How much is too much?

 TV graph. www.thinkbox.tv

More than one person (yes, OK, it was two people) has asked me why I watch so much crap TV. I know, media people, it’s incredible to you and me to comprehend but some folk out there in the “real world” with “real jobs” and “real lives” don’t appreciate your efforts at churning out expensive, time-consuming hours of drama and documentary programming.

So I bring you this little piece of good news which plopped into my inbox yesterday from Thinkbox, an organisation calling itself the marketing body for the main UK commercial TV broadcasters, namely ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky, Turner (CNN, Cartoon Network) and Viacom (MTV and Comedy Central).

According to Thinkbox, the average person watched 17 hours 24 minutes a week of commercial TV between January and March this year. If you factor in viewing of non-commercial TV, that is the BBC channels, the average person must be watching a hell of a lot more again. Even at 17 hours 24 minutes a week, that’s about 2 hours 29 minutes a day.

This is desperately important to commercial broadcasters because they’re desperately competing for advertising with the internet and other media (newspapers – remember them?) so if broadcasters tell us lots of people are watching their channels, advertisers are more likely to keep advertising with them.

But it’s also one-in-the-eye for those who still peddle the clapped out line that TV is for saddos. There may be a lot of crap on TV, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. Your crap is my foie gras, etc etc. And with catch-up services on the internet it’s easier than ever to find something you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

So, media people: as you were. Panic abated, for now.

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So little time (left for those working at ITV)

Demons. ITV1

Have been too busy with paid employment to post on here. But the crap has clearly hit the circulating cooling device today, with ITV unveiling an abysmal set of results and announcing 600 job losses plus a staggering £65m cut to its programming budget. ITV spends less than £1bn a year on programming (£867m last year) so that’s 7.5% of its budget going this year. And the same again next year.

Poor old ITV. Poor old 600 folk getting the Spanish Archer. And there are more horror stories to come later this week from Five, which will announce its response to the advertising downturn on Thursday. Channel 4 has its own set of problems and redundancies to roll out.

And yet I refer you to my earlier comments about tough times in TV land. All those involved are fortunate enough to work in a relatively well-paid industry (except the runners, of course) and if they’re any good they will find other jobs and they will have redundancy packages to nurse them through the next few months. Looking further ahead, people will still watch TV. Some say we’ll watch more TV and want more light entertainment and fluffy features while the recession lasts. So once the dust has settled this week, it’s business as usual. Just with a few less people around and a few less business expenses to hand. Expenses. Ha! Welcome to the real world, TV types.

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ITV to merge with C4 and Five? Not a chance

Coronation Street bingo. ITV.com

Yesterday, ITV unveiled a cunning plan. It could merge with Channel 4 and Five, to save all the commercial (advertising funded) broadcasters from certain doom during this recession. But it will never happen. And it’s not just me who says so.

I caught former ITV exec Steve Hewlett opining on this subject on, of all things, the Chris Evans show on Radio 2 last night which had thrown over its business slot to the story. Hewlett, who is now a media commentator and consultant, said the TV mega-merger had “not a snowball’s chance in hell” of ever happening.

His reason? The Competition Commission has just vetoed a proposal for the BBC, ITV and C4 to club together and launch and online TV service, codenamed Project Kangaroo. The commission reckoned Kangaroo would control too much of the emerging market in online video. So why the hell, asked Hewlett last night, would it allow three major broadcasters to merge and control between 60 and 70 per cent of the TV advertising market which is demonstrably worth several billion pounds?

Answer: it will not. This merger won’t happen but the idea has raised ITV’s share price for a while and perhaps rattled the bars of those in government who are thinking about the future of TV. There certainly will be some consolidation among broadcasters, urged along by the recession, but for my money a merger of C4 and Five is still more likely, with or without a deal with BBC Worldwide.

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Lobbying continues for Channel 4.5

Good to see channel Five chief executive Dawn Airey keeping up the pressure for a possible merger with Channel 4. This is the most obvious solution to C4’s various problems, which basically stem from not being able to make enough money to fund everything it wants to do in future including low-rating but worthy programmes like C4 News.

Airey, styling herself “bewildered of Long Acre”, has given an interview to mediaguardian.co.uk today and said Five and C4 could set up a government-appointed editorial board which would presumably oversee worthy as well as commercially viable programming.

All well and good. Whether or not C4 forges a link with BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, its future as a hybrid commercially funded yet public service broadcaster is still in question. There’s plenty to lobby for before the government reaches its final conclusions on all of this in the summer. God knows, summer seems a long way off.

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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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Channel 4.5

Seems the government is considering either privatising Channel 4 or merging it with Channel Five. A reality check with the viewing public (ask your aunties and some mates) shows some already think C4 is privately owned, given it has ads on it. Some think it’s somehow owned by ITV. It isn’t, but ITV used to sell C4’s ads for it.

A merger with Five makes huge sense given that, basically, C4 is going to have to be even more commercial to survive in future, as is everything, even the BBC.

The government is considering two further options for C4 – that it teams up with the commercial arm of the BBC, the bit which publishes magazines and sells programmes outside the UK. Or that it somehow gets some more public money. That last one seems the least likely outcome, given even the BBC didn’t get all the money it asked the government for last time round.

I’m not against privatisation of C4 and doubt the viewing public would notice much difference unless the few serious programmes left on C4 disappear. Even then, viewers might not care. But what would a merged C4 and Five look like? Channel 4.5 with Big Brother, Dispatches and CSI. That probably sounds OK to most people. It would have over a tenth of all TV viewing and an even bigger slice of TV advertising.

If C4 chief executive Andy Duncan doesn’t secure the public funding he’s been asking for he can always resign in a huff. He’s not a programme-maker, hasn’t been a TV person for most of his career and some people don’t expect him to remain in the TV industry forever. So Five’s team led by Dawn Airey could run the next biggest commercial broadcaster after ITV. Beauty. Go for that, Mr Carter, broadcast minister, sir.

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It’s all getting rather exciting at Five

Will & Grace

That’s Five the broadcaster, not five o’clock when I shall – as tradition and budgetary limitations dictate – be serving jacket potatoes to the kids for tea.

No, over at Five the broadcaster all my favourite TV execs of all time are gathering. Dawn Airey, aka scary Airey or Zulu Dawn, rejoined the broadcaster at the end of October from another long period of gardening leave. She’s immediately set about changing things and promising to make lots of noise, as she did when she was first there from before Five’s launch in 1997 until 2002 when she moved to Sky.

No sooner had Dawn rejoined Five as chief executive than she announced she’d poached former Five colleague and friend Jeff Ford back from Channel 4 to head acquisitions and become her managing director. Today we hear that Dawn has hired Richard Woolfe, who she worked with at Sky where he’s been running Sky One (and Two and however many other Sky numbered channels they have there now).

This makes me happy for two reasons. One: Woolfe is a lovely man with a canny touch when it comes to making unwatchable digital channels suddenly quite watchable (he did it with Living where he pioneered paranormal programming such as Most Haunted which still does incredibly well for them and a line in so-called “pink” programming such as Queer Eye For the Straight Guy and Will & Grace (above); and he’s done it at Sky with Lost and Gladiators. Even if we don’t actually watch Gladiators, we’ve certainly read about its return in the papers).

Two: I suggested Woolfe would go to Five blinking yonks ago (in 2003) when he managed to convince me he was the frontrunner for the job Kevin Lygo had just vacated. I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing that, now that he’s finally got a major channel to run.

Huzzah. Let’s all watch more of Five. Oh – there’s only Paul Merton on that I like. Still, the only way is up.

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The power of man

Dog tombstone

Forget advertising on the side of a bus. Paul Merton in India (Five, 9pm on Wednesday) showed us that the anti-God squad in India would rather pull a bus with the help of a rope and a few needles through three layers to skin to prove that miracles are the work of man and not of the Lord. Let’s see that on the streets of London. Preferrably with an Indian George Michael-alike on hand to explain the whole ritual. Fantastic stuff – am enjoying Paul Merton a lot.

Over on ITV (at the same time, but use your online catch-up service, people), Griff Rhys Jones was in Paris for the last of three Greatest Cities of the World episodes. Here, he visited among other things the Parisian pet cemetary, which is a surreal place. Anyone with a fascination for handbag-sized pooches should visit to get an idea of how their owners can obsess over them in life and death.

I recall one inscription, which has become bastardised in the memory over the years to go something like this: “My darling Frou Frou – since the night you were senselessly mown down by a speeding Velo my life ‘as been an unending river of misery. Dormez bien, little one. I will see you in ‘eaven very soon and of course I will bring you a box of your most beloved liqueur chocolats avec moi.”

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