Media reality check part 0707

Digital Britain graphic

While most of the TV industry got itself into a light lather over the Digital Britain report which was published today, Tuesday, I was having a much more amusing time thinking about how we actually consume media in our house.

For about two years now, since my older daughter started school, we’ve had to use an alarm again. That’s right, parents of tiny babies, the time does come when you’re not woken by the plaintive cries of a defenceless bag of flesh at 5am never to sleep again for the next 26 hours.

My alarm is a clock radio, tuned to Radio 4 which at 7am is broadcasting the Today programme and, specifically, the news. My partner doesn’t (these days) read a newspaper, because he drives to work, and he doesn’t seem to read news websites preferring instead to look up trivia about The Move or similarly obscure 1960s pop groups. Although some say The Move isn’t obscure at all; it’s quite famous. (Shame on you.)

The point is this. The alarm is on my side of the bed and my first instinct when anything goes off at 7am is to hit it. Thus, for two years (my partner told me this morning) his daily grasp of what’s happening in world affairs has been limited to sentences such as “Gordon Brown has today said [bang! Radio snoozed.]” “Scientists have expressed concern over [whump. Snooze.] “The world of pop has been [thump. Snooze]” “World leaders are paying tribute to [wham. Snooze.]” “The World Bank will this week [ow. Etc.]”

For some reason this makes me roar with laughter. Put that in your fibre-optic cable where the sun don’t shine, Mr Carter, Sir.

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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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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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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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