang the doorbell at 7pm in a bit of a fluster, not being able to open her email. Well, that’s eventually what I established the problem to be. Her explanation was that she’d “been doing something on Google” and could no longer find the icon she usually clicks to open emails when she starts up the computer. She uses Windows on a PC, I don’t know which version, and Google had presumably imported some new stuff to her taskbar and Outlook was no longer showing as a mini icon on the bottom left hand side of her screen. It was still there when you pressed the Start button and I showed her how to open the programme that way. (You can probably tell: I’m hardly the world’s greatest computing expert myself.)

Needless to say, there was a lot of very untechnial speak going on. “How do you access your emails?” I asked, “Do you use Hotmail or Yahoo?” “Oh, now hang on,” she said, “it’s something like… is it Dell?”

“No, that won’t be it,” I said. “That’s the make of your computer. Do you know your email address?” Yes, she said, she did. It involves a domain name that her son has set up for them. No help.

When I opened Outlook she said that’s what she remembered seeing on screen before so she didn’t need to launch internet explorer after all. Good job because it took about four minutes for her browser to launch. She is clearly not on yet on broadband.

I say all this in the context of “Digital Britain”. Clearly, the government and industry must lead the way in digital developments and there will always be early and later adopters of new technology. I don’t want to be a total party pooper and reality checks are becoming a bit of theme here, but I do think metropolitan media types should recognise how lots of people outside London and outside their own 25 to 45-year-old demographic live their lives.

My neighbour is over 50. But she is also pretty typical of many in this country: they know a certain amount about media and what it can do for them, but they’re not experts and they don’t want to be. They just want the stuff to work and do whatever they bought it for in the first place. Even if my neighbour gets a broadband connection, she still needs some more computing skills to use the internet to best effect. Will it be down to her son to train her?

The problem of media illiteracy could disappear of course as new generations of totally media literate people come through. But I see Ofcom, with the help of the BBC, is being asked to come up with a national media literacy plan. Let’s hope it’s good.

In the same vein, it was fascinating to see the Digital Britain report bigging up digital audio broadcasting (DAB), committing to support this form of digital radio as a “primary distribution network for radio”. All well and good. But it will never be a primary network if you can’t get DAB to certain parts of the country. I write as a disaffected, would-be DAB radio owner living in a DAB-less part of the country. The government’s commitment to getting DAB to “90% of the population and all major roads” may be my saving grace. The A30 runs pretty close to my house. Is that major enough??

Friday rant over. Bon weekend tout le monde.

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Swimming, not drowning

For those two readers who are avidly following recent policy (non-)developments in the world of broadcasting, my cursory reading of the Digital Britain interim report published today is that things are still under review.

Of the 22 action points so carefully detailed by broadcast minister Stephen Carter and team, the ones that relate directly to TV are 14, 15 and 16 which basically say that mergers in local/regional media are under review, terms of trade between indies and broadcasters are under review, and so is the question of “whether a long-term and sustainable second public service organisation providing competition for quality to the BBC can be defined and designed”. And partly based on Channel 4.

So today’s report changes nothing. More policy wonking to come. That’s really all lucecannon has to say on the matter because, let’s face it, there are no hits to be had from policy.

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A short stay in Switzerland

Julie Walters in A Short Stay in Switzerland. BBC

That stay being short because the visitor, Dr Anne Turner, killed herself at one of the Swiss clinics which provides assisted suicide.

This true story was the basis of a 90-minute drama which aired on BBC 1 on Sunday night. Was it any good? Well, yes, it was because the subject matter was so difficult. A woman, who happens to be a doctor, is diagnosed with a progressive and uncurable neurological disease shortly after her husband has died of a similar condition. The chances of that happening are one in thousands, but still.

Anne Turner, played by Julie Walters, tried to live with the increasingly debilitating effects of the disease but ultimately decided that suicide would be a better way to go. The other side of the argument came from her three children and a friend who disowned her as a coward. Turner’s own maxim in the drama was: “Courage.”

Exploring both the strength and fatal weakness of suicide, A Short Stay in Switzerland was compelling viewing. Walters is more than a national treasure so I hesitate to criticise her performance. It was almost flawless. Suffice to say the accent wavered a little between home counties and broad northern, as did her speech as the palsy-afflicted victim. Sometimes it was more coherent than others. Maybe that’s a symptom of the disease. Maybe Walters is too much of a luvvie to slur an entire scene on camera.

Overwhelmingly, this drama suggested that the many emotions involved in dying or losing someone you love can be more clear cut when that death is by appointment. Everyone got to say what they wanted, without any sudden, messy demise and things left unexpressed.

I expect if it were possible in this country, euthanasia might escalate just as Caesarean-section births have. That might not be a problem. But if and when we routinely control our own births and deaths we are dangerously close to believing we can control everything in life and that just ain’t so.

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Edgy? What do you mean, edgy?

Frank Skinner. BBC

With the newspapers still attempting to stir up controversy over presenters like Jonathan Ross, let’s remind ourselves of what edgy actually means. I’m going to try to be quite brief.

A couple of other people are also pondering this subject. Well, loads really. Frank Skinner has made a special edition of Panorama about swearing and has shared his views with The Independent. There was also a dreadful attempt by ITV’s Tonight programme to examine what offends people on TV on Friday. (Where did ITV find the guy with the glasses and the comb-over for this panel? Was he chryonically frozen in the mid-1960s and specially defrosted for the show?)

Here’s my take on the whole edgy thing. Edgy means being close to the edge, the edge of that point or line or whatever metaphor you want, that line between comfort and discomfort.

In entertainment, specifically on chat shows, that line lies somewhere between being obseqious and being an arse. It’s a line between sucking up to people simply because they are famous (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether they have any talent which has made them famous) or being offensive, either to famous people or to those watching.

In my humble opinion, Jonathan Ross has always trodden the line between sycophancy and busting a few celebrity bubbles quite well. I still recall his Radio 2 interview with Bob Geldof, who I’ll admit is a sort of guilty pleasure hero of mine. (I’ll even admit to having seen The Boom Town Rats live.) Ross worried away at how Geldof styles himself on his passport. Is it ‘musician’ or ‘fund-raiser’? Thus he got to the heart of Geldof’s celebrity: a musician who was good for few Boom Town Rats numbers but who is much more widely known for his Band Aid/Live Aid-inspired charitable works.

Yet in that and in most interviews Ross does he manages to soothe the celebrity ego to the point that they invariably part friends. It doesn’t work with everyone. George Michael (another guilty pleasure) famously plumped for an interview with Chris Evans rather than Ross. But generally, Ross treads that line between star worship and ego puncturing.

That’s what we mean by being an edgy presenter and, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s what “the kids” (those under the age of about 60) want.

Finally, finally (oh dear, I said I would be brief), where in the whole debate about taste and decency that followed the Ross/Brand row has anyone talked about British prudery around sex? Surely the concepts of sex, grand-daughters and swearing only have power over us if we let them? If we accept that people do have sex, grand-daughters are invariably the product of that act and people use shocking words to, erm, shock then swearing and sex are already a lot less fraught and a lot less liable to upset people.

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BBC in a pickle over Gaza

It clearly wasn’t enough for BBC director general Mark Thompson to post a defence of the corporation’s decision not to air an appeal for Gazan aid on a BBC News blog on Saturday evening. Noone appeared to have read it. The Sunday papers review on the otherwise execrable Radio 2 Michael Ball show made no mention of Mr Thomson’s defence and neither, clearly, did most of the papers themselves.

Instead Thompson had to bagsy the top slot on Radio 4’s Today programme, at 8.10am, to be grilled by presenter John Humphrys who thankfully didn’t change his acerbic technique even though he was interviewing his ultimate boss.

Thompson’s line appears to be that it would be too one-sided for the BBC to appeal for aid to Gaza and that what’s happening over there is best covered by BBC news programmes. The idea that the BBC was trying to keep its head below the parapet on the weekend that Jonathan Ross came back on air after his three-month suspension has crumbled like so much concrete under heavy artillery.

Now the BBC can justifiably say its own editorial decisions are coming under pressure from outsiders, not least the government which is in favour of the Gaza appeal. But the BBC is a publicly owned, publicly funded broadcaster and as such accountable to anyone and everyone “outside”. Has Thompson decided to get firm over the wrong issue?

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@Wossy: you were great

Jonathan Ross arrives for Saturday radio show. PA/BBC

So what did we all make of Mr Ross’ return to TV and radio last night and this morning? My highly scientific survey of a cross-section of the British public (one septuagenarian and a few presumably younger folk blogging here) suggests the oldies still don’t like him, the younger crowd still do.

In this new spirit of doing everything by the book, I must admit I missed a whole hour of Ross’ Radio 2 show today (kids’ ballet classes, dontcha know). But I was listening at the beginning to hear Ross apologise to his radio listeners for his misdemeanors of October last and to have just the slightest dig at the press: “I said sorry beforehand, but that message didn’t seem to have got out there. I got the feeling the newspapers hadn’t actually heard it, even though some of them printed it, so it was nice to go out there and get the chance to get that off my chest,” he said, referring to his apology on last night’s TV show.

Which reminds me of just how much he was slagging off the papers on one of his R2 shows before his suspension, digging away at the idea that “friends” as sources for celebrity stories means anything other than journalists making things up. Who said the papers were out to get their revenge last year? Wash your mouth out.

Ross did look a little nervous on his chat show when Lee Evans started getting jiggy. But by the last hour of his R2 show, Ross was his usual radio self: ebullient, professional (rocketing through the Elbow and Katy Brand interviews when it was clear the “quiz” had over-run), amusing, down-to-earth and just that tiny bit edgy. “Good luck with the diet,” he bid Elbow’s Guy Garvey. And he insisted Brand didn’t have to be “that cautious” as she tied herself in knots trying to retract a comment about Pat Butcher on crack. Music was good, too.

All in all, there’s something to get up for on Saturday mornings again. Just need to shift the ballet classes.

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C4 already cooking up a deal with BBC

After yesterday’s media talkfest in Oxford, you have to wonder who the audience is for this stuff. Is it simply the press?

Media secretary Andy Burnham made it clear that broacasters had to sort out their local difficulties themselves, mainly about funding. Within hours, a solution for C4 had emerged in the form of some quite detailed plans with BBC Worldwide. Those plans have obviously been laid over weeks if not months by the BBC and C4. So it was wrong to believe, last week, that the BBC and C4 were poles apart on this issue. Burnham was already preaching to the converted when he said it made sense for C4 to seek an agreement with BBC Worldwide over its future funding.

The comment by BBC chairman Michael Lyons that the BBC shouldn’t be the Lloyd’s bank of the TV industry already seems less inflammatory. C4 has clearly been talking to the black horse for some time.

This is the key point about any BBC/C4 deal, taken from the MediaGuardian’s story yesterday: “The idea being considered would see BBC Worldwide’s UK operations, which include its 50% stake in the profitable UKTV channels business, its DVD joint venture with Woolworths, which recently collapsed, and its magazines division brought together in a commercial joint venture with Channel 4, and potentially Channel Five.”

So C4, and possibly Five, would get a share of what exactly? According to the latest BBC WW report, the BBC earned more than £83m from programme sales by the UKTV joint ventures and £274.6m from its share of all joint ventures including DVD business 2 entertain with now defunct Woolworths. Sales of magazines generated £177m. Will a slice of all this be enough to keep C4 going in its current form from 2012 onwards?

Answers on a postcard to Stephen Carter, please.

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Jonathan Ross is back

Jonathan Ross. BBC

Stand by your beds: Jonathan Ross is back with his BBC 1 Friday Night Show tomorrow night at 10.35pm. And by the time you read this the show will already be in the can, having been pre-recorded (as usual) today, Thursday although at the slightly earlier time of midday.

The BBC made something of the excitement around Ross’s return on its news website with footage of people queueing outside Television Centre to watch the show. Both those interviewed said Ross should apologise for the Sachsgate affair but suggested the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.

In a mark of just how quickly the media world can evolve, there was an additional layer of intrigue for those on Twitter as guest Stephen Fry “tweeted” status updates from the green room. Although in reality all he had to say was that the show was being recorded earlier than usual.

Hey ho. So much media stalking, so much “celebredee”. With Tom Cruise also on Ross’ show (“charming”, says Fry), it promises to be a good one. Though not sure about rubber-faced comedian Lee Evans. Why care?

Personally I’m looking forward to hearing Ross on Radio 2 again on Saturday. Welcome back, sir.

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Andy Burnham’s speech

Andy Burnham. Dept for Culture, Media and Sport

From the speech made by media secretary Andy Burnham today:

“The old media world has ended – and the sooner we say so the better.

With it must go old thinking.

But the difficulty we all have is this: it doesn’t yet feel like an era of new possibility, and change we can all believe in, but one of threat and decline.

My main message today is: we need to break out of this thinking and we can – but only if we look beyond our own backyards and see the bigger picture.

So here is our collective challenge now: can we articulate a shared vision and forge a path to the future for British public service content, however difficult it may be?

That vision is more likely to stick if it is done with goodwill, holds the broadest possible consensus and, crucially, represents a good deal for the public.

But achieving it means two things for everyone without exception: change and compromise.

In 2009, we will find out what appetite and capacity we each have for both. Whatever happens, this needs to be a year of decision.

This should not be a debate about winners and losers. If we believe in the bigger picture – preserving and building Britain’s creative strength – then everybody should have the courage to stand outside long-held positions.”

That sounds like a warning shot across the bows of broadcasters: they’ve got to reach agreement over issues like the future funding of C4. Supposedly this has always been a “light touch” government, in media at least.

Burnham again: “We will only succeed if at all times we are guided by the viewing and listening public whose voices, at times, are dangerously excluded from fevered and inward-looking industry debates.

In my view, the public reaction to the Ross-Brand episode was a raw articulation of what Ofcom has found: that quality and standards matter in a world of fragmenting media experiences.

Content made primarily for TV in the public mind still stands for quality and higher standards.”

Fair point. What he’s saying is that it doesn’t matter what the TV industry is debating – the future of public service TV, or whatever – viewers and listeners respond to what they see and hear on TV and on the radio. He slipped up by going on to talk about “content made primarily for TV” because, of course, the Ross/Brand row blew up over a Radio 2 Saturday night programme. Once again, it’s convenient to forget just how that original programme was taken out of context and broadcast, online via YouTube and in newspapers, to an audience who decided to get offended.

On with the speech. Burnham welcomes Ofcom’s latest offering on public service broadcasting and “would like to thank Ed Richards and his teams for carefully guiding us through a necessarily exhaustive process and for rooting this entire debate where it needs to be – in the views of the public.” Unbelievable. Where is the evidence that Ofcom’s report reflects the views of the public? In the research I cited yesterday, which shows just how little “the public” know about the funding of TV?

Blah, blah, blah. He re-states the importance of having more than one public service broadcaster (ie, not just the BBC); he says good, impartial regional and national news is important, as is great British content including children’s programming, drama, current affairs and factual stuff.

Good news for indies. Burnham made a point of saying one of his priorities is: “Supporting and promoting independent producers. We don’t celebrate enough these British indies, whose flow of good ideas has made such an impact on viewing in the UK and exports around the world.”

He wants a strong BBC but he wants it to be a “supporting hand under others, rather than build itself ever bigger.” He wants to see the BBC and ITV develop proposed partnerships in regional news. He wants things done locally, helping people get into the media industry.

Then to the meaty stuff. ITV is being let off some of its public service obligations. So C4 should “balance the BBC in core public service programming”. All this we know. He said it’s time for “a new structure” for C4 and “a new more specific remit” (another one?). Then he said all the stuff about it making sense to look at BBC Worldwide.

His conclusion was “that the investment the public already makes in broadcasting can be made to work harder on its behalf”. That means no extra money for the broadcasting industry.

What happens next is that broadcast minister Stephen Carter will publish a report on Digital Britain, which will say a lot more about broadband than was mentioned today. This will be consulted on and a final Digital Britain report will be published by the summer. So, in Burnham’s words “we are only weeks away from clear decisions”. Thank Christ for that.

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Govt says Channel 4 brand is here to stay

Early indications are that the government minister in charge of broadcasting, Andy Burnham, doesn’t favour merging Channel 4 with channel Five. Instead, he thinks a deal could be done between C4 and BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC which publishes magazines and sells TV programmes abroad.

All this, from a few words at the end of speech Burnham gave this morning at the Oxford Media Convention, a conference taking place today and helpfully being covered in real time online by various people at the Guardian.

For those hopelessly clueless as to what this is all about, know this: C4 is waiting to with baited breath to find out how it’s going to be funded after 2012, when all TV becomes digital, when there are no more analogue TV signals broadcast to old-style TVs and when C4 reckons it will be short of a few bob or too. £150m a year or so. A merger with Five wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of the C4 brand (Five’s brand is weaker and younger) but it would create a bigger broadcaster with more viewers and ad revenue. A deal with BBC Worldwide would allow C4 access to some of the profits the BBC makes by selling mags and programmes.

Burnham said today: “It is natural to look at BBC Worldwide first. It makes sense to begin here but we have to keep other options open [such] as exploring the licence fee [surplus] after switchover and topslicing.” No mention of Five.

Trouble is, the BBC doesn’t want to share its commercial Worldwide arm with C4. Revenue from Worldwide is ploughed back into the BBC, essentially meaning we don’t have to pay as much every year for our TV licence.

The BBC Worldwide option was part of Ofcom’s plodding summary of the state of public service broadcasting published yesterday. Today, the industry is no further forward and negotiations over C4’s future will continue behind the scenes until someone – Burnham? – calls a shot. I forgive you if you’ve lost the will to live.

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