A robust BBC

Polar bear cubs in the wild or in captivity?

The briefest of posts, because I really want to go out to buy some Christmas stamps, to say how refreshing it was to hear BBC director general Mark Thompson being robust in his defence of the BBC at yesterday’s media select committee hearing.

It may just have been the way the Today programme’s Yesterday in Parliament slot was edited at about 06.45 this morning but Thompson came across as a staunch defender of both Jeremy Clarkson’s right to make a joke and of polar bears to be filmed in different places. If only Thompson had been this good at presenting the context for a situation when the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs row exploded three years ago.

From what I heard on Radio 4 Thomson and BBC chairman Chris Patten expressly told MPs that Clarkson’s “joke” about shooting striking public sector workers in front of their families was a joke. A joke made, they said, as part of a comment on how far the BBC bends over backwards to get balance to any story. If the BBC sacked everyone who offended people with their jokes they wouldn’t have many people working for them. And, said Patten, MPs would have to explain to the many Clarkson and Top Gear fans (there are some) why their favourite presenter was no longer on TV. This, despite 32,000 complaints about Clarkson’s comment.

So different from October 2008 when Ross was suspended for six months after making a joke which only a very few people heard and complained about until the press whipped up a storm of protest. I felt there was no context from the DG back then.

Also amusing was Thompson’s single “no” to the question of whether narration from BBC 1’s Frozen Planet would be re-edited to more accurately suggest that footage of tiny polar bear cubs was filmed in captivity and not in the wild. I have watched all the Frozen Planet episodes and must admit I assumed the bear cubs were wild. At least I didn’t stop watching and wonder where and how the crew had got that remarkable up-close footage of two polar bear cubs feeding from their sleepy mother in a snow den. We had just seen a female polar bear begin to make a den, again I presume in the wild.

I was initially surprised to read this week that the cub footage had been filmed in a zoo but I totally buy the argument that those shots would have been impossible to capture in the wild and I wouldn’t have wanted my viewing pleasure interrupted by an explanatory caption about where the scenes were filmed.

So good on the BBC for being robust and defending its editorial practices. I suspect the fact the BBC got a difficult licence fee settlement from the government a year ago has sharpened its sense of independence and rightly so.


Alexander Armstrong in Micro Men

Alexander Armstrong in Micro Men

Alexander Armstrong as Clive Sinclair in Micro Men

And the award for worst hair and make-up on television for some time goes to BBC 4’s Micro Men which was first shown in October 2009 and repeated on Thursday this week. I know I’m criticising someone’s work here, but whoever was responsible for gluing bits of ginger carpet and some pink latex to Alex Armstrong’s head in an attempt to make him look like the frustrated inventor Clive Sinclair ruined what might have otherwise been a perfectly good drama.

Instead, Armstrong – who is a comedian, not an actor – appeared to be playing a character in one of his Armstrong & Miller sketch shows, complete with a risible voice, while everyone else around him acted normally.

Martin Freeman reprised his roles as Watson from Sherlock and Tim from The Office but with more 1980s clothes and accessories. The other actors in the piece and the whole beige and grey tone of the drama conveyed the story of a race to create the first British personal computer extremely well. But every time Armstrong was in shot, with that headgear and the ridiculously sculpted stick-on facial hair, the scene descended into parody.

I like Xander Armstrong as a comedian and he was quite good in Mutual Friends. But I suspect in that comedy drama he played a character that comes easily to him: someone slightly arrogant but also slightly less good at seducing people than he thinks he is. If his agent is reading, Armstrong should stick to the comedy. We literally cannot have enough Armstrong & Miller sketches in our lives.


Mary Queen of Charity Shops

Mary Portas, Queen of Charity Shops. BBC

No, no, no, I thought. Don’t mess with a good format. I avoided this, because I liked Mary whatshername so much in Mary Queen of Shops where she revamped and boosted ailing independent stores around country. I didn’t want to see a poorer imitation (or reinvention) of the same show.

But a friend of mine, who is an interiors designer, said I must watch if only to see the amounts of pure crap that the general public donates to charity. Trousers with the dirty pants still inside? Eeeuuch. I was deep in West Wing territory (see previous post) when MQOCS was on last Tuesday night and it ends tonight so I have missed most of this short series. But I did catch the last 20 minutes or so last week and I can see that Portas had worked the same magic with an outlet of Save the Children as she had with some unspeakable mens’ and ladies’ outfitters in the first series.

The stuff looked good. She was trying to get them to sell it for a more sensible fraction of its market value (£700 dresses for £40 second-hand rather than a couple of quid).

But once again I have to agree with the Guardian Guide‘s previewer who felt sorry for the elderly, presumably volunteer workers in the charity shop who, even Mary said, did not dig the new look she’d created.

It’s all very well making a charidee shop look all groovy with lots of orange and clashing pink everywhere. But if it’s staffed by octogenarians and frequented by those with only a few shillings in their pockets it’s all just a little bit pointless. Unless you count the fact that it’s being done for TV and not for the actual good of the shop or the charity.

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Who do you want your child to be?

David Baddiel and brother in BBC 2's Horizon. BBC

Perhaps consciously playing on the title Who Do You Think You Are? which has also featured comedian David Baddiel in a serious role, last night’s Horizon saw Baddiel investigating the British education system and asking whether it can maximise both a child’s intellectual potential and their happiness at the same time.

A worthy question and one that anyone with children, particularly those starting out on the great education experiment, would love to know the answer to. Baddiel’s own kids are seven and four.

There was lots in this programme to love and little to hate. Love or hate the technique, but celebrity is the perfect way into this kind of subject. We got some of Baddiel’s own story – his mixed experiences of school (he did well but “hated” it); his spell in hospital as a confused teenager; his progression to Cambridge and his fear of the nine-to-five work ethic which presumably led him to become a stand-up comedian.

We also met Baddiel’s brother, who remembers consistently being in the bottom sixth of the class at primary school and is these days a taxi driver in New York after an apparently chequered working history. We even got to meet Baddiel’s father, who Baddiel remembers saying the choice of English and History A’ Levels was “a waste of a brain”. Now in his 70s or 80s, Baddiel’s father admits he was being “unkind”. Ah, the differences between intention, perception and the passage of 30-odd years.

There was science as well as personal anecdote. The loving repetition of a 1970s Stanford University experiment in which a four-year-old child is given four marshamallows with the promise of more if he or she can resist eating any of them for a full 10 minutes. The child is then left alone for that time and must devise distracting strategies in order to resist the immediate temptation of the marshamallows on the table. Subsequent research has shown that those who did resist the sweets did better at school than those who crumbled, were ill less often and were even less likely to divorce as adults.

I love this sort of stuff. Just like I loved the idea that kids shown how to solve a puzzle tend to give up earlier on problems than children who are left alone to play with the puzzle, who tend to be more flexible and creative in their solutions. This plays well to the faint air of neglect in all my parenting. I like to give the kids some freedom and they’ll thank me for it in the end.

The killer finding, though, was that you can spoil your child’s chances of academic and presumably life success with just three words. “You’re so clever.” (Forget the ellipse of you and are. Pointing that out is not big or clever.) Baddiel didn’t say so on camera but he must join me in thinking oh god, here’s yet another ‘DONT’ for the angsty, guilt-ridden, liberal-minded parent who just wants their kids to be happy.

These days it’s all about being specific in your praise. Baddiel’s answer to his daughter’s full marks at a spellin test is to say something like “You must have worked really hard for that.” Mine is to say “Great work on the spelling. Now set the table for tea, why don’t you?”

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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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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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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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The future of TV: the government must decide

Family & remote control. Ofcom

The TV industry may not agree with Gerhard Zeiler’s assessment of Channel 4 and Five being “complementary broadcasters” (the cultures of the two places are radically different, as is their history), but C4 changed the day it started selling its own advertising in 1993.

From that point on, its public service remit has been in tension with the need to earn money and operate commercially. C4’s commitment to making loss-making, public service programmes such as Dispatches and Channel 4 News is therefore already being tested by its need to survive commercially. A tie-up with BBC Worldwide would not end this commercial tension but simply bring in more cash, just as the end of the ad sales arrangement with ITV did in 1998. That money went on digital channels Film4, E4 and so on. A merger with Five would also perpetuate the tension between public service output and commercial revenue. But at least the new entity would have a larger share of TV viewing and advertising. In these days of doing fewer things better it seems the most realistic option.

The public service brodcasting review which has come to a head today – like the countless others before it – has taken place in and among the TV industry with the general public still not having much of a clue about how broadcasters are owned and/or funded. Ofcom insists it has done “detailed audience research”. But look at Annex 8 of the report on public service broadcasting in which Ofcom tells us it interviewed 2,004 people in July and August last year.

When asked unprompted what the licence fee pays for, less than half of respondents mentioned any aspect of the BBC. In other words, a huge swathe of people – 56% in this survey – do not automatically link the BBC with the licence fee. Only 2% of people in Ofcom’s research correctly said the licence fee pays for all of the BBC’s services. Far more, 24%, mentioned TV channels/programming/TV technology generally in connection with the licence fee.

This gives a truer picture of the level of ignorance about how TV is funded than the results of the next question where people were prompted with a list of services that the licence fee could pay for. It’s far easier to answer a multiple choice question than an open question where you have to supply your own answers. When prompted with a list, 87% of people mentioned at least one BBC service (mostly BBC 1 and BBC 2) when asked what the licence fee pays for. Only 37% knew all of the BBC’s services are paid for by the licence fee, even when prompted with the right answer.

Against this background, it’s impossible to argue about what the public “want” from public service broadcasting. The public show what they want by using their remote controls: they watch BBC 1 and ITV 1 in their droves; they make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother “popular”; they don’t watch C4 News and Dispatches in huge numbers. That is the reality and only a certain amount of tinkering with the format of public service programming will change it. There are just too many other things to do and too many other ways of getting information.

So the public won’t care or particularly miss out if C4 and Five merge. Unless C4 suddenly stops selling advertising altogether, it must continue to behave commercially however it’s set up. The government should now decide what it believes will give the viewing public the best of all options in future: the popular and the worthy. Over to you, media secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving a speech tomorrow.

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(No, there isn’t any) Cash in the Attic

Cash in the Attic. Leopard Films

Staying with a financial theme, we are of course lapping up the news that Cash in the Attic presenter Lorne Spicer has filed for bankruptcy. Seems her attic wasn’t full enough of valuable treasures to keep the bailiffs at bay. But in another delicious irony, she has also presented a programme called Beat the Bailiff in the past. So presumably she would have simply battered anyone who came to claim her electronic goods with odd bits of furniture, possibly found lying around in the attic. Good job she’s gone bankrupt.

Top marks to the Telegraph for quoting an interview with Spicer in which she confessed to “always buying lots of things” because of her job. At the time she insisted: “I know what I’m doing and I’m not wasting money unnecessarily.” Er, try saying that again.

Note to Cash in the Attic viewers: just buy less stuff.

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